Beyond Walter Mitty: Living a Dream as the 100th Delivery

Sam Perry, President, Ascendance Ventures, 18 décembre 2008

Sam Perry is president of Silicon Valley startup consultancy Ascendance Ventures and a member of E2 – Environmental Entrepreneurs, the national independent business voice for the environment.

Sam gained fame last month after an intimate encounter with Oprah Winfrey was broadcast around the globe. Sam was caught in cameras standing next to the talk show icon in Chicago’s Grant Park on Nov. 4, when Oprah wept on Sam’s shoulder during Obama’s victory speech.

Several weeks later, Sam became the 100th person to take delivery of a Tesla Roadster. The company marked this important milestone with a Dec. 9 news conference at its Menlo Park, Calif., flagship store.

In an era where gas prices at the pump can spike to $5 a gallon and our country seems to be funding two sides of a war involving petrostate dictators, no dream seems more appealing than that of a low-carbon car that shatters preconceived notions of electric vehicles. And that’s just what Tesla Motors seemed like for many years – a quixotic dream.

Make no mistake: I was always a believer in the company. But as an early customer, supporter and minor investor in Tesla – one of the many anonymous backers who spread enthusiasm among friends, coworkers and neighbors -- even I felt occasionally a bit like James Thurber's ineffectually daydreaming character Walter Mitty, haplessly envisioning a fantasy world doubters could not see.

Well, doubt no longer!

Not only will we soon have a president who is unequivocal about the need to combat climate change head-on, Tesla has now delivered more than 100 vehicles and has become a legitimate – if nontraditional – member of the global automotive industry. I now have a Roadster that drives with willful eagerness and exhilaration, supplying me with ample fresh air and “quietude” even Henry David Thoreau would appreciate.

And, perchance, I'm anonymous no longer.

During the historic election of Barack Obama in Chicago’s Grant Park last month, I happened to be standing next to Oprah Winfrey. We rejoiced together, and at some moments in president-elect’s emotional speech she also leaned on my shoulder and wept. We were both swept up in the “arc of history” that Obama described so poignantly.

In the days that followed, Oprah graciously dubbed me “Mr. Man” on her show, and lamented not having gotten my name. The media went on a nationwide manhunt to determine my identity. A producer for Oprah tracked me down and invited me to the show.

In interviews that followed, I have been honored to share my enthusiasm over the promise for economic growth in emerging clean tech and green businesses. At the top of my list of these innovations is, of course, Tesla. And so it was another great quirk of fate to learn that I would be the 100th person to take delivery of the Roadster.

Having determined delivery order only a few days before, Tesla hastily arranged a news conference Dec. 9 at the company’s showroom, where dozens of reporters, bloggers and TV crews gathered. Although many of us expected the typical local press corps, we also received a strong international contingent – a German documentary team, reporters from three French news organizations, an Italian TV crew and several Japanese and Korean journalists.

Elon Musk gave a quick speech before tossing me the keys of my new Radiant Red Roadster. (Incidentally, that’s the top choice of 2008 customers by a wide margin, followed by Twilight Blue and Thunder Gray.) Elon then he fielded a flurry of questions -- including several from me. After spending many years as a wire service reporter, it’s still hard to resist an interview opportunity.

Elon was adamant with reporters: No, Tesla was not at all foundering financially, but it proceeding prudently and with new funding. Yes, Tesla is likely to show an operating prototype of its sleek four-door, five passenger, Model S by late in the first quarter of 2009, and it is getting closer to showing a model for under $30,000 to be launched with a partner. No, Tesla was not seeking a bailout — rather, it had applied for low-interest loans under the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, whose goal was to was to speed the time to market for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Finally, after clearing away the throng of video cameras and microphones, we opened the Roadster’s doors and took the top off, and I drove away -- silently and swiftly, far faster than the "zero carbon" folding bike upon which I'd arrived.

My first passenger was Menlo Park Mayor Heyward Robinson, who attended the news conference with former Mayor Kelly Fergusson and Dave Johnson, whom I'd brought in to help broker the deal which landed the Tesla store in my hometown. Then I zipped off to a business meeting in Half Moon Bay, a glorious drive at dusk with a waxing, near-full moon overhead.

Unlike other sports cars and "muscle" cars I've driven, the tremendous torque feels ever-present at any speed. And unlike my Prius hybrid, there is simply no hesitation.

My only caution: The car is addictive and provokes strong emotions. The first woman to take the passenger's seat had long disdained any interest in cars aside from as a mode of transportation. Yet within the first mile, she asked if she could be buried in the Roadster!

Contrast that with my mother’s reaction, more than three quarters of a century ago, when she asked to be dropped off a couple blocks away from school so her classmates wouldn't ridicule her parents’ Detroit Electric. Incidentally, their car later became a phone booth. Mine won’t meet such a fate, and, no offense to my passenger, nor will it become a coffin.

The fully capable electric car has returned, and it’s alive and flourishing – surpassing its internal combustion engine counterparts in so many respects.

It’s almost hard not to lord over the “nattering nabobs of negativity” who might have dubbed me Walter Mitty or doubted the viability of Tesla: Every time I open my garage, she's there -- radiant, ready to leap back onto the streets with her all her quiet, sleek and dashing prowess.