Silicon Valley versus Detroit

Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation strategies, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.


The upcoming release of the Tesla Roadster is being met with great enthusiasm. As a Silicon Valley company, Tesla is apparently creating a new approach to auto technology and business by outsourcing certain key manufacturing tasks, rethinking the core power system (by using electricity as fuel), and cutting costs by selling directly through a small number of their own stores. In addition, they have stated a near-term goal of offering an affordable electric vehicle or hybrid using the same innovative approach. Can Silicon Valley do for sustainable transportation what Detroit has failed to accomplish?”

John’s Reply

Silicon Valley and the creativity of Information Technology may well do more for sustainable transportation than Detroit—with its well-earned reputation for painstaking plodding progress in automotive technology. But Silicon Valley’s contribution will not come from boutique products such as the Tesla Roadster.

Tesla needs quite a lot of plodding (read: careful, high quality) auto engineering to make their visionary product work. It’s taken a lot of engineering to get batteries to the point where meaningful driving range is feasible. And a lot more such engineering lies ahead before batteries achieve the levels of reliability and affordability needed for a sizable market. Even the niche market sought by Tesla will require a degree of development that Detroit takes for granted—quite daunting and expensive for a start-up.

While I wish Tesla well, an initial market for cars-you-can-charge, whether battery-only like the Tesla Roadster or a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, may well be captured by the old General from Detroit. But it’ll still be a boutique market, more for the Chris Paines of the world as GM seeks public relations redemption after Who Killed the Electric Car? than for ordinary budget-minded consumers who seek a greener ride.

So how exactly will Silicon Valley play a big role for sustainable transportation? Not in the ways most folks now talk about. Unless the United States gets politically committed to curbing global warming, the invention is more likely to happen overseas in an IT-rich but oil-constrained Silicon Valley of the Far East. After all, in spite of the high-minded hopefuls trying to help America invent its way out of conspicuous carbon consumption, U.S. energy policy remains mostly like the old Tareyton cigarette commercials: "We’d rather fight than switch."

A 6,831 laptop-like lithium celled roadster with a four-second zero-to-sixty time is a noble quest, but it also screams lack of restraint. At the end of the day, power performance without limit whether you need it or not does not get us closer to sustainable transportation.

But the fully networked car, with performance measured in bandwidth rather than horsepower, might open the door to personal transportation that isn’t so inherently resource consumptive. That’s a key difference between IT-based systems and their ongoing leaps of progress and mass- and muscle-based systems that now burden the meaning of mobility.

My hope is that a Silicon Valley somewhere will create cars with smarts not so much in managing massive flows of motive power, but instead focused on knowing its surroundings. Such cars would have "V2V" (vehicle-to-vehicle) and "V2C" (vehicle-to-cityscape) capabilities. "V2G" (vehicle-to-grid) may be incidental and helpful but of itself unnecessary. In short, plug-in ability is unlikely to drive new forms of customer experience that offer a truly transformative business proposition. However, no breakthroughs are needed to realize the networked car, which would drive itself much of the time, relieving drivers of the need to "act out" and freeing up their time and attention for activities en-route that are more rewarding than starting, stopping, steering and speeding.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.

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  • ex-EV1 driver

    I don’t know what rock DeCicco is living under (probably the ruins of an old car company in Detroit) but he definitely has no clue what Tesla is all about.
    Tesla is offering their expensive, high priced roadster right now because it is the only thing that is a realistic first step for a Silicon Valley startup (people in Detroit don’t know what a startup is). Tesla’s plan is to deliver a car “for ordinary budget-minded consumers who seek a greener ride”. They only plan to take a lot of business plodding (read: careful, high quality) first to get there. Just like the computer, they are starting out at the high end (how many kids owned IBM mainframes in the ’60s?). Then they will work down the line to the affordable car.
    Their first car is the Ferrari-killing Roadster. Great product, well priced in its performance class at $100K
    Their second car will be the BMW-killing 4-door sedan (code-named “Whitestar”). Also great product (we hope), well priced in its luxury/performance class at ~$50K
    their third car is the one targeted at the “ordinary budget-minded consumers who seek a greener ride” (code named “Blue Star”) is the Corolla killer. It should go for closer to $30K and should be a force to be reckoned with by the mainstream.
    Getting to the Bluestar is tough for a startup – Tesla has come up with a way that makes sense though. They’ve sold almost 2 Roadsters at $100K each day since they announced it so they appear to be on track.
    See Tesla’s plan at: for their side of this story.
    Its really a silicon valley thing though. Detroit/DiCicco wouldn’t understand.

  • Daniel

    We can only hope the progress of the development of these cars will follow the same rapid progress of the IT industry.
    on a different note the “cars that drive themselves” will require a massive infrasture that is at least at this stage pure sci-fi.

  • Phil McCracken

    This article must have been written a long time ago. Time to update the website. Check out the Lightning Car Company’s “Lightning GT”.

    LCC partnered with a U.S. firm, which is developing NanoSafe batteries. These batteries can recharge in as little as 10 minutes, have a 12+ year service life and are much more environmentally-friendly and thermally stable than the Li Ion batteries used in the Tesla.

    The writings in this site are outdated at best, but my take on what I have read here is agenda. Information has been filtered and shown in a critical light which describes the developing electric vehicles.

    It’s not that Detroit wasn’t capable to develope the electric car, they didn’t want to, but they wanted to be able to say they have at least looked into it with their meager efforts to date.

    Think about it. If Detroit took EV development seriously, then why are upstart companies with few resources surpassing the Big 3’s efforts? It’s a no-brainer. Pure EV’s set automobiles down a path of simpler design, fewer moving parts, less maintenance… These traits will be INHERENT in pure EV vehicles. Do the research if needed, see for yourself. This is fact and it surely provides motive behind Detroit’s unwillingness.

    Hey, if someone wants to buy a Hybrid, I’d say “great!”. then “You’re getting a new one, right?”. If he or she says yes, than I’ll truly congratulate them on their choice and wish them luck. If they say they bought one that has 100,000 miles on it, I’ll just wish them good luck. Fewer non-dealership garages can work on Hybrids. Hybrids have many more parts than conventional gas cars and you know what they can cost to maintain. Now think of tossing a few hundred more parts into your aging ride’s complexity.

  • factory rat

    …you are pretty good at name calling, but you are kinda short on facts….you throw out Detroit like some kind of slur, but why not Toyota City or Frankfurt? Tesla knows something all the auto firms in the world don’t? Fat chance. When the technology is truly mass-market ready, main-line auto firms will bury Tesla. BTW,why is Tesla begging off of the federal air-bag standard – too inflexible to change platforms once the problem is discovered?

    Tesla is doing imporatnt work, but even at planned volume levels it is a boutique. Despite your desire to see it prosper, don’t kid yourself – until it can produce high-tens to low-hundreds of thousands vehicles a year it will not move the needle AT ALL on ghg or oil security.

    As for your silicon valley thing, look here to discover that bad old GM has more high-quality R&D than any firm based in Silicon Valley –

    This is a pretty tortured set of subjects, so you are going to have to get beyond name calling if you want to be taken seriously.

  • Tony

    >>their third car is the one targeted at the “ordinary budget-minded consumers who seek a greener ride” (code named “Blue Star”) is the Corolla killer. It should go for closer to $30K and should be a force to be reckoned with by the mainstream.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Factory rat,
    I really couldn’t care less about Frankfurt, Stutgart, Munich, TC, Seoul, etc. I really want to find a way to save Detroit, once one of our country’s greatest strengths. Refusing to understand today’s economy along with sowing negative propaganda like DiCiccio and you are is only going to increase the blight in Motor City. They need to start worrying about making cars that people want, not what the top brass want to sell.
    The airbag issue which has being blown up by Detroit dinosaurs is just an effort to avoid having to put in the smart airbags initially. This is something that a startup company such as Tesla must put off until their mainstream vehicles. No Lotus vehicles have this either. I don’t know about other supercars such as Ferrari’s or Lambo’s.
    You’re 100% right about great research being done in Detroit. In fact, Tesla’s Whitestar design center is located in the Detroit area because of the plethora of great automotive engineering talent. Now we just need to get Detroit’s research made to work and put into the factories. Today it is just being crushed in the desert and its patents used to make it difficult for others to actually use the great technologies developed.
    You’ll find that Detroit’s willingness to believe all the misinformation promoted by the big 3 only made the whole EV1 debacle worse. GM could have been king of the auto business if they had spent their money on improving the EV1 instead of killing it.
    Unfortunately, we can talk all we want but only reality will show the real truth.

  • Jeff

    This article obviously suffers from a lack of clarity. The author is not focusing on battery technology, fuel cells or any other propulsion system. The aim is to ignite thought on how cars think or can think on behalf of the driver. No need to bury wires in the pavement to have a care that pilots itself just refine GPS and allow it to communicate with other cars and traffic signal systems then it can set speeds and lane changes so that we all get where we want to go without beating on the steering wheel ‘cause the jerk in front of us is driving too slow or recklessly. Obviously some vehicles are playing with minor systems like collision avoidance tech. but that is the tip of the iceberg. Smarten up the car and no matter what is driving it the fuel efficiency will increase by 10% or more and we will not have to sit in traffic jams all day.

  • What I want

    This will be cool!
    I think it can be done now.