The Tesla Distraction, and How to Overcome It

April 27, 2018

Tesla has been under intense scrutiny for the past few weeks. With another round of missed production targets for its Model 3, it has taken a beating in the stock market and some analysts are questioning its long-term viability as a company. This is bad news for car aficionados, as Tesla has brought new thinking to the car market, reignited enthusiasm for electrification, and inspired a rethink of commercial trucks. But a moderated Tesla hype should also usher in a new, practical way of thinking about the big problems facing transportation.

The promise of Tesla as an electric vehicle for the middle class has exploded beyond simply producing a cool car. It has captured the imagination of transportation planners and policymakers as a way to solve a host of society’s problems. The narratives run that Autopilot, the quasi self-driving system, will make roadways safer and stem the recent increase of roadway fatalities; electric vehicles will wean us off oil and save the environment; and Tesla’s spin off concepts, like the Boring Company and Hyperloop, will end urban congestion.

I hope that Tesla, the car company, is ultimately successful. But for transportation policymakers, the bursting of the Tesla hype bubble is an opportunity to refocus on the real, challenging tasks at hand. The broader problems facing transportation agencies, urban planners, and regulators are much more difficult than Musk’s challenges in mass-producing an affordable electric car.

If we truly care about safety, we need to design safer streets. Lower speed limits, traffic calming, and investment in walking, biking, and transit infrastructure are all investments that have been proven to have real effects on safety. Driving assist systems can be part of a broader plan to increase road safety, but manufacturers need to address the role of technology in driver distraction. The self-driving technology still is in development phase, and the technology sector needs to demonstrate that it is actually safe.

If we truly care about the environment, we need to have a multifaceted effort to reduce emissions, which includes reducing the amount we drive. Despite the benefits of zero tailpipe emissions, electrification still requires fossil-fuel-based power and the vast mining of rare earth minerals. Designing more efficient cities and suburbs, and discouraging driving alone are not popular, but they must be a significant part of the environmental strategy.

If we want to address congestion, we have to prioritize some of the most efficient transportation options available. Cities should be encouraged to implement congestion pricing, coupled with a reinvestment in public transit. Hyperloop and the Boring Company are not going to happen, no matter how much is spent on feasibility studies.

Let’s root for the Tesla team to figure out how to produce an affordable electric car. But we should not let one company’s technology distract us from solving the real problems our transportation systems face.

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