Tesla certainly hasn’t been without its troubles lately, but the electric carmaker is still one of the hottest tickets in town.
The Model 3, the company’s newest—and most affordable—offering, boasted a waitlist of over 400,000 just weeks after its production was announced in 2016, and that number has only continued to climb.
Yet serious issues on the factory floor have led to a “production hell” that CEO Elon Musk has struggled to escape. Last quarter, the company only managed to manufacture 9,766 Model 3s—and it successfully delivered still less, with 8,180 shipping to eager owners. It’s a marked improvement over Tesla’s dreadful final quarter of 2017, which culminated in a mere 1,550 of the vehicles delivered, but still a far cry from far higher production numbers that have been repeatedly cited by Musk.
Still, the slow pace may actually help Tesla, as rarity and desire often come hand-in-hand. And the long list of waiters—who have already secured their spot in line with a $1,000 downpayment—don’t seem to be going anywhere. So what is it that’s really driving the Tesla appeal?
Navigating the Bottleneck
Silver linings can often look funny, especially since Tesla has somewhat of a reputation for flakiness: the detriment may have helped keep expectations in check for the thousands still waiting to hear back from the company with their vehicle delivery details.
That he’s still without specifics on his new car nearly a year after signing up for it didn’t come as a shock for Houston resident Jacob Magin, who ordered the Model 3 on May 21, 2017 and was told recently he could expect it sometime between this August and October.
“Unfortunately, not much has surprised me about the Model 3 rollout,” he said. “Musk seems to always overpromise and under-deliver on deadlines for every model that they have manufactured.”
According to waitlister Jacob Magin, “Musk seems to always overpromise and under-deliver on deadlines for every model that they have manufactured."
The same laidback attitude wasn’t quite as true for his brother, Ian, who’s also Houston-based and waiting to hear back about a car he signed up for last May 29. (Anticipated delivery date: sometime between August and October.)
“I’m a little nervous,” he said. “It goes back and forth as I hear different things. Obviously Tesla’s pumping all the great news that comes out and it seems like people tend to like the cars, but then you’ll see other people that talk about how it’s been poorly made.”
But, finding another sneaky lining of silver, Ian anticipated that by the end of his wait, things would be going more smoothly.
“I was recently on a plane next to a Model S owner, and he loves it, but he said to get the car ‘a year or two in’ so they’ll have worked out all the kinks,” Ian said. “So I’m not too upset about not being the first one in line. It’s just like your cell phone: you never really want to go and get the latest and greatest update. Usually, you wait a week or two and that way, they identify all the issues.” Still, being an early bird has other benefits—including a pretty big worm provided by the federal government.
Gimme a Break
San Diego resident Swetal Patel knew he wanted the Model 3 before production on the car had even begun.
Following up on his ambition, he was one of the first members of the public to join the waiting list, standing in line at one of the company’s California showrooms on March 31, 2016, hours before Tesla had even announced the car would be made. (His proactive approach was awarded recently, when his driveway started boasting a Model 3 all its own on March 28, 2018.)
“Tesla’s always had these interesting cars, and they’ve always done it with their own style and flair,” he said. “I knew even before seeing what it would be. It would be a little bit different—that they’d throw in all that technology, which is big for me. I like all the gizmos and gadgets.”
Aside from his inherent interest in the new-age technology, however, one of the main reasons Patel was eager to sign up so quickly for the car was the government’s tax credit program for electric vehicles.
Originally adopted in 2009, the plan was designed to incentivize the sale of hybrids and plug-ins, awarding up to a $7,500 tax credit for the new-age purchases. The credit applies to the first 200,000 models sold by a given manufacturer, and can range anywhere from $2,500 to the $7,500 cap, depending on the car’s battery strength and size.
(Once the 200,000 mark has been hit, the credits begin to phase out, applying to an increasingly smaller percentage of purchasers, though no U.S. manufacturer has yet hit the benchmark.)
“They said they were going to give the cars to Tesla employees first, people who already owned Teslas second, and then people who waited in line before the announcement would be next, so I figured I had a decent shot [at getting one of the first 200,000 Model 3s],” Patel said. “A lot of my wanting to get it early was hinging on that federal rebate.”
And some states offer additional incentives, including California, which sends rebate checks to purchasers of plug-ins to help cover the cost of the ride. All told, the programs could knock a total of $10,000 off the car’s $35,000 price tag—an offer good enough for Patel to consider the comparatively “tame” Tesla over the much racier car of his dreams.
“The dream car I’ve wanted since I was a kid was a Corvette,” he said. “So if the tax rebates weren’t in place to incentivize me, I would have probably gotten a much more gas-guzzling Corvette.” The embrace of electric motors is, of course, exactly what the tax credits were intended to foster, although many Tesla fans don’t need to be sold on the benefits of such technology.
Named after the man who discovered alternating current electricity, Tesla has been synonymous with technological innovation from the start, and in many ways, that embrace of the future is still the company’s biggest draw.
“When we first test-drove the Model S and saw all the technology in it, my wife and I were pretty impressed to say the least,” Ian Magin said.
And that admiration extended to the Model 3, as well.
“Everything is controlled through the touch screen,” he said. “But having all that and, especially with the Model 3, doing it all with the minimalist design is what impressed me.”
Still, arguably the most impressive technology the car boasts is found under the hood.
Patel would know. With a daily commute of nearly 60 miles, he’s already put nearly 1,000 miles on his Model 3. But the car was built to handle such a vigorous daily routine, with a battery-powered engine that can travel up to 310 miles in a single charge, he said, and can draw its energy from the same outlets he uses to “plug in a hair dryer.”
The smaller outlets don’t allow for charging to happen as quickly as a larger-voltage circuit—such as the 240-volt hook-up used to power a washer and dryer, which can give the battery 30 miles worth of juice per hour, Patel said—but even the 3-miles-per-hour rate generated by the standard outlet is more than enough to get him to work and back after an overnight charge.
Plus, the tortoise approach comes with other advantages.
“You want to charge it as slowly as possible, to keep the battery in as best shape as possible,” he said. “Faster charging wears the battery more quickly because it causes it to heat more. Usually, you want to stay somewhere between 20% to 80% charged, to get the best longevity out of the car you can.”
Still, the praise falls short of addressing the most visibly faulty pieces of technology in the vehicles: the autopilot.
Tesla has frequently made headlines over the years, but the company received all the wrong ones recently, when a Model X operating in autopilot mode was involved in a deadly California crash after the computer navigated the speeding car into a highway median.
While the news is upsetting, the incident alone wasn’t enough of a reason for Jacob Magin to pull out of the waiting list.
“According to Tesla, if you are driving a Tesla equipped with autopilot hardware, then you are 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal accident,” he said. “After test-driving the Model S, I truly believe this stat and look forward to other auto manufacturers producing cars with this technology.”
Patel also tracked the news and said that, while sad, the incident was indicative of an autopilot program “still in beta,” one which his own ownership of a Tesla—and vigilance behind the wheel, even while in autopilot mode—could, in fact, even help to improve.
“Tesla works by adding sensors and cameras to the car, so they collect real-time data and process that and send it back into the neural network,” he said. “So the more I drive, the more it makes my experience better as well as all the other people in the network who may benefit from this.” And, he said, generating all those miles won’t be a problem.
For the Fun of It
Aside from its environmental benefits, the electric motor offers a vastly different driving experience from the standard combustion engine, which many Tesla fans also consider a big part of the appeal.
The trick is that the models operate free of gears, meaning any pressure on the pedal is instantly translated to speed, with an adrenaline-pumping boost of torque.
“The instant you step on the accelerator, you’re flying,” Patel said. “It kinda makes it feel like you’re driving a rocket.”
The swift navigation was also enough for Ian to quickly move from “test driver” to “waitlister.”
“They make it easy for you to sign up for a test drive, but I understand why,” he said, laughing. “Don’t go test drive it unless you’re planning on buying one.”