In June of 2008, the very-wealthy co-creator of PayPal, Elon Musk, and then-California Governor (and actor) Arnold Schwarzenegger, confirmed codename WhiteStar. This was not the plot to an Expendables movie. This was reality, and the groundwork for the Tesla Model S had been set.
Project WhiteStar was the second phase of Elon Musk’s master plan for Tesla, which he had been chairman over since 2004 but took over as CEO as well in 2008. He’s now the longest sitting automotive CEO working today.
Musk’s dream was to build an electric sports car that would lead to development of an affordable and practical electric sedan, which would lead to an even more affordable model, and so on. This was called the master plan, and it was outlined all the way back in 2006.
Over a decade later, Tesla has produced a roadster, two sedans, an SUV, and revealed plans for a compact crossover, semi truck, pickup truck, second-generation roadster, an ATV, and hinted at an upcoming van or bus. It kind of feels like they’re straying from any sort of plan at this stage, but that’s not the point.
Tesla also built two massive battery and assembly factories in Nevada and Shanghai, and altogether, has delivered approximately 255,000 electric vehicles this year alone, with sales focus now shifting to Europe and China.
It has been a decade of unprecedented growth and hasty flattery as the rest of the automotive industry now pivots to unloading billions of dollars of investment into EVs, but is Tesla really responsible for the change?
Certainly. The Tesla Model 3, a compact electric sedan styled to look like Neo’s molting mouth in the interrogation scene at the start of The Matrix, was the best-selling premium car in the U.S. in 2018.
It beat BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Volvo, Lincoln, Infiniti, Cadillac, etc.—companies with decades, a century in some cases, of manufacturing experience—and the Model 3 dominated in just a little over one year of sales. As a company, Tesla beat out every other luxury automaker, starting from scratch, just over ten years after rumors of the WhiteStar affordable electric sedan began.
And Tesla made itself into a veteran almost as quickly as it debuted. I remember being at a presentation for the Polestar 1—a Volvo-related plug-in hybrid gran tourer serving as the flagship of an all-new electrified vehicle brand, Polestar executives were not shy about hailing Tesla as the harbinger of the electric revolution. (They also think it’s a crime for interior car design, to be fair). But still, this is a new marque that is impossible to imagine existing without Tesla popping up first. It was Geely, the parent company of Volvo and Polestar, starting an entire new car company based on the promise of what Tesla accomplished.
Tesla’s 10 years involved acquiring a manufacturing facility in California formerly owned by Toyota, building a battery factory, developing a sales and service network (though it still has many issues) despite many state governments forbidding direct sales. Tesla was marketing an innovative new technology to (or against) the society that invented the Hummer and actively ignores climate science, and maybe most impressive of all, overcame the daunting task of creating an international charging network, and making sure it works quick enough to seem reasonable.
But for everything Elon Musk and Tesla got right, for much of the decade it has felt like a company perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, embarrassment, and failure.
Musk reflectively claimed Tesla was on its “death bed” in December 2008 amid the economic crash that saw other automakers like General Motors and Chrysler take government bailout money to avoid bankruptcy. A last-minute investment from Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, saved Tesla from certain doom, and the company controversially secured further financing from the U.S. government in 2009.
Musk claimed to be broke in 2010 for supposedly investing all of his money into Tesla. In late 2012, Musk claimed Tesla had to produce 400 of the Model S per week to break even—prior to the Model S, Tesla had only made just over 2,100 cars, ever. And then in 2013, two other American EV startups, Coda Holdings and Fisker, filed for bankruptcy.
Musk previously claimed Tesla wasn’t financially stable until around 2014, but even through 2018, the automaker still has never posted a profitable year.
Then there was the Instagram scuffle with Azealia Banks last year accusing Musk of using drugs around the same time the executive tweeted about potentially making a weed joke while taking the publicly-traded Tesla private without legal review—which counted as securities fraud and ultimately lead to Musk stepping down as chairman and paying a fine of $20 million.
It sounds silly now, but Tesla was at serious risk of being forced to abandon Musk altogether, had the SEC or Tesla’s board decided Musk should step down from the company in the interest of investors.
But Musk is a central part of the madcap energy of Tesla. The company famously avoided traditional marketing practices, instead relying on the super-stardom of an executive who dreamed of living on Mars, building and selling flame-throwers and, in his spare time, revolutionized the way Americans think about electric cars. He also sometimes calls people pedophiles on his Twitter account with 30 million followers.
All of these scares through the years highlight one thing, though. Tesla has succeeded up until now because it’s been flexible and vulnerable (though not always intentionally), two qualities you are not going to find in the halls of most traditional automakers that rely on five-year development cycles for new vehicles based on the same technology as the cars they’re replacing.
On one end, this flexibility leads to a literal fart machine in the center console’s massive 17-inch touchscreen tablet on Tesla’s cars. On the other, it leads to Tesla ditching complex plans for a hybrid Model S with a combustion engine early on, unmatched energy density in batteries, and a raving mob of fans desperate to torture their families with their vehicle’s speed while recording for all of the internet to watch, because it’s funny at least the first time.
Before Tesla, electric cars were penalty boxes. They were depressing, silent hatchbacks car companies screwed together to meet emissions regulations. The industry was actively against innovation in the segment. The Fiat 500 EV was such a joke the company’s executive openly mocked it and begged people not to buy it!
The Nissan Leaf, still the best-selling EV ever, still falls more within the pre-Tesla confines of electric vehicle design, even though it benefits from Tesla’s work rebranding EVs as cool.
Now, though, it may be fair to say Tesla has accomplished what it set out to do. Elon Musk always challenged other automakers to go up against him, and used to offer to work with them on development of their own cars.
Now VW is electrifying its entire lineup, and building charging stations across the country. GM claims it’s introducing 22 new electrified models in the next few years. Hyundai and Kia sell four full EVs between them. Volvo is going fully electrified, there’s an electric Mustang, Zero Motorcycles has government contracts, and you can buy a Porsche that makes almost no noise and can’t close in on 300 miles of range for nearly $200,000—and people claim to want it!
Tesla isn’t solely responsible for the EV market. There are so many other factors, from the rise and fall of gas prices to the general shift in education and discussion of the climate crisis.
But regardless of has happened outside of Tesla, it emerged out of a time when everyone wrote off EVs as impractical, ugly, expensive, and not worth the trouble. Tesla just had to stick around long enough to prove everyone wrong with something practical, beautiful, affordable, and then go through a decade of hell to make it work. And it’s just managed.