The latest and greatest darling of Wall Street, Tesla Motors, rocketed onto the Nasdaq Exchange under the ticker symbol TSLA in its initial public offering this week. The isolated enthusiasm surrounding this company belies a greater unease that crept back into the markets as investors grow increasingly wary of a global double-dip recession. Tesla’s rise to fame has also had the effect of highlighting the company’s namesake, Nikola Tesla, who endures as one of the most significant influences on science and technology in the modern world. Tesla, an investor in the late 1800s and early 20th century, was the father of technology such as alternating current (AC Power), hydro-electricity, radio signals (sorry, Marconi fans) and the modern engine, among myriad other staggering accomplishments in the field of science.
But Tesla’s resurgence can also be seen as a cautionary tale to those that followed him, the Tesla Motor company included. While Tesla’s achievements are arguably more significant than even his contemporary (and mentor-turned-adversary) Thomas Edison, he rarely receives the recognition he deserves, and has been curiously relegated to footnote status in American education.
Tesla, who was prone to disturbing visions and hallucinations, would be in good company with the delirious investors in Tesla Motors. But Wall Street loves a fun story and glamour wins the day over pragmatism, and thus the era of the $100,000 electric automobile is upon us. Despite the company’s own admission that profits are a distant dream, and an IPO with several government requirements and restrictions, America is at least (momentarily) talking about zero-emission transportation. The blessing and the curse of American ingenuity is we tend to think big. Big inventions sometimes have big repercussions that spawn big solutions with several inevitable repercussions of their own. And the cycle continues.
But if Tesla Motors has Wall Street on its side for now, Tesla the inventor virtually had it in his pocket for a brief period. JP Morgan and George Westinghouse were early supporters of his genius, but it was Morgan who pulled the plug on what may have potentially altered the course of power generation forever. Tesla constructed a tower with Morgan’s backing in Shoreham (how’s that for Kioli?) that, according to Tesla’s laboratory research, would have essentially electrified the earth and used it to conduct power, thereby eliminating the need for power stations and transmission lines. At the 11th hour Morgan shelved the project upon realizing this model for energy would have provided free power. Free anything in Morgan’s world was a bad thing. Herein lay the cautionary portion of the tale about glamorous projects that are supported by Wall Street and the government.
Tesla continued working and lecturing for several years before fading into obscurity and dying penniless and alone in New York City. Not dissimilar to the fate suffered by pre-grunge rock band Tesla, who currently reside in the “where are they now” file. But I digress. The important lesson to be learned is that the vagaries of our national agenda coupled with the powerful counter-interests of oil companies should be enough to temper the enthusiasm of any investor in the electric car market. Add to this a product whose hype centers on its ability to reach a speed of 60 mph in less than four seconds—the auto equivalent of “this one goes to 11” and Tesla redux has the makings of flash in the pan. (Yes, I have now gratuitously referenced Spinal Tap twice in one paragraph. Tesla, the band, inspired this line of thinking.)
The electric car requires a national recharging infrastructure as robust as the network of petroleum filling stations. While there are notable entrepreneurs in this field and a loose patchwork of government subsidies to encourage investment in this arena as well, the movement isn’t even in its infancy; it’s still in utero. Any combination of the oil industry lobbying against it, the government running out of subsidies and a product that is impractical and expensive, and Tesla could very well wind up as the subject of a documentary titled Who Killed The Electr… Hey, wait a minute!
For now, we will ooh and ahh over this bright, shiny new bauble and marvel at the possibilities of zipping silently across the country at 180 mph under clear blue, smog-less skies. Ultimately, clean energy will be accomplished in less sexy ways. Somewhere Jimmy Carter is shaking his head. What would be really weird is if he was rocking out to Tesla on his iPod while doing it.