On a snowy January morning in 1985, the future of electric motoring was launched to a befuddled press. The Sinclair C5 was one of the great pioneers of clean electric motoring, back in the days when most vehicles were still running on leaded fuel and batteries were something you put in the back of your TV remote.
It bombed spectacularly. One journalist branded the three-wheeler an "aerodynamic bathtub" while another called it an "oversized electric skateboard.” Dr Murray MacKay, head of the Accident Research Unit at Birmingham University, said at the time: "It's a sort of milk float you're putting into the traffic stream.”
By the time motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss lined up to give it a kicking, it was not looking good for the company. Production stopped after just a few months, leaving only 14,000 units to trundle silently off the production line. Clearly, the world wasn’t ready for electric transport.
Fast forward to April 2, 2016, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is tweeting, frantically. He has filed some 232,000 orders in just over 24 hours for his latest attempt to bring electric motoring into the mainstream: the Tesla Model 3. “Future of electric cars looking bright!” he types, before following up with: “Definitely going to need to rethink production planning…"
The orders placed so far equate to $7.5 billion — not bad for a day’s work. More significant, however, is how those figures show the big difference between the Model 3 and Tesla’s previous releases. While both the Model S and Model X were more luxuriant choices aimed squarely at the middle markets, the Model 3 is an electric car for the masses — complete with a $35,000 price tag and a 215-mile range.
According to one Carnegie Mellon professor, the Model 3 could have shifted more units in one day than the entire U.S. plug-in auto industry in 2015. All that, and the final production Model 3 hasn’t even been built yet, only due to arrive in showrooms in December 2017. That’s some serious market confidence right there.
Yet Musk has every right to feel confident; while electric cars have been infiltrating our roads steadily over the past few years — including the BMW i3, Renault Twizy and Nissan Leaf — it is arguably only Tesla that has managed to really capture the public’s imagination. Its products, like the Model S, which became the biggest selling car in Norway, take a different tack from the competition.
While the Tesla name is synonymous with electric travel, its cars don't feel the need to shout at everyone that you are an eco warrior every time you take a trip to the shop. They blend into affluent neighborhoods like a well-moneyed chameleon, and have all the qualities traditional upmarket consumers are on the lookout for: sleek design, plush interiors, cutting edge technology and a palpable sense of quality in everything about them. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, looks like Jar Jar Binks.
The Model 3’s lines are dazzlingly futuristic, combining a dash of Porsche Panamera with a slice of truncated Aston Martin Rapide. Inside it has the polished minimalism you would expect for the Apple generation, with a hefty dose of Minority Report thrown in for good measure. All the usual dials, buttons and gauges you might expect in a traditional car have been ditched, replaced by a single giant 17” flatscreen. Clearly Musk has realized what Hyundai and Kia have in the past few years: good looks sell cars.
It also seems that throwing silly money at R&D has paid off, too. Consider this: Tesla spent $181.7 million on research in just three months of 2015. This was almost entirely channelled into the firm’s biggest hand — battery technology — and with it Tesla hopes to knock the public’s electric anxiety out of the automotive game.
Over the past 20 years, the world’s wider perception of rechargeable technology has shifted from "ecological luxury" and "unreliable liability," to an accepted part of everyday life. We used to run a Walkman for weeks on AA batteries; now we will happily charge our smartphone or smartwatch once a day. However, public unease still lingers when it comes to cars.
Superchargers are Tesla’s answer; free connectors that will charge their cars in minutes, instead of hours. These stations are strategically placed throughout America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) to minimize stops during long distance travel. Each station contains multiple Superchargers to minimize the wait, and they are conveniently located near restaurants, shopping centers, and Wi-Fi hot spots. In short, they are the world’s fastest charging stations, acting much like gas stations do to conventional, combustion-powered automobiles.
The Model S is currently the only EV capable of charging at up to 120 kW, which equates to 170 miles of range in about 30 minutes, but you should expect the same for the Model 3. There are currently 613 Supercharger stations worldwide, containing some 3,628 Superchargers, and this number is expected to rise rapidly. Suddenly electric cars are starting to sound tantalizingly close to regular cars...
But here’s the thing: right now, Tesla actually runs at a loss. Musk was a co-founder of PayPal, and the understanding is that he has used a large chunk of his personal stash to bankroll Tesla. At age 44, the South African-born Canadian-American business magnate is one of the second millennium’s most successful people, understanding that modern business works by overpowering and outspending the next man in a frantic scramble to the top of the pile. Here, there is little room for competition, and Musk is banking an awful lot on achieving "industry standard" status.
Even though the Tesla boss once reportedly said Steve Jobs was “kind of a jerk,” if there isn’t a copy of the late Apple CEO’s autobiography somewhere in his 20,248-square-foot Bel Air mansion, a lot of people would be surprised. Think of the Superchargers like iTunes. As with Apple, getting hold of the supply — whether that's music or electricity — means you start to get a hold on the market. Incidentally, Apple itself is working on a rival electric car according to Musk, calling it California’s "open secret.” Clearly, even when you sell the fastest sedan in the world (the Model S reaches 60mph in 2.8seconds), the race to being market leader is not yet in the bag.
And, paradoxically, the bigger Tesla gets, the harder it may become to sell cars. As you might expect, right about the time that people started queuing outside Tesla branches to put down a refundable $1,000 deposit for the Model S last week, the naysayers started slinging mud.
You see, Tesla is currently riding a wave of interest in a U.S. federal government tax credit, worth $7,500 to customers of electric cars. The credit begins to phase out for a manufacturer’s vehicles when at least 200,000 qualifying vehicles have been sold for use in the United States (determined on a cumulative basis for sales after December 31, 2009). In other words, not all of those ordering a Model 3 are likely to get this handy discount.
Tesla is hoping that the buzz has already been created and that, even without this financial incentive, interest in electric vehicles will hang around long enough to make the company a household name. The company's detractors are banking on exactly the opposite.
CNBC did a poll following the launch, asking people who put down their refundable deposit whether they would actually buy the car once it came to stumping up the final sum. While it’s not the most reliable methodology, two-thirds of those polled said they would. With Model S sales running at over 50,000 last year, this could equate to well over 250,000 cars sold in a year (including the Model X SUV, when it arrives).
That’s certainly not bad for a company as relatively young as Tesla. But consider, for a moment, that there are almost 90 million cars produced globally every year. That figure has almost doubled since 1997, and the vast majority of them are running on good old gasoline. With the Model 3, Tesla might have shown the world that electric car is here to stay, but one thing’s for certain: it’s got a very long road ahead of it indeed if it wants to pull into pole position.