The Rhetoric Behind the Silent Car

The Rhetoric Behind the Silent Car

As politicians and environmentalists are clamoring about energy sustainability, very few people are the ones actually taking the initiative to make a difference. There is a lot of rhetoric being thrown around in campaign ads and on the floors of our legislative bodies, but the undeniable reality of the situation is that recognizing the problem is not enough, that we must be working to solve the problem. One such innovator that is actually actively pushing a solution to our dire energy situation is Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity. Musk, an avid environmentalist, believes that energy sustainability is one of the cornerstones of pushing the human race forward and he believes that the best way for us to actively move towards a more sustainable society is to to make the switch from our gasoline guzzling automobiles towards the efficient electric cars. Our nation, drunk on oil as it is, will only be able to push self-sufficiency and renewable energy when it first achieves sobriety from our addiction. As a sponsor offers aid and an exitway to the alcoholic, Elon Musk is offering us an escape from our dependence, the ability to cut ourselves off from gasoline completely, the completely electric car. However, it is up to us, the people, the stubborn change-resistant people, to accept the salvation. In order to change the public’s perception of electric cars, Elon Musk designed one of the most sleek, and technologically-advanced cars (in short attractive to the consumer) cars to show that electric cars don’t have to be the boxy, unattractive vehicles created in the past by other manufacturers. Musk himself write, “It is designed with the aspiration of not simply being the best electric car, but being the best car of any kind,” (Musk, “The Tesla Approach”). On numerous occasions he makes sure to exemplify the traditional car aspects of the Tesla cars that consumers value such as:

Car & Driver assessed the Roadster as having the best 30 to 70 mph acceleration of any car they tested in 2007 (and possibly ever), and that’s where I really notice the difference…No need to think about downshifting and getting your rpm into the torque sweet spot — you’re always in the torque sweet spot with an electric car…Try to do that on a Viper or a Porsche Carrera GT and you’ll burn out your clutch within a week and destroy your rear tires. (Musk, “Driving P1”).and “Model S also has the largest automotive touchscreen in the world and the ability to add new features and capabilities over the air, just like your computer or mobile phone,”

(Musk, “The Tesla Approach”).

Even though the Tesla Model S has turned many heads throughout the country, gaining national media coverage and awards, Elon Musk’s greatest challenge continues to be the nation of hardheaded Americans who are resistant to change. There has been a lot of opposition against Tesla from numerous sources and for varying reasons including environmental impact, safety, Tesla’s business model. To further convince the American people of the viability of electric cars, Elon Musk has taken to popular media sources and the Tesla Motors Blog to use his rhetoric in attempts to speak out in defense of Tesla and its motives.

As reducing the environmental impact is the ultimate goal of Tesla cars, one of Elon Musk’s primary rhetorical strategies is to appeal to the pathos of his readers by stressing the environmental benefits of the electric cars as he claimed “…The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution,” (Musk, “The Secret Tesla Motors Plan”).

One of the most common arguments that opponents often argue against Tesla is the “Longer Tail-Pipe Argument.” They claim that using electric cars does not in reality help solve the carbon emissions as it just pushes the carbon burning from the car to the power plant. Elon Musk directly counters this abuse by pointing out the fallacy in the argument because of the fact that the opponent assumes that the electric power plant is using the same source of energy as the gasoline car. Electric generators, unlike internal combustion engines, are not limited to oil as a source of energy; they can use numerous sources with less carbon footprint such as solar, hydro, wind, nuclear, and geothermal. To impress this fact in the reader’s mind, he devises an anaphora: “a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil,” (Musk, “The Secret Tesla Motors Plan”).

But if this still does not convince the naysayers, Musk proceeds to be the devil’s advocate and assumes that the power plants use nothing but fossil fuels. He responds that:

The H-System Combined Cycle Generator from General Electric is 60% efficient in turning natural gas into electricity. “Combined Cycle” is where the natural gas is burned to generate electricity and then the waste heat is used to create steam that powers a second generator. Natural gas recovery is 97.5% efficient, processing is also 97.5% efficient and then transmission efficiency over the electric grid is 92% on average. This gives us a well-to-electric-outlet efficiency of 97.5% x 97.5% x 60% x 92% = 52.5%…Bringing the math together, we get the final figure of merit of 2.53 km/MJ x 86% x 52.5% = 1.14 km/MJ

(Musk, “The Secret Tesla Motors Plan”).

He continues on with similar terminology for an additional 2 paragraphs. These technical paragraphs have a double purpose. First, for the opponents who cry out the Longer Tailpipe Argument, proves that the argument is bogus using math, statistics, and chemistry. This appeal to logos, is an effective one that essentially puts the environmental issue of electric cars to rest once and for all. Then, for the audience, those that are impartial on the issue coming in, he attempts to use an appeal to ethos to his advantage. He increases his credibility by making it seem that he is intelligent (I am not implying that he is not) by “bombing” the reader with statistics and scientific “jargon.” He further backs up his claims with an appeal to ethos by citing Stanford graduates that he got data from, using the Stanford name and the value of name-brand recognition it carries in our society to his advantage. Regardless of whether his audience understands the science behind the calculations, they can still recognize them as being scientific in nature, increasing Musk’s credibility (Musk, “The Secret Tesla Motors Plan”). This form of presenting the information is useful as it is effective against multiple audiences instead of just directed at one. He reuses the same strategy in numerous blog posts, another notable one being the one in which he explains why ethanol is not an alternative to electric cars. In this post, he writes:

Let’s consider the specific example of the United States vs. Brazil (production is taken from the Oil & Gas Journal and consumption from the BP Statistical Review, 2002 data). Oil consumption in the US is 27 barrels per person per year (BPY) vs. 4.2 BPY in Brazil, but the US also produces more oil at 11 BPY vs. Brazil at 3.35 BPY. Therefore, Brazil has to close a gap of 0.85 BPY, whereas the US has to close a gap of 16 BPY, resulting in a per person supply/demand imbalance 19 times greater than that of Brazil! Moreover, the US has a population 50% greater than Brazil, but has less arable land and a shorter growing cycle. If the US had the same per person oil usage as Brazil, it would be a major oil exporter. This is why the “Brazilian Miracle” is still limited to Brazil (Musk, “Ethanol, Ethanol Everywhere”).Once again, the strategy Musk employs is essentially the same. To satisfy those who actually understand the information he presents, his logic is sound and he calls upon a reliable source for his data in order to maintain his credibility. To the more casual reader, his technical jargon, despite being economics rather than science this time, achieves the same effect of overwhelming the reader in a way that he feels compelled to assume that what they are reading is so complex that it must be correct. He further enhances his own credibility when talking about the efficiency of ethanol vs Solar Panels, claiming “Another way to think about the problem is that plants are essentially just a very inefficient way to convert sunlight into stored chemical energy. Crops typically have a net efficiency of about 1/2% or so, compared with commercially available photovoltaics at 20%” in effect promoting his other company SolarCity, by appealing to the reader’s ethos by once again calling upon numerous University names that are regarded as prestigious in our society: “From a discussion I had with Prof. Nate Lewis at CalTech” and “There is an excellent paper by Pimentel, a professor at Cornell, and Patzek, a prof at Berkeley…”

(Musk, “Ethanol, Ethanol Everywhere”).

While Musk recognizes the importance of the environmental impact of a car, he recognizes clearly that the primary concern of vehicle buyers is safety. Musk uses his knowledge of what his audience values to his advantage. When responding to the fires that occurred in Tesla cars, he recognized that safety is something that the average consumer values far more than specific environmental concerns, and so he used far less jargon than he did in the environmental sections, as seen in these quotes:

Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan

(Musk, “Model S Fire”).


Since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries (extrapolating 2012 NFPA data). However, the three Model S fires, which only occurred after very high-speed collisions and caused no serious injuries or deaths, received more national headlines than all 250,000+ gasoline fires combined. The media coverage of Model S fires vs. gasoline car fires is disproportionate by several orders of magnitude, despite the latter actually being far more deadly. Reading the headlines, it is therefore easy to assume that the Tesla Model S and perhaps electric cars in general have a greater propensity to catch fire than gasoline cars when nothing could be further from the truth (Musk, “The Mission of Tesla”).

In these situations, he uses only an appeal to logos to convince the public that the car is safer than gasoline cars. He explains the situation in simple English, while still maintaining the facts, without dissolving into technical jargon as he did in the environmental articles because the topic is far more solemn and important to the average consumer. Musk has a clear grasp on how to adapt his rhetorical strategies based on the rhetorical constraints of the situation he is presented with. Furthermore, because safety is such a sensitive topic, in the article “The Mission of Tesla” (aptly named as in and of itself, the is an appeal to pathos, convincing the reader that safety is the mission of Tesla), Musk explains that:

Our primary concern is not for the safety of the vehicle, which can easily be replaced, but for the safety of our customers and the families they entrust to our cars. Based on the Model S track record so far, you have a zero percent chance of being hurt in an accident resulting in a battery fire, but what about other types of accidents? Despite multiple high-speed accidents, there have been no deaths or serious injuries in a Model S of any kind ever

(Musk, “The Mission of Tesla”).

in order to convince the reader that they have nothing to worry about in a Tesla car.

In situations that are not as solemn as those involving vehicle accidents, in order to connect with the reader, Musk often makes subtle jokes in writing. However, when he employs humor, he does it subtly instead of forced and still gets his main message across. For example, when talking about the safety of batteries in the Tesla, he says “I wouldn’t recommend them as a dessert topping, but the Tesla Motors Lithium-Ion cells are not classified as hazardous and are landfill safe.” In this quote, Musk clearly addresses the main point of the section of the article, but at the same time uses the humor as an interesting hook to grab the reader’s attention (Musk, “The Secret Tesla Motors Plan”). At times, Musk even uses mockery to achieve his point. In response to NJ Governor Christie’s decision to ban Tesla direct to customer sales in New Jersey, Musk writes “The rationale given for the regulation change that requires auto companies to sell through dealers is that it ensures “consumer protection”. If you believe this, Gov. Christie has a bridge closure he wants to sell you! Unless they are referring to the mafia version of “protection”, this is obviously untrue.” At this point, Musk is trying to convince the public that Chris Christie is in the wrong on the Tesla ban legislation. While disguising his ad hominem attack as humor, it is in reality a skillful attempt to attack the credibility of Chris Christie by reminding the readers of a well known scandal involving the subject of the attack. By linking Christie to a past situation in which he was in the wrong, Musk implants in the minds of his readers that Christie is probably in the wrong in this situation as well (Musk, “To the People of New Jersey”). Even though Ad Hominem attacks are debate fallacies, in the real world of rhetoric, they can be effective tools for guiding the audience’s thoughts.In this situation, Musk effectively used the attack to set up his audience to accept with more open minds (or closed against Christie, depending on your perspective) his reasoning on why Christie is in the wrong:

Governor Christie had promised that this would be put to a vote of the elected state legislature, which is the appropriate way to change the law. When it became apparent to the auto dealer lobby that this approach would not succeed, they cut a backroom deal with the Governor to circumvent the legislative process and pass a regulation that is fundamentally contrary to the intent of the law

(Musk, “To the People of New Jersey”).

Musk appeals to the audience’s pathos, assuming that the audience values the law and people who keep their word, thus setting up his wording to present Christie decision’s to go against both of these values.

In the struggle over the right for Tesla to sell directly to the customer, circumventing the dealership, Tesla has received a lot of opposition. In defending the company’s model, on top of the ad hominem attack, Musk also uses several other claims to make his point. Along with citing the economical needs of the company to avoid the dealership model, he also uses the public opinion polls as an appeal to ethos to convince his audience. He writes:

Consumers across the country have also voiced their opinion on the sales model they prefer. In North Carolina, a Triangle Business Journal poll found that 97 percent of people polled said Tesla should be allowed to sell cars directly. A poll by the Austin Business Journal showed that 86 percent of respondents were in favor of direct sales, and in a Los Angeles Times poll 99 percent of respondents came to the same conclusion…We have not seen a single poll that didn’t result in an overwhelming majority saying they preferred the direct model to the traditional dealer model. Democracy is supposed to reflect the will of the people

(Musk, “To the People of New Jersey”).

Through this, he attempts to gain more credibility by calling upon someone the public holds in high regard, themselves, the public.

Elon Musk, is a well-versed in the craft of rhetoric and can adapt and use it to the situation he is in order to achieve his purpose, convincing the public of the viability of electric cars. He uses several appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos in order to counterargue the attacks on Tesla’s purpose, specifically its environmental impacts, safety and business models. His public image is one that is very influential and in the coming years, his continued advocacy for the electric car will push more and more Americans into the light about the reality of our automobile future. Once the noise for electric cars increases, other companies will be compelled to move into electric cars, in the end achieving Musk’s true goal for Tesla, to convince to world of the viability of electric cars and move us towards a more sustainable transportation infrastructure for all mankind.


Musk, Elon. “Driving P1.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 29 Feb. 2008. Web. 03 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “Ethanol, Ethanol Everywhere, Time to Stop and Think.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 06 Sept. 2006. Web. 01 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “The Mission of Tesla.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “Model S Fire.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 04 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between You and Me).” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 02 Aug. 2006. Web. 02 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “The Tesla Approach to Distributing and Servicing Cars.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 22 Oct. 2012. Web. 01 June 2014.

Musk, Elon. “To the People of New Jersey.” Tesla Blog. Tesla Motors, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 01 June 2014.