The Car That Killed Glamour

Tesla and the end of the automobile as an object of desire

Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

The Tesla Model S is a supercar without equal. Recently, the P85D trim broke the Consumer Reports rating system, earning a score of 103 out of 100. They rounded down to just 100, calling it “closest to perfect we've ever seen.” The Model S accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in under 3.5 seconds, via an electric motor that produces zero emissions.

If that’s not quick enough for you, there are faster cars available. The 2016 Lamborghini Aventador LP750-4 Superveloce, for example, takes you there in 2.7 seconds—but it’ll cost you over half a million dollars, versus the Tesla’s comparatively modest $127,820. And you won’t feel safe parking it anywhere. By contrast, the Tesla is startlingly practical. If you live in a major city, you’ve probably already noticed that Tesla Model S’s are quickly replacing the BMW 7’s, the Mercedes S’s, and the Porsche Panameras in all the chi-chi hotel valet docks and stately home portes-cochère. It’s still expensive, but for those who can afford a luxury car, it’s a great value.

When we talk about Tesla, we usually spin stories about the marketplace victory of a rogue engineer upending the automotive industry. Sure, Tesla’s not for everyone yet, but it might be soon. Tesla’s new Gigafactory could cut battery costs by 50 percent. This is the company that promises finally to make clean electric vehicles a widespread reality. Car brands sell us the dream of domesticating feral brawn. Ferrari’s logo tames the stallion and Lamborghini’s the bull, but Tesla’s cultivates the impassible electric wilds (didn’t you know, that’s a T-shaped induction motor segment in the logo, maybe).

But Tesla serves another purpose, too. It is acclimating us to the end of the automobile as an object of desire.

The Model S might be a supercar under the hood (actually nothing’s under the hood; the motor is attached directly to a gearbox above the axle), but it’s hardly one elsewhere. Take a look at this video of a P85D street racing against a 670 horsepower V12 Lamborghini Murcielago (don’t street race, kids!):

The Tesla can almost keep up despite being 1,300 pounds heavier. Impressive. But just look at it. If the Tesla wore pants, they’d be Dockers. Pleated ones, smelling of Tide, flanked by a dangling convention lanyard. The Lamborghini, by contrast: low and rawboned, reeking of grease and cologne, engorged with zeal and pride. Sure, dumb pride, excessive, dangerous even, but still.

It was invariably masculinist and often gross, but the automobile has always been a symbol of the self. Especially in America, where we don these steel exoskeletons alone as we traverse our sprawling, be-freewayed nation. If not the testosterone-addled supercar, then something else: the more affordable muscle-car alternative, of course, but also the rugged pickup, or the ostentatious SUV, or the cute coupe, or the sleek sedan, or the granola four-wheel-drive wagon, or even the practical minivan. In America, the automobile is us, and we are it.

Until we’re not. The Tesla is perhaps the first supercar actively to eschew the lust once inseparable from the segment. It’s not unattractive, but it sure is humdrum, its ordinary lines rehearsing ordinary deeds. Car & Driver called the new Aventador Superveloce “the very definition of a bedroom-poster car.” Everyone may want a Tesla, but nobody wants one adorning their wall. This is a practical dream, stripped of carnal passion. A supercar with love handles instead of haunches.

Undermining the supercar identity fantasy isn’t just an accident; it’s part of Tesla’s future legacy. The Tesla is not just any old car, after all. It’s the electric car that sounds the death knell for ordinary automotive life. If Elon Musk has his way, soon many more of us will be able to buy one. And if you live in a city such that the 200-mile range isn’t a hindrance, why wouldn’t you? They’re clean, energy-efficient, and fun to drive.

The Ford Model T was famous for being available in any “color that he wants so long as it is black.” Mass production required standardization, and in exchange, the automobile became affordable for the middle classes. In the ensuing century, automobiles became status and identity symbols. Now they are descending back into the realm of commodities. And Musk, the ultimate dispassionate futurist, is helping us discard our foolish emotional attachments to automobiles, partly by stripping them of anything worthy of attachment.

The Tesla Model X
(James Fassinger / Reuters)

Take the new Tesla Model X, a crossover electric vehicle with seating for seven, officially released today. It’s got the same power (and high price) of the Model S, but looks shorter and squatter, with a rear pair of gullwing doors (Musk insists on calling them “falcon doors”). Chimerical, this is the kind of car Napoleon Dynamite might fantasy-sketch on looseleaf. Full of earnestness, ticking all the boxes, earning closed-mouth smiles but also shameful private eyerolls. It’s not that Teslas are ugly, or even plain-Jane. That would make things easier. No, Teslas are aesthetically incongruous. A supercar that looks like a Hertz weekend rental. A monster with the head of a Mazda and the gut of a Bugatti. The final victory of Pontiac Aztec over Pininfarina.

Tesla’s just the start. Wait until we don’t even drive our cars anymore. Google’s prototype autonomous car is capsule-shaped and adorable, a design style meant to make robot cars familiar and non-threatening. But also: identical. Imagine, eventually, a sea of Google capsule cars and robotic Tesla Ubers whirring through the quiet streets that used to host a discordance of distinctive shells for their owner-occupants. Once commoditized, there’s little need for customization, since our identities, desires, and dreams will attach to other matters—the apps we run inside these cars, perhaps, or the ones we code furiously, heads buried in future tablets, while riding in them. And if you think the hypothetical Apple Car, rumored for 2019, will be any different in this respect, I invite you to take a look at the phone in your pocket.

It would be a better world in many ways: safer, cleaner, and less distracting. But also more homogeneous. It’s true that allowing aspirational consumer goods to establish the foundation of our identities is one of the sicknesses of capitalism. But Tesla’s (and Google’s, and Apple’s) alternatives hardly help us escape that sickness. They just redirect that energy elsewhere—and often to more of their own products and services.

Technology is not just a tool, it is also a uniform. Uniforms standardize the bodies they contain, redirecting the distraction of personality toward other, external matters. A uniform is a membrane that outsources appearance and persona to a larger context. And today, that context is technology itself. Adopting the standardized garb of automotive technology might well usher in a new era of more efficient, cleaner transport—God knows we need one (unless, you know, we funded public transit instead …). But in so doing, it may also require that we implicitly endorse a new default master-identity: that of pure efficiency, where individual joys become wasteful excesses to be reincorporated into the machinery of technologized attention capital.

Just as the smartphone has become a centralized, standardized window onto the world, so soon the automobile might soon do the same. There, fantasy and ideals—even foolish ones wrought by the lure of advertising—become invalid rather than just misguided. Why bother cultivating an identity defined in part around an automobile when the automobile is poised to become a mere appliance, a commodity for conveyance? Better to redirect that energy toward your new Apple Car app or your Uber X flexworker microbusiness or your favorite data-harvestable, Google-operated pastime. Silicon Valley’s dispatch of automotive aspiration doesn’t end aspiration, it just redirects it—back toward Silicon Valley.

It’s no wonder we lust after Italian automotive design. The automobile wasn’t just a symbol of power and freedom, but also a valve for raw, individual passion. The stallion and the bull. Dreams of amplifying our inner ardor out into the big, anonymous world through the leather and wood and metal and rubber of a machine that we controlled, rather than it controlling us. These were and remain foolish dreams. But at least they were ours.