Sharper Image founder misses the point–a lot of points–while going to the aid of Tesla

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida Headshot
Updated Dec 4, 2018

The kids and I enjoyed spotting the new EVs buzzing around town until Hurricane Michael hit. In less than a day, the latest battery-powered vehicles suffered a setback thanks to a major grid collapse.

The vehicles we saw following this historic Category 4 storm in Panama City, Fla. were those powered by more familiar fuels that the EV industry has been working hard to replace. So if mobility is tantamount in the face of disaster—and it is—EVs failed miserably at a time when it mattered most.

I thought about that today after reading comments from founder and former CEO of The Sharper Image, Richard Thalheimer who weighed in on the great EV debate. It’s not every day that you come across a press release from a business tycoon that’s cheering on EVs and one of its major players, Tesla.

But first, is the debate that great anymore? Major engine and truck manufacturers are embracing the idea of electric mobility in even the biggest vehicle classes. Concerns over long-haul still remain given the same challenges with range and load capacity lost to the extra weight of batteries. Drayage and regional hauling are still viewed as the best fits for the biggest trucks. Smaller class EV delivery vehicles show real promise with plenty of stop-and-go traffic actuating impressive regen brake systems to power up those batteries.

Bottom line on Thalheimer’s take here is that he’s thumbing his nose at Bob Lutz, former head of Ford and Chrysler, and vice-chairman of GM, for his sharp criticisms of Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk and for allegedly missing the turn on EV technology. The article discloses that Thalheimer has been a satisfied owner of four Tesla cars.

Lutz has long been a proponent of EVs and ventured into that territory long before Musk. He backed the production of the Chevy Volt (later citing it as his proudest accomplishment) and even after retiring from GM, he has remained active in supporting EV development, including his chairmanship at Via Motors and founding partnership at VLF Automotive.

In the past, Lutz praised Tesla, Musk and the Model S. However, like many in the auto industry, he’s grown more and more concerned about Musk’s leadership and the growing challenges surrounding Tesla. So, he fired some shots at the embattled CEO and said the company was headed for bankruptcy. In September he reasserted that position during a CNBC interview by saying that company “is headed for a graveyard.”

Then finally, after 15 years of scraping by without making a dime (any other business would tank, but not one headed by a master of media pledging to save the world through EVs) Tesla reported a third quarter profit of $312 million in October.

That’s great. Happy to see it. About time, some would add. Now, on to the promised Semi and pickup where EV tech really needs to flex its muscles and earn some street cred.

So, while Thalheimer didn’t exactly reveal Lutz’ ongoing support of EVs and why he’s been so critical of Tesla, I don’t fault him for coming to the aid of an automaker that he greatly admires. Automobiles frequently become very personal subjects among their devotees. Blind devotion like that, however, can cloud judgement.

No matter how loud the cheering, legitimate concerns still remain: range, payload & towing capabilities (in the case of EV vans and trucks), battery volatility, battery sourcing (Cobalt mined by kids? No thank you), second- and end-of-life battery paths, charge times and charger availability.

It’s no secret that California has been among the most EV-friendly states in the nation. Incentives and chargers abound. However, where Florida has been battered by hurricanes, California has been devastated by earthquakes. So what happens when the lights go out? What’s the plan then? You can’t just run down to your nearest home improvement center and buy a DC-fast charger powered by a gasoline or diesel generator. If you can handle the wait, you can more slowly power-up an EV with a 110- or 220-volt generator (sine wave purity is key) or solar panels. Workhorse appears to be the only EV developer that’s tackled the power outage issue by equipping its W-15 pickup with a range-extending engine. The engine kicks in after the battery’s been depleted.

Here in Panama City following Hurricane Michael we lost power for nearly two weeks. Snapped power poles were commonplace. Verizon cell service was also down for nearly two weeks and we still do not have internet restored throughout the county. I’ve been relying on a data-hungry mobile hotspot for nearly two months.

I’ve said this before and this storm served as a great reminder: variety in powertrains is key. Unpredictable market conditions and unforeseen disasters (tornadoes, snow and ice storms also come to mind) can create big challenges in transportation. For a time, even diesel-powered vehicles and generators not under contract with government agencies had a hard time getting the fuel here in Bay County. We had to drive about 45 minutes away to another county to get diesel at one point.

So, the bottom line is knowing your powertrain’s limitations and preparing for the worst case scenario as well as you can. And keep in mind that if you’re in an area that’s prone to power failures (lightning strikes in Florida have taken out EV charging stations here) and fuel disruptions, plan accordingly. There’s nothing worse than being stuck and feeling totally helpless while some other guy is still trucking along.