First of all, it is definitely true that there are strong (and obvious) reasons for why Tesla should be a part of any EV event anywhere in the United States, especially one organized by national-level politicians. I’ll come back to those reasons at the end of this piece. However, the core focus of this article is to try to help explain how things get done in the US political system and why it might well be logical that a certain EV event that took place today didn’t include Tesla.
Also, this is not necessarily part of the story, but I think it bears noting that Tesla is now an extremely popular and well known company. If you know what an EV is, there’s a good chance you know that Tesla is the EV leader in the United States and globally. If you know anything about stock market trends, you probably know Tesla [TSLA] is on top of the world in that realm as well. And if you know much about Tesla, there’s a good chance you have a strong opinion or two about the company and about Elon Musk. As I’ve said many times, the businesses and culture around Elon Musk are more akin to a social movement than anything else. I don’t think Tesla needs a “Biden boost.” Heck, as Tesla fans point out, Tesla doesn’t even need to advertise — it can’t produce as many cars as consumers want!
But let’s really get into this core question: what does Joe Biden and his team want to achieve in the auto industry?
The simple answer is that the Biden administration is trying to get legacy automakers to commit to more EVs, to commit to a quicker transition to EVs. Getting into more detail — which is very important here — it is trying to get some major EV policies through Congress. Joe Biden and team can’t just tell Joe Manchin and other “centrist Democrats” — let alone Republicans — to vote for these policies. Well, he can do that, but it doesn’t work. What Biden can do, however, is use his name, reputation, and political influence to put pressure on these legislators to do the right thing and to vote for cleantech progress.
Some things that extend across political lines and throughout battleground states are the USA’s historical car brands. These US automakers can be strong allies to put pressure on or permit action from congresspeople sitting in the middle of the political landscape.
Clearly, the climate and cleantech legislation Biden has been trying to push through has been facing hurdles. There are certain politicians that are making it hard to get the bills passed. Biden is looking for allies to help out. Automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union are allies that could have some influence, especially on “pro-business” centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans.
Automakers and the UAW, meanwhile, are looking for some help, too. They are entering the transition to electric vehicles, but they don’t have the reputation of Tesla when it comes to BEVs, and they have the much broader challenge of convincing their own dealers and consumers that, yes, the electric era is really arriving (this is not just a California thing) and they can also sell and buy EVs (respectively). Automakers are looking for good PR and stronger EV brands. The UAW is probably trying quite hard to not lose jobs. Autoworker unions in Europe have been some of the groups pushing hardest for strong EV legislation there, because anyone paying attention knows that this is where the industry jobs of the future will be, and increasingly the present.
So, the stage is set — Biden hypes GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW a bit; and GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW put pressure on policymakers — or at least give permission to policymakers — to vote for legislation that reinstates and extends EV tax credits, funds more charging stations, and increases fuel economy standards.
What would Tesla’s role be at such a party? To make GM, Ford, and Chrysler look bad? To laugh at a genuinely rather weak 2030 EV target? To say the obvious — yes, we want more EV sales sooner than later? Also, let’s not forget the cultural landscape. Elon Musk may spend much of his time in Texas now, but Tesla is definitely seen as a California company that mostly sells cars to rich elites on the West Coast and East Coast. Putting the spotlight on Tesla while GM, Ford, and Chrysler execs squirm in the shadows is not going to achieve the political goals the Biden team was pursuing this week — not at all. Yes, it would make Tesla fans happy! But I do tend to think Tesla fans would be even happier if Biden helped reinstate and grow the EV tax credit for Tesla buyers, and helped get more funding secured for EV charging stations around the country. Sometimes, you have to look a step past the moment to see what the longer-term goal is and how you get there.
— Jim Farley (@jimfarley98) August 5, 2021
Though, I said I’d come back to why Tesla should be a part of any EV event anywhere in the United States, especially one organized by national-level politicians, so let’s come back to that.
Clearly, the response Tesla fans (and CEO Elon Musk) have had to Tesla not being included in the event is one reason why Tesla should have been included. Most Americans don’t want to dive into the detailed workings of politics and how you get bills through a tremendously divided and gridlocked Congress, including most Tesla fans. Most Tesla fans also just want Tesla to be recognized and cheered — sometimes even if that comes at the cost of broader EV progress. Politics is a complicated, messy, super difficult “people science.” Most of us also don’t want to dive into a chemistry book or try to figure out advanced calculus. In other words, a US Ev event should obviously include Tesla, and since that’s what millions of people think, the Biden team should have taken that into consideration. They should have realized this kind of backlash was possible, and that major media outlets would run with it as well because Tesla is ratings gold. They should have contacted
Tesla’s PR department (quite honestly, you have to wonder if they even know that Tesla doesn’t have a PR department, an extremely abnormal thing for a company of its size) and they should have got to work planning a Tesla event that could be briefly mentioned somewhere in order to avoid this kind of backlash or quickly dissipate it.
Yeah, seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 5, 2021
Tesla sells more electric vehicles than any other automaker in the world, and that’s certainly something Biden and team should be highlighting, especially when they’re focused on saying the US is going to beat China in this new tech world. GM and Ford certainly aren’t beating China (or Norway), but Tesla is a once in a generation success story that should be resting on Biden’s microphone any time he wants to talk about US cleantech leadership.
Yes, though, this was a UAW-focused event because UAW is the political animal the Biden team can rely on to help get things done. Toyota, BMW, Nissan, and Honda also weren’t included despite having large manufacturing plants in the USA. No one would have expected them to be, and their fans haven’t gone out there roasting the Biden team or grilling them on Squawk Box. But it doesn’t matter — Tesla isn’t Toyota. The Biden team should know that the Musk Movement is a social movement, not just a group of consumers.
All of that said, this also gets to a much bigger issue in the United States. National-level US politics is really, really hard. Even on things that 80% or 90% of the public supports, it’s extremely difficult to get them through a bill. In fact, most of those things never get put into law. Republicans can require something specific or come up with a legislative idea, Democrats can say “cool, let’s do it,” and Republicans then won’t vote for it. This is not a theory — it has happened multiple times on a variety of topics. When it’s so extremely hard to get anything passed — because Republicans want to see nothing more than Democratic politicians and government fail, and a few Democrats are also ridiculously hard to get onboard if there isn’t “bipartisan support” — then you’ve got to very precisely and carefully needle policy through. This is what the Biden team has been trying to do for the past several months with a bill that would include great EV incentives and stronger fuel economy requirements.
Tesla backlash for not being included in a United Auto Worker party is not really the administration’s biggest issue, but it doesn’t help either. Think you can do better? Run for office! As someone much wiser than me has said, “We need good people in politics.” And perhaps after you’ve worked for months to get Manchin and Sinema to move forward with cleantech legislation, you can let us know how you performed that magic trick.
Next up, I’ll finish writing my rant about why the USA’s electric vehicle plans are several years behind Europe’s and China’s, and how we are losing our historical competitiveness in key markets of the future.