Who saw that coming? Tesla, having announced its semi-trailer to the world, whipped the covers off a successor to its first vehicle last week, the Roadster.
Its claimed numbers are seriously impressive: the 'base' car dispatches the 0-96km/h sprint in 1.9 seconds, and will have a top speed around 400km/h. Oh, and range is expected to be around 1000km.
That isn’t a misprint. One thousand kilometres. It’s an absurd number, no matter how you write it. The range-topping Model S P100D only claims 542km on a good day. Calling it game-changing would be a monumental understatement.
Set to launch in 2020, the car will cost US$250,000 in Founders Series trim, and potential owners have been asked to lay down a 100 per cent deposit. If you don't want the top model, the company is demanding a 25 per cent deposit on base cars, expected to cost around US$200,000.
Big money, no doubt, but the promise of an eco-friendly supercar will surely be enough to have the ‘one percent’ reaching into their pockets, even given the lack of detail surrounding the car. Elon Musk has a knack for convincing people to trust his vision, and that can’t hurt either.
But his magical knack, the ability to whip up frothy-mouthed excitement from a portion of the public and press – we’re looking at you, Electrek – has me wondering if the Roadster reveal wasn’t a magic trick of a different kind.
Illusions are, after all, built around the art of misdirection. And if the world is staring slack-jawed at the Roadster and Semi, it isn’t talking about the long list of troubles facing Musk and his electric force for disruption.
When the Model 3 launched earlier this year, the charismatic Silicon Valley venture capitalist said he hoped to be building 20,000 cars a month by December 28, 2017.
Last quarter, it delivered just 260 Model 3s. Two hundred and sixty. Another eye-catching number, but for very different reasons.
Earlier in November, the goal for full-scale Model 3 production drifted back three months – that means Tesla hopes to build 5000 cars a week by the end of March 2018, rather than December this year as originally planned.
Tesla is no stranger to big delays. The Model X was seriously late, after all, and the original Roadster was beset by a constant stream of hold-ups. But the Model 3 is more significant, because the brand has hinged its success on bringing electric power to the masses. It’s the cornerstone of the brand’s Master Plan.
Days the car isn’t rolling out of the factory in huge numbers is another chance for regular people – not forgiving early adopters – who bought into the Tesla dream with a Model 3 deposit to reconsider.
It’s a chance for them to stroll into the showroom down the street, sit in a plug-in hybrid from the established players and postpone their move into the pure-electric realm.
It’s also a chance for the cynical press (that’s me) to ruminate on whether the company has what it takes.
Let’s not forget the issues with the build quality of current cars, either. Early adopters have proven willing to forgive it, but the mass market isn’t likely to be so kind. The fact the Model X is hampered by highly-publicised build quality problems isn’t acceptable, especially at its price point.
I want to see the brand succeed, and its role in pushing EVs into the public consciousness is to be applauded. No company is perfect, and established players in the motoring world have problems of their own. Diesel cheating, for example. What a disaster that was – and continues to be – for the Volkswagen Group.
Above: The Model X has futuristic looks, but lacks the build quality to back its price
But the Roadster launch is a distraction, an answer to a question no-one is asking. We know Tesla can do acceleration. We know it can build a sexy car. We don’t know if the company can build a car to the standards expected of a volume manufacturer. It has never sustained a profit, either, and reports say it’s burning through cash at an alarming rate.
Which begs the question: why pour money into low-volume cars that don’t, on the surface at least, drive Tesla toward the completion of its own Master Plan?
Financial pundits have suggested each deposit on the Roadster (Founders Edition buyers are laying down US$250,000 upfront) is like an interest-free loan, a novel way of raising the capital required to bring the Model 3 up to speed. If the thousand Founders Series cars find a buyer, that represents a US$250 million injection.
There are plenty of EV believers out there with the money and desire to help Elon Musk, and this is one way of doing it.
There’s something else at play here, though. Regardless of whether the Roadster gets built on time – and I sincerely hope it does, so I can scare myself stupid with that acceleration – the timing of its unveiling smacks of desperation.
Will Elon Musk be able to keep the doubters at bay for long enough to get his house in order? That remains to be seen, but the way he’s gone about it is typical of sparkly Silicon Valley startups, not a pragmatic, engineering-led automotive firm.
Make no mistake, this stunt is an exercise in public relations, an illusionist’s sleight of hand rather than progress toward completion of the ultimate goal: bringing electric mobility to the masses.
Do you think Tesla is playing PR games with the Roadster? Let us know in the comments!