Tesla’s Parking Problem Says a Lot About Elon Musk’s Brand of Tech Saviorism

Photo: teslaparkinglot/Instagram
Photo: teslaparkinglot/Instagram

Tech magnate Elon Musk is often held up as the guy with all the answers to our transportation problems. But on infrastructure, his answers always seem to be wildly impractical and oblivious to how transportation and cities work: tunnels to cure L.A. traffic, or pneumatic tubes for speeding intercity travel.

So it’s fitting that the Palo Alto headquarters for Musk’s flagship company, Tesla, has an epic logistical problem caused by the spatial inefficiency of its core product. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Tesla’s parking lot has become a Hobbesian nightmare. One Instagram account mocks employee parking habits like leaving cars on medians and pedestrian walkways.

Joseph Cutrufo at Mobilizing the Region says Musk has to face up to the fact that transportation systems don’t work well when everyone drives:

Instead of asking “where do we park everyone,” Musk really ought to take a step back and ask, “why is everybody driving?” This is a major metropolitan area, so there must be some transit around, right? Is there no other way to get to Tesla’s corporate office in Palo Alto or its manufacturing facility in Fremont?

As it turns out, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) just opened its newest station, Warm Springs/South Fremont, just a stone’s throw from the massive Tesla manufacturing facility in Fremont. But we’d be surprised if anyone working at this facility actually uses it: while it’s just a half-mile to the station as the crow flies, the actual distance for a human is almost two miles. That’s almost 40 minutes on foot, but it probably feels a lot longer when the streets look like this [above].

It seems Musk is belatedly catching on. CBS San Francisco reports that Tesla will begin paying employees to bike to work.

More recommended reading today: Seattle Transit Blog has the supremely disappointing news that every single Democratic member of the Washington House voted in favor of a bill to slash funding for the city’s light rail expansion plan. Systemic Failure reports that just days after California passed a gas tax hike, state highway planners are already putting forward road expansion projects, contrary to public promises. And Pricetags explains why gas stations are disappearing from downtowns in big cities.

  • Joe R.

    I think Musk’s problem here is very simple. He likes cool tech toys like electric cars. Therefore, he’s trying to find ways to justify their use everywhere. It’s a pity his love doesn’t extend to electric trains. Plenty of use for those in urban areas. Cars, electric or otherwise, are mostly solutions in search of a problem in more densely populated areas. If he wants to do something good, perhaps start a push to electrify heavy trucks. Those are still needed in urban areas but at least if we electrify them it would solve all the noise and pollution problems they cause. And while he’s at it, he should try the market for smaller than car-sized electric vehicles. Those are ideally suited for some urban uses, although most city residents should get around by walking, biking, or public transit.

  • His love for electric trains does extend to “electric trains”. It’s called the Hyperloop. 🙂

  • This blog really hates Elon Musk. I can appreciate that view, but I really think that anger is a bit misplaced. He’s obviously the CEO of a car company, which is basically Hitler in our circles, but he’s devoted to increasing the arrival of sustainable, smart transport for everyone… not to mention that he’s on the cutting edge of reusable launch systems for space travel. I’m all for being a curmudgeon, but we should at least give the guy credit for doing things like taking several of the world’s islands (and huge chunks of cities) totally off-grid with solar/battery arrays.

  • Maggie

    Oh come on. This post wasn’t “angry” and your Hitler reference is way out of line. I’m sure Tesla has very well paid PR flacks who will happily make the case for Elon Musk’s space travel plays as “sustainable, smart travel for everyone,” but you know the point of a free press is to objectively critique views like that one.

  • war_on_hugs

    I think he’s fine when it comes to things his company actually does well – renewable energy, automation, etc. The problem is the “halo effect” where all of a sudden Musk is expected to just “disrupt” every transportation and infrastructure issue, ignoring previous research and practical realities.

    I don’t really blame Musk himself so much as the media’s fawning treatment of him, which I think this blog perhaps over-compensating for with some snark. Unfortunately it’s a necessary bubble to puncture, since real-world decisionmakers can and do point to things like Hyperloop as an excuse to avoid investment in rail, bike/ped, etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    He is right about one thing. If you had batteries that would allow a car to travel 250-plus miles at highway speeds, gasoline engines would be about as common as manual transmission vehicles. A specialty you’d rent to travel cross country that might also be used by people in rural areas, if they could still get gasoline.

    Compared with electric motors, internal combustion motors/transmissions/gears are so complicated its an engineering marvel that they work at all.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    As Sean Spicer demonstrated this week, it’s always a bad rhetorical strategy to make comparisons to Hitler.

  • Please. It’s for emphasis. The media has been calling certain people Hitler *cough* Trump for years. It’s only out of line when certain people employ this analogy. Very hypocritical indeed.

  • Joe R.

    I agree and I give him credit for starting to mainstream electric cars. Once China or someone else mass produces them they’ll be cheaper than gas cars. If they have 250+ mile range, almost nobody will want gas cars any more.

    I long for the day where the only place you can see an ICE vehicle is in a museum, or maybe at “old-timers day” on a race track.

  • Joe R.

    For what its worth, there are lots of references to “Hitlery” as well.

  • Vooch

    Everything Musk does seems inspired by 1950s Popular Mechanics magazines. It actually funny.

    He gets upset about motor traffic congestion and thinks adding more motor lanes is a solution.

    It’s hilarious how backwards his thinking is.

  • Larry Littlefield

    His problem (and his investors’ problem) is this. The complexity of today’s motor vehicles is a barrier to entry.

    Once batteries become widely available, electric motors already are. Carbon fiber bodies currently cost $1,000 more, but that difference is worth it to improve durability and save weight given the offsetting savings of an electric.

    You could have lots and lots of start-ups. And lots and lots of competition. And the vehicles, reconditioned every 10 years, could last 50 years. There might only be a 10 year big profit window for the innovators.

    In 20 years, the most valuable thing about Tesla could be the trademarked name.

  • Godwin’s Law. 🙂 Clearly an effective strategy.

  • Godwin’s Law, my dude.

  • BlueFairlane

    These days, you can just call him “Trump” and get the same effect.

  • Alan

    Links are missing in the RSS feed.

  • Maggie

    It’s pretty much always out of line, in poor taste, and defeats your argument to compare anyone to Hitler “for emphasis”. I don’t really know what straw man you’re arguing by saying “the media have been doing it for years.” You didn’t explain why you see it as germane to this discussion, maybe try that next time.

    So, Elon Musk’s Tesla is running into a straightforward geometry problem. In a capitalist system, it ties in economics as well. Those aren’t angry statements, it’s simple and straightforward math, so a lot of people are going to wonder what it takes to talk about math without being called angry. The firm could pony up to build a multilevel parking garage, or price parking to bring demand more in balance with supply, or try to nudge more efficient ways of moving the number of people who work there.

    All of those will have tradeoffs in the firm’s cost of capital and management’s need for flexibility and efficiency.

  • Vooch

    Larry,

    you touched upon a profound insight.

    Private automobile ownership at a global level is going to stagnate once India reaches middle income levels.

    And once China reaches upper income levels, demand for private autos will gradually sink.

    This is reflected in every major car companies stock price. They all have insane levels of record profits, obscene positive cash flows, and record shipments. Yet, their stock prices all languish at rock bottom.

    Investors realize the auto industry is going to stagnate big time, they are pricing in stagnation.

    Musk is going to be trying to sell his cars in a increasingly brutal market.

  • Joe R.

    You’re right. Once the batteries are here, building an automobile isn’t going to be much more complex than building a large drone. Gone will be the need for expensive, specialized equipment to make engines and transmissions. Someone will practically be able to start a new car company out of their garage.

    And as you said, the cars will last much longer than now. There will be a huge market for the reconditioning you mention. In short, the glory days where cars are high-profit items for a handful of companies will be gone. They’ll be just like any other appliance. In fact, the bicycle market gives you some good idea where the car market is headed. You have lots of players, prices are low, you can get used bicycles for practically nothing, put $100 into them to make something useful. It will be much the same with cars. Buy a old body for a few hundred, slap in new (or even rebuilt) motors and batteries, and viola, you have something good for another 10 years which will hardly cost anything to operate.

    Of course, space and perhaps insurance issues will work against radically increasing automobile ownership rates even if the cars themselves cost much less to buy and operate. A car is only useful if you have mostly uncongested roads to drive it on, plus places to park it. Denser cities are already trending towards lower car ownership rates, at least in first-world countries. The bottom line here is cars in general are probably not going to be all that profitable to make for much longer as the price of entry of new players into the market drops.

  • Larry Littlefield

    But there is a a big existing market for Tesla to cannibalize, so it might succeed. Plus its diversification into “solar roofs” is a good idea.

    But after a couple of decades, it becomes a software and marketing issue, and other competitors emerge.

    This is how capitalism is supposed to work. The problem is that it hasn’t worked that way, and we are ending up with predatory oligopolies and inequality, as wages are squeezed but the oligarchs can still sell because the difference is covered by debt.

    http://www.economist.com/news/business/21720657-its-economists-used-champion-big-firms-mood-has-shifted-university-chicago

    Elon Musk and those like him are the heroes, not the villains, in this.

  • Vooch

    going to disagree because Musk’s businesses are extreme crony capitalist enterprises.

    solar roofs ? he has plenty of entrenched competitors

    one never wants to be a new entrant in a 120 year old stagnant market with concentrated producers that are insanely efficient with global scope – the battle for market share is brutal is profitless

    I ageee that entrepreneurs are heros

  • Sine Metu

    Elon’s first major transportation epiphany occurred whilst stuck in LA traffic. His mind (admittedly brilliant) wasn’t flexible enough to avoid rigid dogma though. He still wanted to get around by car.

    20 years ago, I too was stuck in LA traffic. I bought a bike. My solution was immediate, cost less than $400 and changed my life forever.

    You tell me who the real genius is in this scenario.

    P.S. I’m the same age as Elon and work in the Corporate world so spare me the excuse-making.

  • Vooch

    try telling Musk fans that mobility is not a technology problem and therefore technology will not provide a solution.

    mobility is a land use challenge and will only be solved by changes in land use.

    parking craters for example

  • Sine Metu

    It’s only a solution in extra terrestrial terms.

    Look, I get it. He makes money from cars. Is he a villain? No.

    Is he our savior? Obviously not. His parking lots are hilarious monuments to dogmatic thinking.

  • Joe R.

    I had the same epiphany not long after college. For a while I was thinking of getting a driver’s license. I had even gotten my learning permit. I realized two things. First, I couldn’t really afford a car. I saw how much of a money pit cars are from my parents. Second, the places I usually went could either be reached by public transit or bike. Since I was already an avid cyclist, I figured it could serve a transportation role in addition to a recreational one. My permit expired, I never got a license, and any desire to drive passed by my mid 20s.

  • Miles Bader

    Hyperloop is worse than existing trains in almost every way, it’s a monument to screwed up handwavy “popular mechanics 1923” thinking.

    If he really liked trains, he wouldn’t have come up with an abortion like Hyperloop. [Indeed, one his reasons for pushing HL seems to have been as an attempt to throw shade on CAHSR.]

  • Johnny Le

    Wait, are you suggesting you’re the genius?

    Elon has to commute from Tesla to SpaceX several times a week. Did you just suggest he bikes 400 miles each way?

  • Frank

    Doesn’t the advent of autonomous vehicles solve this? Why expand your parking lot when you know you won’t need it at all in 2 years?

  • James Wallace

    Thank you sir.

  • James Wallace

    I’m pretty sure the writer of this article either has a crush on Elon or is just jealous considering all the titles I’m seeing are about how musk just has bad ideas. Like seriously there’s like 4. Lol. Wish I could have some terrible ideas seems to be pretty profitable… Wether you like his ideas or not it’s a capitalist society. Your wealth is a reflection of if your ideas are good or not. Otherwise…. You’d never make ? … Which is why there are no billionaire journal writers.

  • David Henri

    “Like seriously there’s like….”
    Really?

  • James Wallace

    Yes really. I apologize if my grammar is not of your liking. But I would be disinclined to acquiesce any request to change it. I could choose to use more exorbitant wording. But 9/10 times I find myself having to dull down my words rather than convolute them. Do you have any objection to the message? Or are you simply looking to fill your need of demeanor for the day? If so it may be best to find someone who doesn’t have a profusion of grammar they often do not use due to the lack of syntax often found in the people populating these websites. However if you are interested in discussing more important matters than the word choices of people on the internet which often change per audience of the intended message.. I am all ears, well eyes really. 🙂

  • RM

    I used to work at that site (when it was owned by a different company.) I know we were limited in our ability to add employees because of the size of the parking lot. 20 years ago housing was cheaper, and I could (it felt like barely) afford a house within 3.5 miles, and it was an easy, pleasant bike ride (use Arastradero Road, not Page Mill). Today, on an engineer’s salary, that would be much harder to swing.
    The good news is that the site is on the end of a shuttle run from a local, lightly served CalTrain station. It is also at the end of a bus line from across the bay. There is an express bus from South San Jose.
    The bad news is that none of that is frequent, and the really bad news is that it is on the northern edge of Santa Clara County, and there is no public service from San Francisco or San Mateo county that serves that site. If you want to live anywhere north, the best route is I-280, and there are no public buses at all. It’s part of our regional dysfunction in the San Francisco Bay Area.
    But good access to walks in the hills, and an excellent location for seeing rainbows looking east. I bet there were lots this year. I miss my old office.

  • Vooch

    It’s also extrairdinarily liberating not to own a car. It takes some mental adjustment but after a year or so, one pitied those poor souls who ‘need’ to own a car.

    Car dependency is tragic.

    Last year I rode my bike 50 miles to the country house of some friends for a long weekend instead of taking the train. It seemed like a crazy idea at first, but in retrospect was most sensible transportation solution.

  • Vooch

    truer words never were said

  • bobfuss

    The photograph indicates that it would be trivially easy to expand that car park, as it is surrounded only by open land and trees.

    Any company growing as fast as Tesla is going to have to expand its footprint geographically. Just look at the new Apple HQ.

  • neroden

    Musk has a ridiculous blind spot about trains, but this may finally push it through his head that autos *do not scale up*.

    There is a plan to build a direct pedestrian bridge from the BART station to the Tesla factory, making the trip much more a “crow flies” trip, but it’s delayed by, you know, the usual (permitting, funding, blah blah blah)

  • neroden

    No, it doesn’t solve it at all, not even a little bit. Why would it? Still gotta put the cars somewhere.

  • neroden

    He’d be better off taking California HSR. Which Musk unfortunately does not properly appreciate. (And no, he can’t do anything cheaper than HSR with any of the nonsense he’s proposed so far. The cost is largely in earthmoving and bridge foundations, and he has not come up with a way to make those cheaper, though autonomous bulldozers might do the job.)

  • neroden

    What war_on_hugs said.

    I’m actually a Tesla *investor* as well as a Tesla car owner — and it needs to be pointed out that

    (1) Hyperloop is nonsense — it’s solving the wrong problem. It’ll cost more than HSR and transport fewer people per hour. What’s needed to make HSR chepaer is cheaper bridges, cuts, and fills, and it doesn’t deal with that.
    (2) You can’t transport huge numbers of people to a single location all at once in cars. There’s nowhere to park them. You can transport huge numbers of people to a single location all at once in trains. A factory with shifts is the absolute worst situation for cars and the perfect situation for train service, as it turns out…

    (Lucky for BART that their Warm Springs extension, which seemed idiotic at the time they proposed it, is now going to a factory which *desparately needs the train connection*. But they haven’t built a proper walkway between the BART station and the Tesla Factory! Which is absurd!)

  • neroden

    Yeah, but 20 years is WAAAAAY down the road. For Wall Street, “long term” is more than *1* year. Very few of them are even thinking 5 years, let alone 10.

  • neroden

    Yeah, but Tesla’s got the entire existing auto market to cannibalize as most gas car sales are replaced wth electric car sales.

    I mean, yeah, there’s competiton. There’s BYD (not trying to sell cars outside China yet) Nissan (with a reputation for bad product and falling behind), and now BAIC, SAIC, Geely, Kandi, Zotye (all China-only except for a few fleet market attempts by Geely). Hyundai and GM have become potential future competitors but have low production volumes.

    Everyone else is so far behind they have very little chance. Even 10% of a shrinking global car market is a lot. And Tesla has been very consistently aiming at market segments nobody else will touch. (Based on the complete lack of any plans revealed so far, I doubt anyone else will get a BEV pickup out before Tesla, who plans to reveal it in 2 years.)

  • Vooch

    neroden,

    sorry to disagree with you because we otherwise agree on so many other topics.

    a stagnant market suggests nil profits because sellers are going to discount so much

    a stagnant market suggests stronger players squeeze out weaker players. In the context of the global auto industry, Tesla is a minuscule player with the barest wisp of a balance sheet.

    finally, I believe Tesla has every chance of becoming a nifty niche player akin to Saab or Lotus but never a major market participant.

    The contemporary auto industry is shockingly nimble and efficient. Their quality and reliability is amazing.

    Mass Market BEVs are being introduced by every player. Nissen Leaf crushes Tesla. It’s not even close.

  • neroden

    You’re making a subtle but serious mistake in investment analsyis.

    Perhaps this is ithe big error: “The contemporary auto industry is shockingly nimble and efficient.”

    In fact, they’re shockingly lugubrious, slow-moving, and inefficient.

    Tesla has been running *circles* around the incumbent car companies (apart from, as I always mention, certain Chinese firms).

    Nissan took two years of production before it managed to get the quality of the Leaf up to Tesla standards — they had not thermally managed the battery.

    And Nissan is one of the *leaders*. Their current Leaf production capacity is actually equal to Tesla’s next-year Model 3 production capacity. None of the other non-Chinese companies are even *trying* to mass-produce electric cars.

    Literally no other car company has bothered to build chargers for cross-country travel!

    The Bolt is the first non-Tesla car to have a reasonable range, and most of the other companies are saying “maybe we’ll have one with that range in 2019” (with Hyundai targeting 2018 so good for them).

    The contemporary auto industry STINKS. None of them are introducing mass market EVs (except, again, some of the Chinese).

  • neroden

    The existing carmakers have outsourced everything but the bodies and the ICE engines. The ICE engine technology is worthless as are the factories for them, and they’ll have to be written off as losses, along with firing huge numbers of engineers and line workers.

    This is a pretty easy situation for a company unencumbered by legacy ICE assets to compete in, especially when the existing carmakers have given them a *10 to 17 year lead* (depending on when you start counting from).

    The real competition for Tesla comes from other companies which are unencumbered by the Internal Combustion Engine mentality. Of those with capital, only BYD has clearly stated a clear all-electric plan, but some of the other Chinese companies might do so too.

  • Vooch

    good point on product development cycle.

    However, the range variance is merely a question of adding some batteries. I’d argue it’s not a significant difference in BEVs.

    You are also forgetting PHEVs which have been produced in the zillions.

  • Vooch

    The ICE is going to be around for a long long time in transport.

    My SWAG is BEVs will have less than a 50% new vehicle global market share a decade from now.

    That suggests even 20 years from now, a majority of vehicles on the road are going to be ICE.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    It isn’t surrounded by open land, it is surrounded by the Fremont Warm Springs Community Plan, roughly none of which is planned to be surface parking lots. https://fremont.gov/DocumentCenter/View/28578

  • bobfuss

    I’m sure a deal could be made but, in any event, another simple solution would be a multi-floor parking structure.

  • BlueFairlane

    “your need of demeanor …”

    I find myself doubting your profusion of grammar.

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