Why Teslas aren't the future

Electric cars are a transportation evolution. But we need a revolution.

An old car.
(Image credit: Illustrated | digidreamgrafix/iStock, alexxx1981/iStock, Wikimedia Commons)

Roaming around my city this summer, it's been hard not to notice the plethora of Teslas on the roads. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising: the company's Model 3 was the best selling car in its class last year and will likely be among the top selling cars period this year. Once niche, high-end cars, Teslas are now definitely a "thing."

Yet Teslas aren't just popular cars; they're more like a cult, with CEO Elon Musk as leader. As Bijan Stephen wrote on The Verge, "to his fans, Musk is a visionary out to save humanity from itself." And as the key of Musk's empire, Tesla cars aren't just seen as tools to get you from one place to another; they are the future, the saviors of car culture, our best hope to tackle climate change.

But technological change is a funny thing — unpredictable, non-linear, and often like a perpendicular slash against the present rather than a simple evolution. Far from being the thing that will save us, we would be better off if Teslas and electric cars in general weren't the future of transportation. Instead, the only thing that will lead to better, greener, healthier cities is, quite simply, fewer cars.

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That's not to say that electric cars don't have a place — or aren't very cool. I've been learning a lot about the Model 3 in particular lately, and its minimalist interior, quiet ride, and ginger steps toward automated driving seem like they would be a significant upgrade for many drivers. For long distance trips, inclement weather, or for the elderly or disabled, of course cars will still play a role.

Yet, the idea that Teslas are the future is predicated on a more basic idea: that the role of the car in society shouldn't change. Instead, the current car — noisy, polluting, backwards — gets replaced by a cleaner, more efficient one.

Technology, however, has a tendency to change in far less predictable ways. The most obvious example is, well, the car itself. The famous Henry Ford quote (which in truth was never said by Ford) is that if he had asked people in the early 20th century what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. True or not, it gets to the core of how tech changes. What people got wasn't a better horse, but something entirely different — not just a better, faster form of transportation, but an invention that reshaped how and where people lived and moved.

It's also no coincidence that the same apocryphal quote is constantly brought up when talking about Steve Jobs and the creation of the iPhone. The advent of a constantly connected touchscreen computer not only produced effects we are still struggling to understand, it upended how we live, changing not just things like photography and media, but also how people move through cities or discover what to do.

What then is the analog for this kind of change in transportation? Most likely: small, personal electric vehicles like e-bikes, scooters, or micro-cars that are yet to exist. That's it. Rather than the visions of roads full of electric cars — or even the longer-term vision of companies like Tesla, Uber, or Google, electric cars that drive themselves — it is instead the far more simple vision of personal transportation that makes far more sense.

The idea is called micromobility, a term coined by analyst Horace Dediu, and it refers to the idea that the vast majority of urban transportation is small trips best served by small, "micro" vehicles. What Dediu and others like him envision are cities populated with these vehicles, replacing cars for the vast majority of trips.

Far from being a technophobe, Dediu is a noted Apple analyst who frequently writes approvingly of the company. When I spoke to him earlier this year, he provocatively suggested that the issue of climate change would be settled by how much space we choose to give to the car. Keep it at the same rate and we're doomed; switch to micromobility and we'll be a lot closer to meeting emissions targets.

The broader point, however, is that the way in which urban space is organized is currently structured around the car. Not only does it lead to congestion, it reduces quality of life with noise, pollution, and sprawl. To valorize Teslas is to simply want to continue the mistakes of the 20th century, keeping that basic organization of space the same while changing almost nothing. And as Singapore's Environment and Resources minister stated recently, it is systemic changes to things like public transportation that offer true change, not the "lifestyle" of a Tesla.

It's not that I don't understand the appeal of a Tesla. As a technophile, if someone dropped $50,000 into my lap right now, I'd be sorely tempted to buy one. But this summer, in between noticing Teslas, I've also been cycling a lot. On a path down by the lake I see a wild assortment of vehicles: bikes both traditional and electrically-assisted, strange one-wheel contraptions that zip along smoothly, skateboards, e-scooters — in short, a veritable cornucopia of micromobility. It's in that relative peace and harmony that I believe the future lies — not a driver cooped up in a two-ton Tesla, but people zipping through the city, wind through their hair, and happier and healthier for having left their cars behind in the past, where they belong.

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