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 V.22 No.16 | April 18 - 24, 2013 

Feature

Tesla Model S vs. Status Quo

Luxury green machines and the trickle-down effect

Andrew Stone

Andrew Stone clearly remembers the day he placed his order for a brand new Tesla Model S.

Stone, an Albuquerque computer programmer who has developed software since the late ’80s, is legendary for his products for NeXT workstation, Mac OS X and the iPhone’s iOS operating system, and he was riding high on the Twitter wave with a new iPhone app he developed called Twittelator, which eventually sold a million units.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was an early adopter of the Model S. In the Feb. 2009 edition of Automobile Magazine, the former bodybuilder was quoted as saying, “For me to see this company build these cars in New Mexico drove me absolutely insane.”

In April of 2009, Stone received a Tweet from the Tesla company solicitng orders for its latest model, the Tesla Model S, a sleek, high-end luxury zero-emissions electric car that retails around $69,000 for a basic model, to over $105,000 for a totally tricked-out version. The deposit required for this high-end hot rod was no less than $5,000 but Stone immediately clicked in his order. By the time he logged into PayPal to plunk down five Gs for the deposit, the Tweet was less than an hour old—and Stone was buyer #217.

“The demand for a car that was fully electric, and yet also had all the features of a high-end luxury car, was already there,” said Stone, as he stood next to his snazzy Tesla on Central, showing some of its more exotic features to members of the Alibi staff. “Tesla knew that the demand was going to be there, and they built the car knowing full well that it would be a real disrupter to the status quo of oil and gas fueled vehicles.”

The Tesla story holds interest to not only green consumers who want to walk away from the gas pump, but also to New Mexicans who might’ve liked to have been part of its development. When Stone initially placed the order for his vehicle, the Tesla was intended to be a homegrown car. Construction of a 150,000 square-foot plant was slated to begin in Albuquerque in April 2007; the hopeful venture was the result of a deal put together by then-Governor Bill Richardson and then-Senator Jeff Bingaman, and it would have included the high wage job tax credit, a manufacturer’s investment tax credit and assistance from the state’s Job Training Incentive Program.

Despite the state’s best efforts at bringing high-wage jobs to New Mexico, Tesla ultimately decided that the efforts of the Terminator, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, held greater sway over the company. Like Stone, Schwarzenegger was an early adopter of the Model S. In the Feb. 2009 edition of Automobile Magazine, the former bodybuilder was quoted as saying, “For me to see this company build these cars in New Mexico drove me absolutely insane.”

Andrew Stone
In addition to picking up an existing former Toyota/GM manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif. for $59 million, incentives for the company to move to California included a program exempting companies who build zero-emission vehicles from paying sales and use taxes on manufacturing equipment—a move that created around 400 white-collar jobs in California and once again left New Mexico choking in the dust of a low-wage service economy.

Among the players involved in the doomed New Mexico deal was a real estate development company called Rio Real Estate Investment Opportunities, who filed suit against Tesla in Aug. 2012 for breach of contract. That case is still in court, and it wasn’t until Dec. 8, 2012 that Andrew Stone finally received his Tesla Model S. It arrived in an unmarked semi-trailer and, in his mind, is worth every penny.

“Originally, I was intrigued by the car because of the zero emissions aspect and because I thought it would be made right here in New Mexico,” said Stone, who also runs a small farm in the North Valley where a photovoltaic generating system feeds his unused currency back into the PNM grid. But today, Stone doesn't feel that the location of the Tesla factory is the relevant issue; it is, as he puts it, the “disruption factor” that makes Tesla an exciting product, and not just for those for can afford a high-end luxury item.

“Tesla’s eventual goal is to be able to create the mass production of a mid-range vehicle that your standard middle-class family can afford,” said Stone. “And this is what really frightens the powers that be in the oil and gas industry.”

Even The New York Times was accused of playing dirty pool when it sent a reporter to review the Tesla Model S. Environmental reporter John M. Broder—who really ought to consider moving to a desert island after the controversy generated by this story—took the Tesla out for a test drive and reported that he had trouble charging the car, the interior got too cold and he ultimately ran out of juice. All the anecdotal evidence—in a vehicle loaded with more computing power than the Apollo 11 and capable of recording Broder’s every move—and data didn't concur with Broder’s reports in the slightest.

“This is the kind of stuff they want to throw out there,” said Stone. “Tesla lost close to a $100 million as a result of that article, and orders disappeared overnight.”

The main cause of Broder’s problems—bad notes or not—was the fact there were only two charging stations between his starting point and destination. In Albuquerque, two charging stations are prominently displayed near Civic Plaza. Stone drove us to them to test them out. Built neither by Tesla nor the city—though city-sponsored signage demonstrates Albuquerque’s “green-ness” and the expense of $15,000 in infrastructure costs—the charging stations require an account in order to charge your electric car. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t make them work; this made Stone very happy he purchased a home charging unit for his own Tesla: “It uses about as much electricity as a hair dryer, and with a 30-minute charge, I can drive 300 miles.”

Recent internet stories talk about sightings of the Tesla. Anecdotal reports from a friend in Silicon Valley claim they are “everywhere,” but particularly in the parking lots of tony corporations like Apple, Google and even the locally impoverished Yahoo! Stone says there are five Teslas in New Mexico; (a company spokespman later told us they know of 20 in the state,) but Fremont is, after all, located in the Bay Area, a place where it's more likely to find a Tesla buyer than here in New Mexico. While a green car might’ve been a real coup for the state’s economic development portfolio, the fact remains that even if you built it here, you probably couldn’t sell it here. That’s the sad predicament of a state rich in natural resources and equally bereft of long-range planning, educational infrastructure and the ability to tap its resources. Like, say, the sun?

 
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