In the decade since its founding, auto start-up Tesla Motors has innovated in technology and marketing to change one of the United States’ most powerful industries. It is no coincidence that CEO Elon Musk heads both Tesla and the ambitious, frequently lampooned private space travel company SpaceX; transforming the American system of automobility has a lot in common with a moonshot. Cars permeate every facet of American culture and comprise a significant part of a national identity based on individual consumer expression and personal freedom. The United States has more cars than licensed drivers, and people the world over spend more money on cars than any other durable consumer good. The indispensability of cars in America positions them as the perfect leverage point to tip the United States away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, Tesla’s ultimate mission. However, Tesla’s success stems not from an emerging demand for sustainable products but from marketing designed for the modern world. Tesla’s real triumph lies not in making EVs, but in making people want them. Tesla taps into 21st century personal and participatory media culture through online ownership forums, encouraging communication among Tesla drivers and between drivers and the company. The cars themselves are highly personal and customizable as well, made to order with dozens of additional options. The classic underdog tale of taking on U.S. auto giants with the goal of saving the planet turns potential customers into fans who are deeply invested in the mission and want to join the Tesla community, buying in with their hearts as well as their dollars. Tesla advertising is almost exclusively achieved through word-of-mouth, social media, and ‘earned media’ sources such as news interviews with Musk, as opposed to the expensive TV ad spots of traditional car companies. Tesla also taps into the culture of the modern tech world with gimmicks such as the release party for the much-anticipated Model 3, hailed (at $35,000 before options) as an affordable Tesla for the masses. The event took on the flavor of a Steve Jobs-era Apple product reveal, complete with cheering fans and black-clad celebrity CEO. About 400,000 people pre-ordered the vehicle, an entire year’s worth of production for the small manufacturer. While the quality, aesthetic appeal, and high ratings of Tesla’s cars speak for themselves, the story the company has spun around their products has sparked a national conversation around sustainable vehicles.
To solve perceived barriers to electric car ownership and achieve its goal of transitioning the world to sustainable transport, Tesla’s business model goes beyond that of a traditional car company selling and maintaining its products. Teslas are individually made to driver specifications and delivered directly to consumers’ doors. Maintenance crews travel to drivers’ homes as well. The company has created a network of thousands of superchargers on highways around the world to extend their cars’ already impressive range. Superchargers equate roughly to gas stations, but provide their renewable electricity for free. Tesla also markets its own brand of in-home batteries to store solar energy generated by rooftop panels, which can then charge an EV or power a home. Tesla equips its vehicles with web-enabled computer systems to control and monitor the car, sending diagnostics and receiving software updates as the manufacturer rolls them out. Every cutting-edge car innovation, from so-called self-driving cars to the newly announced carsharing tool Tesla Network, sees Tesla pushing to the forefront. Tesla aims to provide every conceivable auto-related service to its customers, adapting to the desires of 21st century consumers by fostering a sense of connection with and dedication to drivers and making Tesla ownership increasingly convenient.
Tesla strives to outcompete and outperform similar gas-powered models. Consumer Reports called Tesla’s Model S “the best performing car [they] ever tested”, not just the best EV on the market. Anyone trying to change the world will have skeptics, such as Damon Lavrinc at The Drive, and Elon Musk’s status as a public figure makes him vulnerable to personal critique. However, the very traits skeptics berate—large, possibly unrealistic goals, unconventional financing, and a near-obsessive work ethic—reveal themselves as strengths in the presence of a dedicated consumer/fan base. Tesla has recently come under fire when cars using its Autopilot self-driving software crashed. The German publication Der Spiegel called Autopilot a “significant traffic hazard”. Self-driving cars do increase driver safety overall, though of course they are not perfect and people need to get used to the new techniques. Despite critiques, Tesla and electric vehicles have several obvious advantages on their side. Electricity—especially in conjunction with Tesla’s other products—costs and pollutes less than gasoline. The absence of a combustion engine leaves more room for cargo and passengers and reduces safety hazards. And the novelty factor of a beautiful, functional, customizable EV with a great story behind it entices many as the way of the future.
Hunt, Tam, “Tesla May Have Announced the Breakthrough Needed to Make EVs Affordable for Everyone”, GreenTech Media, November 4, 2016, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/has-tesla-announced-the-breakthrough-needed-to-finally-make-evs-affordable?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=gtmsocial.
Lambert, Fred, “Tesla Issues Thorough Response Following Harsh Critique of Autopilot by German Authorities”, Electrek, October 7, 2016, https://electrek.co/2016/10/07/tesla-issues-thorough-response-following-harsh-critique-of-autopilot-by-german-authorities/.
Lavrinc, Damon, “The Rock Star CEO Myth is Killing Silicon Valley”, The Drive, August 26, 2016, http://www.thedrive.com/tech/5013/the-rock-star-ceo-myth-is-killing-silicon-valley.
“More Cars than Drivers in the U.S” Road and Track. November 6, 2012, http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/a9672/more-cars-than-drivers-in-us/.
“Tesla Model S 2013-2015 Quick Drive”, Consumer Reports, 2015, http://www.consumerreports.org/video/view/cars/auto-test-track/2366240882001/tesla-model-s-2013-2015-quick-drive/.
“Tesla Unveils Model 3”, Tesla, March 31, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4VGQPk2Dl8.