Book Review: "Insane Mode"

The new history of Tesla and profile of its founder proves eye-opening

Book Review: "Insane Mode"

One of the most significant shifts in our culture is happening so slowly that we may not realize its importance — the shift from gasoline engines to electric power in automobiles. Along with this is the shift from cars as primarily hardware to primarily software. Tesla is at the forefront of both of these shifts.

A fascinating new book by Hamish McKenzie tells this story and more.

McKenzie, the author of “Insane Mode: How Elon Musk's Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil,” worked at Tesla for a year-long interlude from his regular job of being a tech journalist. During his year at Tesla, McKenzie had to learn about something he knew little about — cars.

Judging by “Insane Mode,” he learned a lot — not only about cars, but about the history of electric cars, the workings of the automobile industry, the economics of energy, the role of Silicon Valley in next-generation cars, and more.

SUBSCRIBER BONUS: Read an interview with the author.

“Insane Mode” refers to a driving mode Tesla created to unleash the thrill of an electric car’s acceleration. It also seems to describe many aspects of Tesla and the electric car industry in general, an industry populated by colorful characters which is also poised to accelerate rapidly.

McKenzie has written a startlingly informative book. The American love affair with automobiles is so ingrained that we feel we have an intimate knowledge of where these beasts came from and why they proliferated. Within a chapter or two, you’re likely to learn many things you didn’t know — from the history of propulsion choices to the way auto dealerships work (and why they work these ways).

Occasionally, the author delves into jargon, such as when he describes the first electric car “mule” tests. Context solves the jargon problem, and the prose is better in that it avoids diversions down Didactic Drive, but you’ll be on your paces reading McKenzie’s narrative. “Insane Mode” is an energizing and informative read, not a slog or a lecture.

Other details are introduced nicely, such as issues with paint the first Teslas encountered, the evolution of Tesla’s leadership team, and the competitive landscape of the electric car market. In some passages, the minutiae of the automotive soap operas playing in China and the US seem unnecessary, but McKenzie brings things back around so the investment feels worthwhile.

As a reader, McKenzie took me into rooms, cities, and buildings I didn’t expect, and many I didn’t know existed. The electric car market is evolving quickly, and money is pouring into development. I also didn’t realize how the electric car and laptop computer markets work in concert.

The author has reported from Hong Kong to the EU to the US, synthesizing a lot of information about the pursuit of electric vehicles in multiple countries. The electric car is now a worldwide pursuit, with most of the new initiatives coming from China and the US. A major focal point is California, which for various reasons is now the nursery of automotive innovation.

McKenzie’s book comes at a time when changes in the transportation system are everywhere. In just a few years, Uber and Lyft have overtaken most urban taxi services for rides per year, hinting at what an autonomous future might look like. Consumers are using more delivery services, for anything from books to pizzas to toothbrushes. More than 15% of millenials are opting out of car ownership. Cars have more semi-autonomous features every year. This seems to be just a prelude to major changes we’ll see over the next decade.

“Insane Mode” will change how you perceive the societal, environmental, and even personal importance of the electric car. Before I read it, I viewed electric cars as a nice advance, and Tesla as a smart company. After reading McKenzie’s book, I now think the electric car may be a nearly existential improvement to human life on the planet, and I see Tesla as an idealistic stack of technological advances that have been brought to commercial life through grit, brilliance, and determination, often against all odds. I also view innovation differently.

Highly Recommend.

An interview with the author of “Insane Mode,” Hamish McKenzie, has also been published today for subscribers.

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