Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk is a notorious optimist, which is a good quality to possess when you're attempting to launch simultaneous revolutions in multiple industries. However, it's also a good reason to be skeptical when the company claims that the Tesla Model 3 it unveiled on Thursday will be a successful electric car for the mass market.
During the brief unveiling, Musk poked fun at himself and Tesla's habit of being late to deliver on their promises and also referenced problems with the vertically-opening doors on the Tesla Model X. This isn't a great reputation to have, let alone to have to acknowledge -- without explanation or excuse -- when you're literally standing on a stage promising to change the world with a passenger sedan.
More than a decade ago, when he was trying to get his commercial rocket company, SpaceX, off the ground, Musk predicted the company would be delivering payloads to orbit within a couple years. He was off by several years. He's made similarly bullish predictions about getting to Mars and self-driving cars in the next few years.
To be fair, Tesla has made big strides towards autonomous driving with its software that can function more or less as an autopilot in certain situations.
But the reason that I, and most other consumers, will not be driving a Model 3 anytime soon is that Musk fails to acknowledge that he cannot change the world on his own.
I live 75 miles from the nearest Tesla supercharger station, and to be honest, I was surprised to learn there was one that close to my northern New Mexico home. Yet even with the fairly impressive build-out of over 3,000 supercharging stations, almost none of the regular trips I make from my home for business around the state, or to Denver or to ski areas in the region, would be practical with a Model 3.
I'd either have to go far out of my way to follow an interstate route with Supercharging stations along the way, which still requires sitting around for 20-45 minutes for a charge, or track down lower-power outlets along my route that require waiting hours for a charge.
Does it make sense to pay $35,000 for a green vehicle that's best used for commuting and along certain coastal road corridors? Perhaps for the 150,000 that have already put down $1,000 to pre-order a vehicle that may still be two years away it makes sense. But I wouldn't call that a mass-market car, I'd still call it a niche vehicle.
This isn't to say that what Tesla is doing isn't worthwhile. It definitely is. The company has sold over 9,000 electric vehicles in the first quarter of 2016, far more than any other automaker. But to truly ignite a revolution, Musk is going to need help and if he wants the support of consumers, he should be more transparent and realistic about managing expectations.
In the United States, cars are about freedom and flexibility, but electric vehicles, even flashy ones like Tesla's remain more about being handcuffed to inadequate charging infrastructure.
For Musk's vision of getting us off fossil fuels to work, he's going to need to admit he can't do it on his own. Partnerships with local governments of all types coupled with some sort of business model that allows for commercial charging stations to become as ubiquitous as gas stations is the only way the Tesla Model 3 or its successors ever become a truly mass-market vehicle.