Explaining Tesla to a child

Some friends and I were touring the Chelsea galleries last weekend. This happens to be one of the corners of Manhattan with a Tesla showroom (service is out on Long Island). The 11-year-old asked “What’s special about this car?” I responded with “You know how 4-year-olds have rechargeable cars that they plug in and then can cruise around suburban driveways?” (example at $118) This is the same thing but it holds five people instead of just one or two and it costs almost 1000 times as much.

Absent spectacular incompetence by the legacy car makers, it is hard to understand how Tesla can dominate the market in the long term. When battery technology advances to the point that an all-electric Honda Civic costs the same as a gas-powered Civic, why aren’t Honda and Toyota the natural market leaders? What will Tesla know that they won’t?

What do readers think? Any Tesla owners who want to comment on what they like about the car?

Here’s what a friend of mine said in 2013 about his Tesla:

It is absolutely fantastic.  It drives like a dream, is incredibly powerful, and has plenty of room and creature comforts.  My only complaints are that it’s big, which is taking some getting used to since I was driving a BMW 325i for seventeen years, and that the rear visibility isn’t good, although it has an HD camera that mitigates that.  But I’m loving it, and regularly feel this strange urge to get up from my desk in the middle of the day and go on a drive.

[in response to “Is it just unbelievably quiet inside?”] Yes, it’s super quiet.  The road noise is supposedly not as quiet as some other cars, and the insulation isn’t supposed to be as effective as some other cars, but the complete absence of engine noise makes for a surprisingly quiet experience. … The world will be so much less noisy once electrics take over, if it happens.


  1. Deadprogrammer

    March 5, 2015 @ 1:16 pm


    I spent a good deal of time working in an office on that block, and from a pedestrian’s perspective I can tell you that it’s super unsettling to turn around while crossing the street and to see a car creeping up on you without making the usual engine noise.

  2. Guido Vogel

    March 5, 2015 @ 2:22 pm


    Predicting is hard, especially about the future. As Tesla owner, I can confirm your friends experience. In a small country in The Netherlands it drives you basically anywhere.

    Why didn’t Toyota come up with a car like the Model S? Their first Prius was launched in 1997. Tesla seems to be the only company that can manufacture a car that has a real life range starting at 300 KM.

    I was too shy to ask Elon Musk when we was in Amsterdam last year, but is there something unique in their technology (battery management?) or is Tesla the only company confident enough to put a car on the market starting at 80K. Or a little bit of both?

  3. paul kramarchyk

    March 5, 2015 @ 2:25 pm


    Today’s Tesla is not a practical car. It’s a high priced bauble, like a Rolex or a Gulfstream, for the country club type to park in the front row while it charges for the ride home. Limited range and charge time are the most pressing design problems. It will be a long time before plug-ins are practical as a working man’s family car in New England, the plains states, and the inter-mountain west.
    • New England: many battery draining hills, cold weather, high electric rates, and near impossibility of building more generation (mostly due to green types stopping nat gas pipelines).
    • Plains states: distance (I lived in Blair, Nebraska for 18 months. Every couple of months I’d drive 9 hours to the Black Hills in S. Dakota to see some topography.)
    • Inter-mountain west: mountains, distance

    Plug-ins may do well as a run-about in retirement communities where people have nowhere to go and all day to get there. Places like Arizona and Florida.

    ps: Recharging is the part of the experience that requires the most patience. On most 240-volt power sources, the battery gains about 29 miles of range per hour. Plug into a 120-volt source and the recharge rate falls to roughly three miles of range per hour. There are 135 Supercharger stations in the U.S. that will add approximately 150 miles in about 20 minutes, but they’re not always conveniently located. [From Car and Driver: http://www.caranddriver.com/tesla/model-s%5D

  4. Les Elkins

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:23 pm


    I don’t own one, but I live near a repair facility in Rockville, MD and see them on the road frequently. It’s a driver’s car for geeks- super-luxury vehicle that’s also the latest tech, American made, etc. A friend test-drove one and raved for the reasons stated (quiet, crazy powerful). The high end Tesla sedan in the zero-to-sixty-in-three-seconds videos going the rounds don’t hurt.

    I can’t imagine owning a Tesla at current prices. Then again I can’t imagine owning, say, a BMW M5 or a Mercedes S550 at similar prices, but I see plenty of them on the roads as well. For the foreseeable future I’d rather invest that money and retire early, but to each their own.

    I also see lots of Chevy Volts out here and those strike me as better choices for lots of people (decent all-electric range for daily commuting, but can drive cross country on gasoline if need be).

    Musk seems to be in it for the long haul. Come what may I think he’s brought us closer to having many more electric vehicles in the mix in the future.

  5. Izzie L.

    March 5, 2015 @ 3:58 pm


    It will probably be necessary to add some noise maker to electric cars so that they don’t run over pedestrians who are expecting to hear a car coming.

    The auto business has very high barriers to entry. The last successful auto startup in the US was Chrysler, in 1925. Cars are subject to relentless (but gradual) improvement – the cars we have today are MUCH better, safer, more environmentally friendly than the cars of my youth. In order to keep up with the competition and sell a competitive quality vehicle AT COMPETITIVE PRICES, there are crazy big capital requirements. Anybody can make a car that costs $80,000 using hand labor, but to make a volume production auto that sells for $25,000, it costs a bloody fortune. You might build a body and paint shop that costs $1 BILLION http://www.allpar.com/corporate/factories/SHAP-2014.html and in a few years it will be obsolete and you’ll have to build another.

    At my local Tesla showroom they have a Tesla chassis on display. From the appearance of the welds, I would say that it is largely hand built.

    Tesla might have a future as a niche player like Volvo or Porsche, or if they play their cards right, even something like BMW or Mercedes. BMW and Mercedes are very profitable and big businesses, but they each have a little over a 1% share of the US market (vs. the big players which have around 15% – GM, Ford, Toyota, etc.), so they could disappear tomorrow and the world wouldn’t stop turning on its axis for even a second.

  6. Colin Summers

    March 5, 2015 @ 4:13 pm


    I think you are mostly asking, “Other electronics companies like Sony can make an MP3 player, why does it matter that Apple is making one?”

    In another couple years we will have Tesla, GM and Ford all selling 200 miles cars for less than $35k. Then things will get interesting.

    (Toyota is out of the game. Their CEO loves electric cars (he has a Tesla Roadster), but the chief engineer believes in the internal combustion engine. Same with Honda, where the CEO said his goal is to create a ICE that is as clean as an electric motor.)

  7. Ole Eichhorn

    March 5, 2015 @ 4:26 pm


    I love my Model S (two years). It is a great car. But like all luxury items, what is important is what it says about the owner. Tesla says great car, good value (compared to luxury competition), tech savvy, environmentally friendly. Who doesn’t want to be identified with that?

    Oh, and it’s nice to be able to blow away anything else off the line, too 🙂

  8. Dan Wallach

    March 5, 2015 @ 5:30 pm


    Tesla’s business model is unabashedly simple. Make the best all-electric car you can, price be damned, then reduce the costs and improve the specs over time. They first came out with a semi-exotic sportscar. Now they’ve got a competitor with high-end German luxury cars. Next they’ve got an SUV of some sort, and after that they’re presumably going after the 3-series.

    Tesla gave a talk at Stanford in 2007 which I attended. Maybe 30% of the talk was about the “long tailpipe” phenomenon and 50% was about the engineering of the battery pack. The battery pack is where all the real engineering effort went. They actively heat and cool the pack to keep the batteries operating at their optimal temperature. They have super detailed models of the chemistry of these batteries. They’re not screwing around.

    Could another automaker duplicate the Tesla battery pack? Given Tesla’s apparent position on its patent portfolio, they sure can now. And look who’s about to be the world’s biggest supplier of the necessary batteries. Why Tesla. How convenient.

    Will another automaker try to compete with Tesla? Now that Tesla’s racking up the sales, they pretty much have to compete. Audi just released an R8 e-tron (meant to be a low volume experimental car, not a high-volume production car). Other manufacturers have made noises. The reckoning will happen later this decade if/when it becomes economical to produce a electric 3-series competitor that costs the same money (*). Maybe Tesla will have an edge from their engineering expertise. Maybe Honda or Toyota will come out with something and prove to be more effective at iterating their design over time.

    (*) In Norway, tax incentives are such that you can buy a Tesla for roughly the same cost as a Volkswagen Passat (http://www.teslarati.com/norway-loves-tesla-model-s/). That’s a no-brainer decision if ever there was one. Government policy can and will influence the markets here.

  9. Jeff

    March 5, 2015 @ 5:53 pm


    If Tesla’s investments in battery production and engineering continue, they’re going to have a great shot at the high end of the market. Fisker didn’t do so well, but Tesla seems to be the nerd’s dream luxury ride – around the Microsoft campus the Model S is basically the new Posche 911 (i.e. everywhere, and all the electric car charging bays are full).

    Are they going to build the electric Honda Civic for the world? Nope. Looks like the Leaf is already doing that. I’m not sure Musk has indicated that they want to own the entire electric car market segment, but rather, they need to have their own independent sales experiences and shops to fight the existing industry’s love of used car sales. Given a high margin used car sale and a low margin electric sale, which is a dealer going to want to push?

  10. J. Peterson

    March 5, 2015 @ 7:11 pm


    One of the things that’s always creeped me out about the Tesla is the need to look at a touchscreen for basic controls like climate and audio. I’d be curious to hear how Tesla drivers feel about that. (I’ve been rear-ended twice by glowfaces staring at their phones instead of watching the road)

  11. Larry Gebhardt

    March 5, 2015 @ 7:29 pm


    Assuming a 200 mile range I could drive a Tesla for 95% of the miles my wife and I put on our cars. And once the Super Charger stations get more plentiful I could imagine taking real trips in the thing.

    Given I’m not seeing any other car companies making real efforts at competing I think Tesla has a chance of beating the big companies, or at least building up enough market share to stay relevant.

    Once they come out with a less expensive version I will consider buying one. At this point I won’t spend the money on a luxury car, so as appealing as the Model S is, it’s not something I will buy today. But I’d much rather buy a hypothetical $30K Tesla vs the other cars on the market for the same price.

  12. Bas Scheffers

    March 5, 2015 @ 9:19 pm


    Charging the Tesla is as fast as any other electric car: it takes about 10 seconds to plug it in. The rest happens overnight, while I sleep.

    Sure beats having to go to smelly gas stations every week, or more often.

    Once you get to the sort of range a Model S has, this is really a non-issue; what percentage of people drive more than 250 miles in a day more than once a year, or decade for that matter, with not a SuperCharger anywhere nearby? If you do, I am sure Hertz will be happy to help you out.

    It still is a bit of an issue with my LEAF, but as a two-car family, if someone needs the range, they take the gas car that day, but the vast majority of driving is on the LEAF.

  13. Jeffrey Friedl

    March 5, 2015 @ 9:35 pm


    I don’t own a Tesla, but I own the stock, and bought it for the same reason I bought Apple stock: it’s not that they’re the only one who can make a product that appeals to its target market so powerfully, but they’re the only one who actually does.

  14. Justin

    March 5, 2015 @ 9:53 pm


    IMO Tesla is a novelty item. If/when other mfg get serious about batteries then Tesla won’t have a chance. I don’t like batteries as an alternative to petrol. Isn’t it just exchanging one environmental disaster for another? And, isn’t Lithium a non-renewable resource? With regards to Tesla specifically, what bothers me most is the styling. Why have a hood if you don’t have an engine? An engineless car is an opportunity to completely rethink its form. I much prefer the BMW i3 (which is nearly 1/2 the price of the Tesla). Anyway, I think (hope) that battery-powered cars are a temporary convenience for mfg and consumers who want to think they’re embracing the environment, while the serious engineers are coming up with something better in the background. In the meantime, small turbo diesels in cars built with lightweight composites would be my preference.

  15. Izzie L.

    March 5, 2015 @ 10:16 pm


    At this point, the hypothetical $30-40K, 3 series competitor Tesla is vaporware. I’ll believe it when I see it go on sale for that price.

    Also I want to know why the government is giving out subsidies so rich guys can buy the latest Tesla toy and Musk can be an even bigger billionaire?

  16. Gary Guest

    March 6, 2015 @ 2:23 am


    Here is how to explain a Tesla to a Child. See this car that is powered on solar power from my roof, this the kind of car you will drive when you are old enough. It’s the safest car ever created, it’s fun to drive, it’s been chosen The Best Car by a good testing company the last Two years in a row and it is sustainable transportation, they don’t even put out any exhaust, or even have a tailpipe, unlike hybrids and other gas cars. If everyone drove a hybrid we would all still need gas and still be polluting.
    Sustainable Energy and sustainable transportation is good for children and future generations. Unsustainable technologies are, unsustainable after all. If your energy and transportation are not sustainable, then they are unsustainable and that would be selfish and backward, closed mined, immoral thinking if we felt that is the best we can do for Future Generations. That why I am open minded, and forward thinking and really care about my kids and Future generations. I even invest in sustainable energy and transportation to help out Future Generations. There are more and more people like me every day, so if this Beautiful Car is The a Future, then I think The Future looks pretty Great to Me! Now, what do you think? Let’s go take a ride on sunlight!

    Now for some of you adults:
    I’ve been a Tesla owner for 443 days of the Best Driving/ Service Experience of my Life. Creative, Open minded people have found a way to own Tesla’s, and even more do every week. Closed minded people don’t buy BEV’s so they don’t ever get to drive one. Open your minds, it’s where a lot of good can begin to happen.

  17. Gary Guest

    March 6, 2015 @ 2:46 am


    J. Peterson
    The steering wheel thumb controls can control climate control fan speed on the right thumb, the sound system volume and song advance on the left thumb. Phone coming in quiets the music and all phone features then are on the right thumb. These are my most often used features while driving, if I want to do something on the touch pad central console, it’s not critical, so I do it at a light when stopped, or when it’s otherwise safe to do it. It’s the best and most intuitive way I’ve ever experienced, I don’t miss fumbling across the dash reaching for the dials and push buttons, whether it was second nature or not. Go check one out, it’s possible it won’t creep you out once you actually try it yourself.

  18. Anonymous

    March 6, 2015 @ 4:30 am


    @Dan Wallach I live in Norway and can guarantee you that a Tesla does NOT cost the same as a Passat, even if you are looking at a very luxury Passat and the cheapest of Teslas. The biggest attraction for people here is that petrol is very expensive, and so are road usage fees. By negating that, electric cars have a serious advantage. Also being able to drive on bus lanes and having free parking is cool, but there are now too many people on EVs, so the government will start cutting on benefits. While there are some Leafs and other EVs, Teslas dominate. Why I am not sure. If I had to guess I’d say because Norway is a wealthy country and people can afford it. Plus the extra range will be handy, although people here drive a lot less than in the US.

  19. David Wihl

    March 6, 2015 @ 6:41 am


    Tesla isn’t a car company. It is a battery / energy storage company that makes appealing cars to demonstrate and test their technology.

  20. Andrew

    March 6, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  21. Alex

    March 6, 2015 @ 10:13 am


    Tesla interior is junk far away from luxury. BMW 335i has better interior design, and 550i in whole different league. Road noise, cheap panels, flimsy speaker grille, seat comfort, ceiling height, sound quality (premium sound!!) all materials that tesla uses belong to 20$K Honda. So rest of money goes into battery price.

  22. George A.

    March 6, 2015 @ 10:55 am


    The question Phil asked is: “Explaining Tesla to a child”

    I would explain it to a child by saying, don’t blow $80K or even $40K on a care just to look cool or rank up with the Jones next door and end up with no saving. Buy the cheapest car you can find and save your money for something else. After all, a car is to get you from point-A to point-B when other means are not available.

    Those who are spending $80K on an environmentally friendly car, such as Tesla, are most likely living in a McMansion homes that end up polluting the environment far more (think heating, AC, martial to build the house and maintain) than your average car. I don’t see the logic for them owning a Tesla to help the environment.

  23. Joe

    March 6, 2015 @ 1:43 pm


    I’ll bet you said the same thing about iPhone in 2007, and, as they say, the rest is history. People that bash Tesla, just like the people that bash Apple, either don’t understand the company, or are simply jealous.

    Yes, I’m a Tesla (and iPhone) owner, and I wouldn’t even dream of buying a different car. After more than a year, I still look forward to getting behind the wheel. And no, I’m not some rich guy living in a McMansion. My previous car was an Acura that was 12 years old, and cost < $40K. I recently read an interesting remark by someone, who claimed that many Tesla owner would never spend that much on any other car. That applies perfectly to me. I never dreamed of spending over $100K on a car until Tesla came along. Yes, if you compare it to literally any other $100K large sedan simply on luxury features, it clearly comes up short; but that's not what this car is. What this car is, is the world's first true 21st century automobile — all the others are based on largely antiquated, 100-year-old technology. The car is simply a joy to drive, the safest car on the road, and received an unprecedented 99 point rating from Consumer Reports. I wake up every morning to a full tank, and have no qualms about driving anywhere. And btw, between the tax credits, and the savings on gas and maintenance, I'm pretty sure the equivalent cost will come closer to about $75K.

  24. Jack Crossfire

    March 6, 2015 @ 8:28 pm


    Most noise is from tires slapping the pavement & wind. There was an attempt, decades ago, to silence freeways with a new pavement. Houses were once built with low front walls to silence the noise of tires slapping the pavement.

  25. scale issue

    March 7, 2015 @ 1:49 am


    Tesla shipped 9,834 electric cars last quarter, missing 2014 goals

    Honda produced 22,298 CRV for month of February 2015.
    21,616 Accords and
    21,038 Civics.

    Just because Tesla is gong to make a 30,000 car does not
    mean they will be able to scale. even with Giga factory.
    Tesla has only two car factory. One in Fremont California
    and one Netherlands.

  26. scale issue

    March 7, 2015 @ 3:47 pm


    those civic figures are only for north america where as tesla is for whole world and for 3 months.

    Now you main question about explaining to child.
    Why don’t you try with

    Global Warming – half of Sun’s energy has to leave earth’s atmosphere.
    Even if you could magically bury the C02.
    You would still be creating heat (waste heat) from solar, wind, electric car, etc.

    All this heat drive the climate as it is a heat engine.

    No amount of magic will cure it.
    especially when there is fixed amount lithium.

    You may also try to explain EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Input).

    You can also say that Oil is ancient Solar energy converted by one celled organism
    on the bottom of the ocean with the right geological rocks and pressure.

    Coal is buried fossilized Tree (trapped ancient solar energy) because bacteria
    had not developed the means to process cellulose.

    Rust (steel) is ancient oxygen that dinosaurs breathed.
    when you create steel you releasing that oxygen if not
    for carbon. you would be recreating condition to be a huge mammals.

    Cement is buried calcium carbonate (Marble). Once you dig it out
    and introduce acid rain. you release the buried carbon.

    That should cover the basics of wonder of Tesla and Man.

  27. Jive Turkey

    March 7, 2015 @ 10:28 pm


    Anyone here who thinks a Tesla compares favorably with an S-Class Benz or a 7-Series BMW has obviously never driven either.
    Other than lack of engine noise, that’s where the comparison ends. The S-Class and the 7-Series ride better, handles much better and exudes luxury. The Tesla is a very nice car.
    But that’s all.

  28. JP

    March 10, 2015 @ 1:22 am


    Dude- don’t you read the Oatmeal? 😛 http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla_model_s

    It’s a magical space car with such attention paid to detail that the door handles retract into the body while driving. Toyota can’t even make a car that runs or stops reliably: http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2014/10/15/343502.htm

    I’d hate to think what a Ford or GM product would look like- would it spontaneously burst into flames?

    Also because of the torque of the electric motor- its insanely fast for the money. I don’t understand why Jeep Wranglers and Pickup trucks don’t use this technology yet- it seems like these are the worst offenders for fuel economy/efficiency and would benefit most from the high torque of an electric motor.

    That said, I’m saving my pennies for a 2017 Audi R8- because Tony Stark.

  29. Darragh McCurragh

    March 16, 2015 @ 11:48 am


    Currently Tesla is a lifestyle “drug”, nothing else. It is not an all-purpose car. It is like a motor-bike, that you put into the garage over the winter. Yes, it can also get you to work in the milder months, but you just don’t use it in sleet and snow, even if you knew all the roads to be cleared “there and back”. Tesla does not yet have the range, is not yet an all-weather vehicle and lacks reliable “re-fueling” options. However, it’s never easy to rule out that Elon Musk not “knows” but “sees” something we all don’t. I have too much respect for intelligent visionaries that use their OWN money to discount the Tesla idea completely yet. But … “I don’t get it”.

  30. Gary Guest

    March 16, 2015 @ 1:25 pm


    Darragh, I live in Montana and Drove my Tesla S85 to work every work day since December 16, 2013. The Traction control is the best I have ever experienced. Sleet and snow and everything else. 265 miles of Range has served me just great and I have taken several trips all over the State.

  31. Joe

    March 16, 2015 @ 1:26 pm


    either we have a troll, or this last poster is utterly clueless.

    Tesla is our only car. We have driven from SF to LA 3 times, to Mt. Shasta, to Yosemite (in the winter), and are planning major trips to Portland, Flagstaff, and Santa Fe. And the new all-wheel-drive model runs rings around most SUV’s in the snow.

  32. Gary Guest

    March 16, 2015 @ 2:11 pm


    Safest Car every made, got me.

  33. Gary Guest

    March 17, 2015 @ 6:05 pm


    Jive Turkey, your right the Tesla is quieter than Mercedes or BMW in addition to being safer, more roomy, Zero Tailpipe emissions, upgrades via OTA, Best Car ever Tested by Consumer Reports, more reliable, http://www.teslamotors.com/press, don’t forget to load more at the bottom of the page. If Mercedes and BMW were not more luxurious, then they would really be in trouble and Tesla could displace them faster than they are already doing. 🙂

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