Sometime in the late 1980s I bought my first Apple computer, a Macintosh. It was compact and as reliable as a Toyota. It made me more productive, and it paid for itself in less than a month with money that came from the freelance articles I churned out. I bonded with that computer and with Apple, the company.
In my mind, that original Mac helped me reach my potential, and because it was a challenger brand, I liked standing apart from the IBM and PC crowd. I am likely going to be an Apple customer for life.
Not only has every computer since that original Mac been an Apple product, but I have tuned out all other competitors ever since. There is no marketing tactic, no offer, and no ad any other computer company can devise that will get me to pay attention.
So I understand at least some of the mania around Tesla’s Model 3 introduction. Some 276,000 people have plunked down a $1,000 deposit for the compact electric sedan. Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises the car will start at around $35,000 and production will begin by late next year. The Model 3 offers consumers a chance to reject the establishment -- not just the Detroit 3 -- and align with something new.
“These are early adopters, tech geeks and those who want the latest and greatest,” said AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan. “Even if there is another choice or something that is better or more affordable, these types of people don’t seem to care. There is no logic to this behavior,” he added.
So what do you do if you’re the product development chief at a rival car company? Certainly the fervor over the Model 3 is getting looked at closely by Mark Reuss at General Motors, Raj Nair at Ford Motor Co. and Kiyotaka Ise at Toyota.
GM, with the Chevrolet Bolt, is up next with the launch of an electric car with at least the same basic cruising range as the Model 3, around 200-plus miles. But it’s too late to change the Bolt’s shape and much of its content as preproduction models are already rolling down the line; regular Bolt production is slated for late fall.
But does GM now take the Bolt’s electric powertrain and create a sleeker, more luxurious electric car with, perhaps, a Cadillac badge to take on Tesla? Does GM offer special lease deals to Model 3 buyers who are digging in for at least an 18-month wait?
If you’re Ford, does next year’s incremental bump in range for the Focus Electric, from 76 to 100 miles, plus fast charging, keep you competitive? Probably not. And what about Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, which have spent billions on fuel cell technology and have hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles already on the market?
With so many preorders for the Model 3, there’s pressure now on Tesla not only to deliver a flawless vehicle but to do it on time and for the promised price. But if the early Model 3 customers are like Apple fans, they’ll be more forgiving if the price and deadline slip.
With Model 3 orders climbing hourly, it’s also fair to wonder if the age of the electric car is finally here. IHS analyst Stephanie Brinley says no.
“Objections like cost, range and infrastructure are being addressed,” she said. “It is still a long, slow shift to EVs becoming a dominant choice. If each [order] turned into an actual sale in 2018, that would still add up to less than 0.5 percent of the global light-vehicle market,” Brinley said.
She also believes the large number of Model 3 orders has a lot to do with Tesla’s corporate image. “It is more reflective of the following and mystique that the Tesla brand has successfully generated.”
If you are an executive at a venerable automaker whose company is working on the same technology, seeing crowds waiting in line to lay down a deposit for a Model 3 had to have been tough to watch.
Take this from an Apple devotee: If Tesla is the automotive equivalent of Apple, the industry will be forever changed.