Back in 2014, Hamish McKenzie was asked to write a book about Tesla, but instead Elon Musk gave him a job at the company. Four years on he’s released Insane Mode, a book that looks at Tesla and the dozens of young automaker start-ups it’s inspired. He explains to Gareth Shute why he believes the widespread adoption of electric vehicles is inevitable.
Ever since Tesla produced its first car in 2009, there’s been a steady stream of questioning articles about the viability of electric cars, though it’s done little to stall the rapid growth in sales of these vehicles. Hamish McKenzie argues in his book, Insane Mode, that in fact the rise of electric vehicles is a force that can’t be stopped and he sees the criticisms turning from thoughtful to ridiculous.
“It started off being ‘oh electric cars are too expensive, they’ll never work’. Then it was ‘oh there’s not enough charging infrastructure, they’ll never work’. Then ‘the range sucks, they can only go so far, they’ll never work’. Next, it was safety in electric cars. ‘They catch on fire, they’ll never work’. Or ‘no company can make these profitably, they’ll never work’. Or ‘Tesla is just a flash-in-the-pan and run by this renegade CEO who smoked pot once, they’ll fail and then everyone will see that electric cars will never work’. And now it’s like ‘what about the lithium needed for the batteries, is there enough?’ even though lithium is more common than lead. Or ‘cobalt mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo where there’s constant war’. The excuses for why electric cars will never work just keep getting more desperate and absurd.”
McKenzie’s gung-ho support of electric vehicles is what you’d expect from an ex-Tesla employee. (He worked there for just over a year before leaving to write his book). As such, he’s had to be careful about how he speaks about his former employer, leading to a slight delay in the release date of his book (or as he puts it, “because of my past employment, the publication process was not as straightforward legally as it could have been”).
While he remains a big fan of Tesla, he admits there have been downsides to having Elon Musk become the public face of the electric vehicle industry.
“It’s a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Tesla has made electric cars sexy and kept them in the headlines because Elon Musk has a wild personality. On the other, it does amplify those negative stories if something goes wrong. If a Tesla burns to the ground, then publications are incentivised to push that story and are very happy to associate negative Tesla stories with electric cars in general.”
McKenzie is also wary of how Tesla has tied electric cars to the development of autonomous driving.
“Self-driving and electric cars are often tied together because both technologies arrived at a time when the auto industry is going through this radical reinvention. There are also some engineering considerations – it’s much easier to do autonomous in a drive-by-wire vehicle where you can use electric signals to control the vehicle.
“Though I do fear that the autonomy side of things has been overhyped. The infrastructure that people are trying to force self-driving cars to use is not what you’d create if you wanted these things to work perfectly. There are too many edge cases created by the fact that our roads were set up for cars driven by humans. You’d really want to start building infrastructure from scratch if you want a fully autonomous world. It’s not a possibility in America, where they struggle to even build enough bridges at the moment. Though the situation could be different in China, where they can build a whole city on the turn of a dime.”
More broadly, McKenzie sees China’s auto industry as better placed for the world ahead, given the country’s aggressive policies in favour of electric vehicles which are part of a huge overall investment in green technology. The most eye-opening section of McKenzie’s book describes the plethora of young Chinese startups who are upending the idea of what an automobile might be. For example, Che He Jia produces a two-seater car for NZ$11,000, which drives at 65km/h and has only 81km of range — essentially creating a midpoint between a car and an electric bicycle that has a removable battery so owners can charge inside their apartment or workplace.
When industry research firm JATO recently investigated which companies worldwide produced the most EVs, half of the list were Chinese companies whose names would be unknown to most readers (Beijing, BYD, Zotye, Hawtai, and Chery). McKenzie argues that with the current US government actively working against taking any action on climate change, China has put itself at a distinct advantage in this space.
“Already you can get $10,000 off a car in China if you buy an electric one. Also, if you buy a normal car in China you have a 0.1% chance of getting a license on your first attempt if you live in a city like Beijing, but you can skip that lottery system if you buy an electric.
“They’ve got mandates coming down the pipeline that will work like California’s emission regulations — by 2020 the average fleet fuel economy [across all cars produced by each automaker] has to be 42 miles per gallon, which is about as good as you can get with a brand new Honda Civic, so the gas guzzlers have to be offset by lots and lots of zero-emission vehicles. By 2025, that number is going to have to be 54.5 miles per gallon.”
McKenzie believes that traditional big automakers will be too slow to take up the challenge ahead, even an established conglomerate like the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance which got seriously involved in electric cars around 2009-10 (releasing the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, and Mitsubishi MiEV). Their output of electric cars has been impressive in the years since, but in the first three quarters of this year, their EV sales were surpassed by Tesla, despite it only being nine years since the Musk’s company sold its first car.
McKenzie, therefore, believes that Tesla’s future competition will come from more unexpected quarters.
“I think the start-ups in China will be the really important ones to watch: Byton, Nio, and Lucid Motors [though the latter is a hybrid China-California operation]. Among the established players, I think Volkswagen has the best chance because they’re reinventing themselves as an electric car company and spending the money to make an aggressive shift [in response to their 2015 emissions scandal].
“The other players in the established auto industry have convinced themselves that a few press releases about having some electric cars ready to go by 2025 is enough and it simply won’t be… If they admit electric cars are better and that they’re the future, then they need to unwind their massive existing infrastructure and that’s a painful thing to confront.”
McKenzie believes one of the biggest unstoppable forces towards change is the declining cost of lithium batteries. The price has dropped by 80% over the last six years and he believes the increased demand from automakers (and energy storage providers) will spark the innovation to decrease this cost further. He argues that even the most conservative analysts predict electric vehicles will fall to the same price range as gas-driven ones around the mid-2020s, and the fact that they are so much cheaper to run will soon shift consumer demand in their favour.
If this change is so inevitable, why does there remain such scepticism about the rise of electric cars? McKenzie believes the answer is clear if you look at who has the most to lose in the transition.
“There are a bunch of rich people at the top of the world economic pecking order who’ve been in that position for 150 years and are now spending billions of dollars to stay there because they don’t want their profits and their power to go away.
“Yet the transition is inevitable because electric cars will soon be cheaper and there are all these climate imperatives towards switching to sustainable energy. So all they can do is keep sowing confusion while buying political influence to make that transition take place a bit slower. The fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers are doing what is in their corporate interests – they are serving their shareholders. It just so happens that the byproducts of their business are destroying everyone’s habitat and will make it impossible for our children to grow up on a healthy planet.”
Ironically, McKenzie doesn’t own an electric car himself — he’s on the waiting list for the cheapest version of the Tesla Model 3 (at US$35,000) that’s still at least six months from being released. In the meantime, his attitude towards electric-vehicle naysayers is more one of bemusement than annoyance.
“I don’t know why people have this deep-seated inherent opposition to vehicular transport that is powered by an electric motor. It’s like they were raised by a family of internal combustion engines or something. It’s not like there were hordes of angry people when rotary phones went out of use. I guess back before Twitter and blogs, they didn’t have an outlet to stake out their mass protest against the advent of the touch-tone phone.”