The Greatest Showman: Is convincing people he could build more Teslas the greatest trick Elon Musk has ever pulled?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 20 Nov 2017 14:34

“A hardcore smackdown” is how Elon Musk describes his latest new car reveal, the Roadster. It arrived with no pre-launch hype or publicity. Instead, it emerged as a surprise from the trailer of Musk’s new Tesla Semi truck, which is another vehicle he claims will revolutionise transport.

Amid all of the high-fiving and back-slapping that accompanied the unveiling of this pair, there were also some very impressive statistics bandied about for each. The Roadster is claimed to be the fastest accelerating car in the world, knocking off 0-62mph in 1.9 seconds. That makes a Bugatti Chiron seem positively sluggish.

A modern-day P.T Barnum?

The Roadster is also said to come with 10,000 Newton metres of torque, or about 50 times what you find in a decently powerful executive saloon with a turbodiesel engine. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

As for the Semi truck, it can dash off 0-60mph in 20 seconds fully laden – 5 seconds if not carrying anything - and can be recharged in 30 minutes to cover 400 miles. On a full battery charge, it will cover 500 miles and it can tow a trailer unit of up to 36 tonnes.

Tesla says its new truck will be on the road in 2019, while the Roadster will follow in 2020. Right now, you can place a $50,000 deposit for this EV supercar against a total price of $250,000, though that’s set to come down to $200,000 after the first 1000 have been built.

The truck will set you back from $200,000 for a model with a 300-mile range, which is more than twice as much as a traditional turbodiesel rig costs and about half as far as that can travel on a full tank of gas.

Now, we’re getting used to Tesla and Musk’s ambitious launches and deliberate goading of the more mainstream automotive world. You can only shock for so many times before it becomes familiar and this is the danger zone that Tesla has strayed into.

The reason it’s dangerous territory is because the company has not delivered on its promises very much. Sure, the Model S is a very desirable alternative to executive and luxury cars with petrol and diesel, and even hybrid, power plants.

But the fact of the matter is Tesla has so far failed to follow through with the Model 3 – the car it claimed was the breakout model, the one that was going to make all other mid-sized hatches redundant. Guess, what? Volkswagen is still selling plenty of Golfs.

What does that have to do with the unveiling of an EV truck and radical sports car? Well, you have to wonder why Musk has decided to launch these vehicles when there is clearly trouble at t’mills.

This includes the facility at Fremont and Tesla’s gigafactory in Nevada, which is aiming to use no other power sources than the electricity generated from its own solar panels. Given it’s in the middle of the desert in the western USA, there’s no shortage of sunshine to achieve this.

Tesla factory

The gigafactory’s supposed to help Tesla build 20,000 Model 3s per month by the end of 2017. But Tesla has only managed to produce 260 of them in the third quarter of 2017, which is around three cars a day.

Given there are 400,000 deposits for the vehicle, each where the budding owner has stumped up $1,000, it’s going to take a while to fill that backlog. On current terms, you’d be looking at a waiting list of decades.

Hmm, not sure many will want to hang around that long to indulge Musk’s vision of the future.

And it’s not just these production delays that make us question the reality of Tesla’s vision. The Roadster’s torque figure is measured in a way that no other car maker uses, so we’re not comparing like-for-like here. Yes, EVs have masses of low end shove and that makes them quick off the mark, but you also cannot use that grunt for very long before it depletes battery charge very rapidly.

Tesla Roadster

Also, why are the first 1,000 Roadster customers being asked to pay a blatant premium for the car when they should really be offered a discount for putting their faith in the company and signing up to the future earlier than anyone else?

As for the Semi truck, its cost is its biggest hurdle. The transport industry is notoriously cost-sensitive and many companies survive on the slimmest of margins. Asking them to pay almost three times as much as their existing trucks for one with a much smaller range does not make sense.

Sure, some will adopt the Tesla truck for short-hop deliveries, but for those crossing the great plains of America, the Semi just doesn’t seem to have what’s needed to deal with these conditions.

Tesla truck

None of this is to deny the need for technical change and advancement in both the car and truck sectors. This column is also in favour of EVs and their wider use to help as part of the overall solution to more environmentally responsible travel for people and goods.

It’s just that Tesla has a whole raft of problems in its factory trying to make three models, never mind adding two more that bring many of their own challenges. If Elon Musk were to concentrate on those issues and resolve them before unveiling his latest ideas, we’d have more confidence in his business.

This is the crux of Tesla’s challenge. It’s lost credibility with drivers and those who might look to invest. It may have a ludicrously high valuation based on its potential, but the here and now doesn’t warrant that sum.

Magic trick

Is Musk just a showman who has decided a big splurge of publicity and a couple of headline grabbers is what’s needed to divert questions about his current problems? Perhaps.

Then again, we know he has the drive and ambition and money to see through huge projects. Who else could have got a new-start car company to where Tesla is now? Not many.

Still, Musk and Tesla must start delivering on their promises and numbers in the very near future if we are to carry on believing this company is a significant part of the automotive future. Should it fail, both will be end up as no more than intriguing footnotes in the annals of motoring history.

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