FREMONT, CA — I’ve been covering Tesla for over a decade. My first meeting with Elon Musk took place at a now-closed Tesla showroom in Los Angeles, long before he became the model for Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” movies, and long before Tesla was producing 100,000 vehicles per year.
Tesla was barely selling a few thousand of its original Roadsters back then, but Musk harbored much larger ambitions: electric cars for the masses.
The company has, quite, obviously, come a long way. Last Friday night at its factory in California, the mass-market car finally arrived. The first 30 Model 3s were handed over to mostly Tesla employees, while thousands of other Tesla employees looked on.
These people have sweated blood for Musk and his vision for a decade; it was fitting that under a benevolent Northern California sky, on a pleasantly cool night, they would get their big reward. They were as much the stars of the show as Musk or the car itself.
In the car business, it’s pretty easy to get overly bound up in, you know, the cars. Especially the exotic, sexy ones. But underneath the shiny metal and powerful engines, there are always people — people designing the cars, people engineering the cars, people building the cars, people promoting the cars, people selling the cars.
A palpable sense of pride
As it turns out that, despite my years on the Tesla beat, I’d never before visited the factory, a sprawling facility that was once jointly operated by General Motors and Toyota. Something like 6,000 employees now work there, all of them hired by Tesla.
The sense of pride at the place is palpable. I was immediately reminded of the last car factory I toured, a little operation in Maranello, Italy started by a former race-car driver back in the 1930s named Enzo Ferrari.
Ferrari’s objective is to build a fraction of the vehicles that Tesla does. But Ferrari also wants the people who build its cars to believe that without them, there would be no glorious prancing horse logo, and that kids the world over would be deprived of aspiring to someday, someday own one of the company’s beautiful machines. Basically, that something vital would be missing from the world.
Tesla wants the same thing. The goal isn’t about thrills, though. Rather, the master plan, as Musk has articulated it, is to do something BIG — to tackle global warming. Electric cars have no emissions. And if you generate the electricity with renewable energy (such as with Tesla solar panels) then you’re taking away the pollution caused by transportation, a massive worldwide threat.
Musk has always understood that a huge number of people were going to have to work together to address the threat. That’s why last week’s spectacle at the Tesla factory was so inspiring. The rockstar CEO, the guy everybody was waiting for, didn’t make it about him. The first Model 3s went to employees, while employees watched and employees emceed and employees cheered.
Power to the people
Musk knows who will build the cars that will start to move the global needle on sustainable transportation. It’s the people who show up every day and punch the clock at the Tesla plant.
I should point out that Tesla isn’t unique in this respect. The auto industry admires and respects its workforce, even though management and labour sometimes lock horns. But that’s just business.
With the Model 3, however, Tesla is starting to look like it could get big. A $US35,000 electric car that gets 220 miles of range and can do 0-60 mph in under 6 seconds sounds like something that a lot of folks might want to buy. In fact, Tesla now estimates that roughly 500,000 people do want to take that plunge and are willing to plunk down $US1,000 each for a place in the line.
It’s often said that the car business is tough, and it is. “It’s cutthroat,” Bill Ford, Jr., great-grandson of Henry Ford, once told me. “You have to fight for every sale.”
Tesla has charged into that battle and is under no illusions about what the future holds. Musk said that company faces at least six months of “production hell” before the Model 3 starts rolling off the assembly line in force. And it may indeed have to fight for every sale.
But Musk was right to make the company’s biggest night ever all about the rank and file. Tesla is going into a huge fight that it needs to win. But it has an army. And right now, that army is feeling like it can’t lose.
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