Much as Tesla head Elon Musk likes to distance his company from how the Detroit automakers operate, the fact is that the EV startup is inextricably tied to the Motor City. The Tesla display at the 2013 NAIAS is the only appearance Tesla’s cars will make at any North American auto shows this year.
Many of Tesla’s key personnel, including head designer Franz von Holzhausen, formerly worked for the Big 3. In addition, Musk was in Detroit for the NAIAS media preview. As a matter of fact, one of the times that I visited the Tesla stand during the preview he was giving a delegation of about a half dozen suits from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation a cook’s tour of the falcon-winged Model X crossover prototype. Now I’m not naive and it’s not been unusual these last few years to see employees of executive branch agencies at the Detroit show, but for the life of me I can’t see any governmental reason why those federal employees need to be in attendance at what is billed as a media event. Does anyone really think they were doing anything other than taking a junket to see the nice cars and the beautiful women, getting V.I.P. treatment while they were at it?
While the suits from the DOT may not have had a governmental justification to be taking in the media shindig, Mr. Musk is trying to run a business and a good businessperson will seize any opportunity to benefit his business. In October, Tesla renegotiated the terms of a $465 million Department of Energy loan. The feds eased the loan’s terms to make sure that Tesla didn’t violate key financial benchmarks. Tesla subsequently raised $193 million in a secondary stock offering, which eased cash flow concerns for the startup. In that context one can well understand Musk being solicitous of his visitors from Washington D.C. He also took advantage of the situation to lobby them against recent proposals to require EVs, which are whisper quiet, to be equipped with some kind of audible alert to warn pedestrians. The DOT guys were a bit jocular, but Musk was serious. He doesn’t want Teslas to make noise. Frankly I was surprised how passionate he was about the topic and why he chose that issue, of all things, to raise.
Musk’s complaints were taken in good humor. In general there was a spirit of bonhomie between the bureaucrats and the businessman. Having expended political and real capital to support Tesla, I’m sure that the administration, including the gentleman from the DOT visiting the NAIAS, want the company to succeed, though they will, in all likelihood, force Musk to make his cars noisier.