Tesla calls the Model 3, which the company revealed last week, “our most affordable car yet.” At a starting price of $35,000, they’re not wrong, but affordability is relative. In their eagerness to see Elon Musk’s electric car empire overthrow the old, traditional combustion engine, Tesla supporters might overlook how the Model 3 makes the auto market more uncomfortable for those who can’t already afford whatever they want anyway.
Tesla’s flagship Model S sedan starts at $70,000, and runs well above $100,000 when fully loaded. According to Kelly Blue Book, the average price of a car in America last year was $33,543, a 3.4 percent increase from 2014. By that measure alone, the Model 3 is competitive. And given the fact that, according to KBB, 80 percent of new-car buyers reported looking at an electric vehicle when in the market for a new car, it bodes well for the future of the electric segment.
Not that Tesla needs any predictions. Less than a week after opening reservations for the Model 3, Musk reported that Tesla had received 276,000 orders. At $1,000 per reservation, those pre-orders will easily reach $300 million in immediate revenue to Tesla and $10 billion in hypothetical future revenue. (Hypothetical because the reservation terms and conditions allow customers to cancel their order at any time, in which case the company will issue a full refund.)
Meanwhile, many hundreds of thousands of vehicles is a lot to produce, even for a more established manufacturer than Tesla. The Toyota Camry was the most popular car in America last year, with 429,355 vehicles sold, followed by the Toyota Corolla at 363,332 and the Honda Accord with 355,557. For its part, Tesla delivered 25,202 Model S cars in the U.S. during that same period. To put that figure in context, it’s about the same number of Lexus GX460 full-size SUVs or Fiat 500 hatchbacks that were sold last year. All of which is to say: For the Model S to reach Camry or Accord-levels of popularity, Tesla would have to ramp up its production capacity quickly and substantially to start delivering by its late-2017, as the company has promised. In all likelihood, many Model 3 reservation customers will wait longer than two years for their vehicles.
Despite the decidedly average sticker price, would-be Model 3 buyers are not necessarily average themselves. For one part, Tesla extended first dibs to its existing customers, which is just to say, folks who can afford $100,000 cars. For another part, it takes a special kind of customer to be able to drop $1,000 on the promise of a new car a few years down the road, even if the deposit can be refunded.
Consider the seven early Model 3 buyers that Mashable profiled this week. Even if anecdotal and skewed due to selection via Twitter, the sample points to an undeniable pattern: they are young, mostly white (one is South Asian), mostly male, mostly work in tech, and mostly live mostly in the Bay Area. One of the two women Mashable spoke with is a race-car driver who already owns a Model S. These are not everymen and women; they are elites. Tesla is still the BMW of electric cars.
By contrast, the average new car buyer in 2015 put down only 10.4 percent cash, which means that the average down payment was $3,488. For the average person who needs a new car, tying up a third of a down payment in electric-vehicle futurism is an unaffordable indulgence.
In fact, electric cars are exerting an under-discussed uncertainty on the car-buying market. The promise of cleaner, cheaper-operating electric vehicles—particularly at a price point that ordinary folk can afford—makes buying a traditional combustion or even a hybrid vehicle a riskier proposition than it was just a few years ago. Meanwhile, the conditions for electric-vehicle adoption have become less favorable since the Model S was introduced. For one part, some states have significantly reduced the tax incentives that made more affordable electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf appealing, pushing typical buyers back toward cheaper combustion vehicles. And for another part, falling oil prices dropped the cost of gas to under $2 at the start of this year. As with the hybrids that came before them, electric vehicles never offered an appealing financial proposition as compared to combustion-engine automobiles.
Meanwhile, the design of electric vehicles makes their affordability and broad appeal more limited than they appear on first blush. The Leaf, the Chevy Volt, and the Tesla Model 3 are all smaller sedans. It’s a popular segment, as Toyota’s and Honda’s sales figures attest. But such vehicles also assume a certain type of use: They’re mostly perfect for the urban commuter. In other words, these are vehicles for solo drivers, young professionals, and the childless.
Tesla’s Model X claims to be a crossover, but it costs just as much as the Model S (and that’s before we bring up the gaudy “falcon wing” doors). The company also promises a crossover rendition of the Model 3 (the Model Y, it’s been rumored), but the result would mostly offer an alternative aesthetic rather than a different function. Anyone looking for the EV-rendition of a minivan—you know, uh, families and stuff—has no business thinking about a Tesla, except as a bedroom wall adornment (and really, as if).
But it’s not obvious what they should be thinking about instead, either. This year, Chrysler is re-launching its minivan line as the Pacifica, including an option to add a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that can go up to 30 miles on electric power alone—although it’s not yet clear how much the option will add to the Pacifica’s roughly $30,000 base price. And who knows what better option might come along next year? New cars have always depreciated precipitously in the first two years, but the uncertainty surrounding the future of transport will hit ordinary buyers the hardest. A boon in affordable electrics will make late-model combustion cars worth less at resale or trade-in. And soon enough autonomous vehicles might come along and disrupt the entire sector anyway.
In such an environment, only the privileged can see the future of electric vehicles as concentrated excitement rather than as anxious uncertainty. For the ordinary driver, affordable electric vehicles mostly produce uncertainty about the wisdom of buying and owning any kind of vehicle whatsoever. Some might celebrate that body-blow to the American obsession with automobiles, but many U.S. cities are unlivable without a car, and investments in transit and other improvements to transportation infrastructure have been limited to non-existent.
Even setting aside the privilege of pre-ordering, even those who can afford a Model 3 and its associated deposit are not really buying a car, anyway. They are buying an option on a car purchase for some time in the future, a time implied (but not affirmed) by the relative order of the reservation. That means that some portion of early buyers might see the $1,000 fee as a speculative investment rather than a pre-down payment. The earlier you reserve, the sooner your option will mature. And the more people that appear to be ordering, the more uncertain the maturity of each subsequent option becomes. Meanwhile, the scarcer Model 3s become due to potential future production delays, the more valuable the underlying option to purchase one now at the fixed price of $35,000 becomes.
Of course, options securities only hold value if they can be exercised. And technically, Tesla’s reservation terms prohibit the sale, transfer, or assignment of reservations “without the prior written approval of Tesla.” Some pre-order customers might not bother reading the fine print, and others might not care. Or they might assume—and rightly, I’d wager—that Tesla will never turn down a $35,000 check on the table, no matter who signs it. And at worst, the legitimate Model 3 buyer could just transfer the title on the spot.
Sure, would-be Model 3 speculators might be better off just investing their $1,000 in Tesla stock instead. But they might not! $1,000 invested in TSLA two years ago would only have net roughly $200 in profit if sold today. And besides, there is no truer expression of the merger of the automotive and tech industries than the automobile’s conversion into a financial instrument. The Model 3 might look like a car for the everyman, and someday it might become one. But for now it’s something else entirely: a kickstartery way to back Elon Musk, who may not be worth backing. Even if Musk manages to pull off a string of huge deliveries, his success would likely trigger investment from the major car companies, many of which have a massive capital advantage over Tesla. Maybe that’s why the company’s stock has barely moved for two years.