A shiny Tesla doesn’t turn heads anymore, at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teslas have become so commonplace that the once-elusive electric vehicles don’t feel that special.
This may be specific to California, the most popular state for Tesla purchases and EVs in general, along with a few other EV-heavy states like Florida, Texas, and New York. This past weekend a California gathering of more than 1,000 Tesla owners came together, just to celebrate the community around a car company.
As Kelvin Gee, vice president of the Tesla Owners of Silicon Valley club, and a Tesla meetup organizer, told me in a recent call, “the Bay Area is the mecca for Tesla.” Other cities and states have clubs, but many struggle to scrape together a handful of attendees at meetings and events.
Seeing this many Tesla fanatics in one place, one can forget that electric vehicles made up only 1.1 million of 276 million registered cars in the U.S. in 2020. EVs are not the norm — yet.
In EV hotspots like California you can see where electric is heading. When the Tesla Model 3 sedan first came out in 2018 I stopped a driver parking on a San Francisco street and asked them to show me the newest sedan with its sparse interior, self-parking abilities, and iPad-like touchscreen.
But three years later, it’s the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Polestar 1 and 2, and Volkswagen ID.4 vehicles that are grabbing the interest of Californians. And it’s happening right as Tesla has shifted from niche to household name, along with the other two ubiquitous all-electric cars that have risen to prominence, even as they stayed in Tesla’s more aerodynamic shadow: Nissan’s Leaf and Chevy’s Bolt EV.
A CarGurus survey on electric vehicles released in April found that Tesla is the leading brand preference. Toyota and Honda are close behind, both with plans to unveil plug-in electric options in the coming years.
Tesla leads in brand popularity.
Tesla’s eccentric CEO Elon Musk congratulated Ford when the Mach-E debuted at the end of 2019, recognizing that this is about the bigger EV picture. He seems unfazed by a new generation of EVs catching the public’s attention, but his loyal following might be more perturbed.
This week when Musk announced that Tesla would open its Supercharger network to other EV companies, club vice president Gee saw it as “an indication that Tesla wants other makers to be successful and will help the overall EV market grow.”
Tesla wants to promote EV adoption while bringing in revenue at charging stations from the new non-Tesla drivers who will start to use its infrastructure. That doesn’t sit well with some in the Tesla community who feel like Tesla is giving too much to newer, and potentially flashier, EVs from legacy car companies.
One profanity-laced response threatened a lawsuit (as did others), and protested that “Tesla has Prommised [sic] Supercharging without sharing it with others.” That user and many others also wrote they were worried about long lines and wait times. Another called the decision to open up the exclusive charging network “incredibly stupid.”
“Musk has always said all are welcome,” Cars.com executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder said in a phone call. Devoted fans conveniently forget that.
“There’s always going to be a degree of devotion for the company, the product, the service who are viewed to have done it first,” Wiesenfelder said. “You can’t take that away from Tesla.”
As Gee sees it, the Tesla community breaks into two groups. There’s the “legion of ardent fans” who only have eyes for Tesla. And then there are the realists, who want to promote Musk and Tesla’s stated mission: “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
We’re slowly getting there, one Tesla or Nissan Leaf at a time. EY, a global data firm, released findings this week from a June survey of 9,000 respondents from 13 countries that showed 41 percent plan to buy an EV as their next car. That’s up 11 percentage points from the same survey in November.
“To achieve the mission, you have to allow for other car manufacturers to be successful,” Gee said. He said he would never buy anything other than a Tesla again (he has a Model 3 and Model Y for his family), but it’s important that legacy automakers like Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen are transitioning to electric.
And it’s worth noting that non-Tesla startups like Rivian and Lucid are creating EV businesses from the ground up, without a history of internal combustion engine production.
But accepting the risk of being overshadowed can be a tough pill for that army of loyal Tesla and Musk fans to swallow.
Take a look at Twitter, a digital hunting ground where supporters of Tesla competitors get attacked mercilessly. A Tesla owner who dared to buy a Ford Mustang Mach-E was threatened for crossing “enemy” lines.
The Porsche Taycan versus Tesla Model S discourse gets aggressive quickly, as does any mention of Jaguar, Volkswagen, or Audi’s EV options. Any story about a Tesla recall, or a Tesla catching fire prompts Tesla fans to engage in a form of EV whataboutism in which they share links about Chevy Bolt EV battery issues and malfunctions.
The hostile environment that erupts to defend Tesla’s honor in the face of the many potential “Tesla killers” might cool off once the Tesla Cybertruck arrives. Tesla is at least guaranteed to be back in the spotlight for a while with the release of its cyberpunk electric pickup. Musk has even hinted at doors without handles.
But until then, the petty Twitter squabbles will continue. The Musk fans will never give up on Tesla, and, more importantly, his loyal army isn’t going to let any startup or legacy car brand outshine the OG EV-maker.