Elon Musk isn’t known for being a practical, by-the-book guy. At different points, the newly minted second-richest person on earth has started a company to implant computer chips into human brains, championed the colonization of Mars, and gotten himself sued for calling a British rescue diver a “pedo guy.” His daughter with musician Grimes is named X Æ A-12. At times, his bizarre tweets and behavior—exacerbated, reportedly, by copious use of Ambien—have wreaked havoc at Tesla, his signature electric car company. And no one would suggest his businesses produce wares for ordinary folks on a budget. So it’s an interesting branding collision that his cars are now finding favor with, of all people, cops.
As protests over their racist use of force and calls for cutting their funding mounted this year, some police departments were in the process of integrating electric vehicles into their fleets—some in the service of citywide climate initiatives and others just to save money on gas and maintenance. Although Tesla’s sticker prices are generally above standard police cruisers’—a new Model 3 costs around $38,000; the Model S, $70,000—departments that purchased the cheaper Model 3 report considerable savings on fuel and maintenance.
The next few years could see a brave and strange new era of U.S. climate politics. Climate advocates in recent months have reiterated the need for a full-government mobilization to deal with the climate crisis. But for many progressives uncomfortable with the excesses of the military and national security state—particularly climate and environmental justice advocates who deal firsthand with police violence—the prospect of mobilizing these branches of government could be an uneasy one. Such decisions are already playing out in miniature at the local level, where cities looking to lead on climate begin greening police departments that many would like to defund. Tesla, for its part, seems eager to cash in.
“It was pretty simple,” Todd Bertram, police chief of Bargersville, Indiana, told me. “We needed to save a lot of money because we wanted to hire more officers,” who can cost upward of $100,000 per head. “Salaries and wages and fuel and maintenance are the two biggest things we spend our money on.”
Bargersville—with a population of just under 8,000—has 14 cars in its fleet, which includes cruisers and trucks. Before acquiring its first Model 3, those had been Dodge Chargers and Durangos. After doing some research with the city council, the department eventually decided to buy a Tesla, citing both its performance and the cost-savings potential.
Indiana state law doesn’t require public agencies to go through a formal bidding or procurement process for purchases under $50,000. So just like any other customer, the department put down a deposit on the Tesla website and got its car. (Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, having unceremoniously dissolved its public relations department last month.)
From there, the Bargersville police department worked with its usual auto outfitter to make around $11,000 worth of changes to use the Tesla as a patrol car: installing lights, radar, antennae, and a partition commonly known as a “prisoner cage.” Bertram said it “wasn’t any more expensive to do the Tesla than the Charger.” So far, the department has gotten three Teslas and ordered two more that it plans to outfit for regular use by next year. Mostly, departments that have purchased Teslas are choosing to phase in electric vehicles once cars in their operating fleet have run their course.
The police department in Fremont, California, had a different set of motivations, linked to a citywide sustainability plan. “We wanted to do our part and test out an all-EV vehicle to see if it was a reasonable option for police vehicles around the country,” Police Chief Sean Washington told me. Local governments ordinarily don’t control where their electricity comes from, so upgrades to city fleets are one of the areas where municipal climate initiatives can make the most impact. Often, police cars are the biggest chunk of those. That Tesla has a flagship factory in Fremont was incidental to the department’s decision to bring a used 2014 Model S into its fleet in January 2018, Washington said. It bought a Model Y in July.
Westport, Connecticut’s police department acquired a Model 3 last year, which it uses mainly for highway patrols. “Our entire premise for purchasing this vehicle was to ascertain if it would be an alternative to the now-hybrid vehicles being produced by Ford and other patrol car manufacturers,” Police Chief Foti Koskinas said in an emailed statement. “An eco-friendly vehicle with a five-star crash rating seemed to be a good fit for this community.”
After a lot of skepticism, Bertram says his officers in Bargersville were eventually won over after getting behind the wheel. “Cops don’t like change, typically. So that’s part of the battle.… You have to force their hand. Once you force their hand, they go.” While departments have gotten questions about the cost, most have found the vehicles end up paying for themselves, given savings on fuel and maintenance, some within a year. Each of the departments I spoke with said they’d been inundated with calls from other departments since bringing Teslas into their fleets, mostly from the U.S. and Canada but also from departments abroad.
“It’s really quick, and it’s really quiet,” Bertram told me: A Model 3 can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in as little as three seconds. “We do a lot of zipping through the neighborhood trying to get to the back of the neighborhood for calls. That it’s quiet has been beneficial a few times,” he added, but mostly that’s been a hindrance, since pedestrians, bikers, and animals won’t hear them coming at high speeds.
There are other things police like about Teslas. Equipped with Google Maps, the 15-inch display screen in the center console “is very handy while you’re looking for a suspect or you need to see your surroundings very quickly. You can zoom in and see if there’s a lake or water in the backyard,” Bertram said, noting that suspects frequently hide in water.
Going by the accounts of police officials whose departments have its cars, Tesla appears to have dedicated staff working with police departments. Bertram has been in regular contact with Tesla, mostly on an ad hoc basis to troubleshoot things that could be improved for police performance. The company reached out after his department’s Model 3 purchase started making headlines, he told me. “It’s little stuff,” he said. “The headlights on this car are wonderful headlights—they’re bright. But when you get out of the car, the emergency equipment stays on, but the headlights turn off after a minute. So I emailed Tesla. In the next update, if you turn the headlights on instead of leaving them on auto, they will stay on until they run the battery down.”
Asked about the content of his interactions with Tesla, Bertram says it’s mainly been about providing feedback: “What would the police like to see in this car? What are my biggest complaints? How could they make this car a better police car? They’ve put an engineering team together at Tesla” to sort through these questions, he said. “I don’t know if that’s their sole focus, but I deal with a couple people on the regular with those ideas.”
After getting its Tesla, Koskinas confirmed by phone, the town of Westport signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company to keep the department, as he put it, from sharing information with “third parties.” An IT officer in the department, whom I attempted to contact for this story, keeps in regular communication with a specialized team from Tesla, according to Koskinas. Among other collaborations, he said, “we are working on possibly using their cameras, instead of using additional cameras for license plate readers.” He declined to comment on Tesla’s broader aims for the program. Bertram’s department in Bargersville didn’t sign an NDA, after lawyers advised him it would likely run afoul of state public information disclosure rules. Fremont confirmed it hadn’t signed an NDA, either.
Such partnerships between police and corporations are nothing new. Motherboard’s reporting last year found that some 200 police departments have worked with Amazon to “encourage” use of its Ring surveillance systems through departmental promotions. Participating departments could request footage from the cameras installed. The Los Angeles Police Department—which has also begun to use Teslas—purchased surveillance software from Palantir in 2007 with corporate funding.
Tesla isn’t the only manufacturer looking to usher police into the clean energy future. Electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian recently filed a patent this year for a seat that would be more comfortable for officers carrying guns, which butt up against normal seats. “We frequently file patents on designs and ideas,” Rivian Public Relations Director Amy Mast wrote in an email. But Rivian’s light-duty vehicles, she added, “are positioned squarely in the consumer space.… We don’t market our pickup or SUV to fleet audiences or customize vehicles for fleet sales. That said, we’ve been gratified to see municipal and utility organizations of all types place Rivian preorders independently. Most are just a vehicle or two, and they don’t represent a significant portion of our order total.”
At the national level, especially, government procurement can play a major role in stimulating new technology. Mobilization around World War II brought lucrative government contracts to companies that manufactured everything from shell casings to synthetic rubber, even if their CEOs were often uneasy about the role that gave Uncle Sam in their day-to-day operations. With the likely prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate, procurement may soon be highlighted as one of the ways the executive branch can drive decarbonization. Companies that already produce electric vehicles could come to play a much larger role outfitting government and even military fleets looking to go green, accepting generous subsidies and purchasing agreements.
Green weapons manufacturing isn’t a new idea, either. Back in 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency worked with Lockheed Martin and several other companies to launch a Climate Leaders program intended to “develop corporate-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories and set aggressive, long-term GHG reduction goals.” In 2017, the EPA gave Lockheed Martin a Climate Leadership Award, citing its Go Green 2020 program aimed at quadrupling its on-site renewable power generation. Progressive Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, have been open to the idea of greening the military, too, joining top generals—including James Mattis—who have publicly worried about the risks rising temperatures pose to the military. The Pentagon has been performing regular assessments of the risks posed by climate change for decades, acutely attuned to the threat global warming and rising sea levels could pose to its military assets and operations.
President-elect Joe Biden has surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers who have spent four years looking to build lucrative bridges between the national security state and Silicon Valley. The idea of a green national security state could gain traction in the near future—whether that’s solar-paneled Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention facilities housing climate refugees or arms made in carbon-neutral factories and sold off to U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. Complicated as it might seem, there are paths to decarbonizing the U.S. economy that could preserve many of its less savory facets, from gaping inequality to mass incarceration; from concentrated economic power to forever wars.
All this could put progressives in a delicate position, if decarbonization moves along faster than a transformation in what the state does and whom it serves. Swapping green vehicles for gas-guzzlers is, theoretically, a win for everyone who lives on this planet. But greening branches of government so they can more efficiently widen the gap between the haves and have-nots certainly won’t spell victory for everyone on it. Climate change may not be inherently political. But climate policy will be.