The Cult of Elon Musk: A Night With the ‘D’ and Thousands of Tesla FanaticsBy
Steve Jobs used to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse before a presentation. Every moment of the event was choreographed, every word picked with purpose. Elon Musk does not do this. He wings it.
On Thursday night, the chief executive officer of Tesla Motors unveiled a new version of the Model S all-electric sedan at an event in Los Angeles. The short of it is that the car is amazing. It has two motors—one in the front, one in the back—and all-wheel drive. It’s a sedan that can go 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds. A sedan; 3.2 seconds.
“This car is nuts,” Musk said. “It’s like taking off from a carrier deck. It’s just bananas.” The car gets 275 miles of range and has a top speed of 155 mph, up from 265 miles and 130 mph. Shipments of the car begin in February.
On top of all this, Musk revealed that Tesla has already equipped the most recent cars coming off its assembly line with autopilot technology. There’s radar to sense and avoid objects. And Tesla has tied its GPS into the system to let some interesting things happen today and some amazing things happen in the future.
“You can step out of the car and have it park itself in the garage,” Musk said. “Later, you will be able to summon the car. It will come to wherever you are. There’s also something else I would like to do. Many of our engineers will be hearing this in real time. I would like the charge connector to plug itself into the car, sort of like an articulating snake. I think we will probably do something like that.”
The technology was certainly impressive, but so too were Musk’s performance and the event itself. Thousands of people showed up at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Los Angeles, and Tesla turned the area around the runway into a giant bar. The whole thing felt more like a concert than a product unveiling. People with cocktails banged into each other as they fought for more than an hour to get closer to the stage. When Musk first appeared, the audience erupted in cheers, and people held their smartphones in the air to get photos.
I’ve seen just about every major tech CEO of the past 20 years speak, and the closest comparison to this scene would be when Jobs talked. Musk has developed a loyal, rabid fan base, and it’s growing.
Early in his career, Musk struggled during public presentations, or at least appeared a bit awkward. He’s more engineer than showman and has the delivery to match. While Jobs had the time and inclination to polish his speeches, Musk has had no such luxury—he’s running both Tesla and SpaceX full-time—and generally seems to care less about massaging the moment. He just hops onstage and says what comes to mind.
On Thursday night, however, Musk really hit his stride. It might be because of the comedy leading up to the event. Musk had sent out a tweet last week promising to reveal the “D.” The letter ended up referring to the all-wheel drive, but the Internet, being what it is, could not help making tons of jokes about Musk possibly pulling something D-themed out of his trousers. Musk played to the jokes. “You will notice my pants have Velcro seams,” he said, as he walked onstage. “That may have mixed appeal.”
A few moments later, Musk brought the new Model S chassis onstage via a giant robotic red arm—“Release the titan”—and pumping music. The arm made picking up this huge chunk of metal look effortless as it waved the car’s body up and down, left and right, and in circles. “Robots,” Musk said, and then let out a master-of-the-universe smirk.
Musk, dressed in a long, black leather jacket, pointed to the airport’s runway and said everyone at the event could test-drive the new car. People lined up by the hundreds, got in the cars, and sped through a lighted tunnel. Tesla had never before put on this type of event.
The substance of what Tesla revealed lived up to the show. Because of Tesla’s electric drivetrain, the company can make the most out of its motors. Instructions sent out by the car’s computer do not have to travel through mechanical systems: They’re sent instantly to the wheels. “It’s like the equivalent of analog to digital,” Musk said. This means the car can deliver commands about how to take a corner, how to shift power from the front of the car to the rear, and how to tweak the car’s torque in milliseconds.
If Tesla wants, it can have one motor tuned for city driving and the other tuned for highway driving. It’s through the software and this clever programming that the new car actually gets more range than its predecessor, despite the added weight of a second motor. This is another example of Musk’s quest to make not a “good enough” electric car, but to make electric cars superior to internal combustion vehicles.
The major downside, of course, is that these cars remain very expensive. The Model S already costs a small fortune, and adding a second motor will bring the price tag up another $14,600. Tesla’s next car is the Model X, an SUV due out early next year that will be similar in cost to the Model S. The public is still at least a couple of years away from the Model 3, a car in the $35,000 range.
The Muskalites at Thursday night’s event certainly did not care about the price. While waiting for the gig to begin, I heard from someone who’s put in an order for the Model X. His friend recently offered another prospective owner $15,000 just to move up on the reservation list so that he could have model No. 700. Another person next to me already owns a Tesla Roadster and a Model S. When Musk revealed the new car, the guy turned to his wife and said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to get one of those.”