In the Washington D.C. area EVs are still rather rare, to include the Model S, Tesla Motor’s all-electric luxury sedan. Not only did I get a chance to photograph a pack of them, I also got to talk to their owners.
The meetup was held on the top level of a parking garage at Tysons Corner Galleria, a swank shopping mall in Northern Virginia. The mall is also home to one of two Tesla stores in the region with the other located in downtown Washington D.C.
On the way to the meetup I kept thinking - who buys an electric car, let alone a Tesla?
That’s a relevant question given that regulatory requirements, both federal and state, will require some form of zero emission vehicle and electric seems to be the lowest hanging fruit…for now.
After parking and grabbing a few lenses from my bag, I made my way up to the roof.
When I came out of the elevator there were 26 Teslas huddled onto one side of the mostly-vacant parking garage: 23 Model S and 3 Roadsters.
I expected to turn the corner and see something akin to a World of Warcraft gathering, but instead it looked like every other car meet I’d attended.
A male dominated collection of people outfitted in automaker-branded apparel, lingering in small groups around similar-looking vehicles.
The duration of my visit was spent listening. Every time I approached someone I was asked, “Which one is yours" and my response always led to a curiously guarded “Thennnn why are you here?”
You’d thought I’d snuck into a meeting of automotive masons.
Listening was ideal and helped me seem less like an outsider. You know, Hawthorne Effect and all. I learned a lot throughout the morning, but one thing stuck with me; Model S owners didn’t buy an electric vehicle, they bought a Tesla.
“This brand doesn’t just see the future, it is the future” said one owner. After asking another owner how he had enjoyed his car he said, "[Tesla] will change the world.”
Changing the world is a tall order, but to many of these buyers Tesla was an investment in the future. Suffice to say it didn’t hurt that this investment came in the form of a stylish luxury vehicle.
At the end of the day, it was still a car meet
Dressed head-to-toe in Tesla, owners greeted one another and made introductions just as I remember from my meetups as a Corvette owner.
The only difference: instead of headers and intakes these owners talked software updates and utility permits (charging stations).
One owner, animated with excitement, couldn’t wait to organize a Cannonball-like run from Maine to Florida once Tesla’s East Coast supercharger stations were completed.
Stepping back, savoring a complimentary munchkin, it dawned on me - are these the car people of tomorrow? Their object of passion, while slightly different than mine, is still fundamentally rooted in automotive.
And when someone gives up half their day to stand in 90-degree weather, shaking hands and sharing car stories with complete strangers: they’re an enthusiast and strangely enough that makes them one of us.
What did they drive?
Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf - all cars I assumed people would abandon for a Model S.
Boy was I wrong.
Throughout the day I didn’t meet one person who’d been driving a green car or showed any blatant support for polar bears, the ozone or Al Gore.
A Mercedes G wagon, 15 year-old Camry, C63 AMG and a BMW 750 Li - just a handful of the cars previously driven by Model S owners.
While many of the owners I met were what you might consider typical early adopters (show-offs, tech geeks, engineers, etc.), many seemed just as attracted to the visual appeal of the Model S as they did its technology.
Going back to my earlier question of who buys an electric car? - it’s sort of a stupid question to ask.
Instead of who buys an electric car the question should be who buys this car…that happens to be electric.
Think about it like computers.
How many people who switch from Windows to Mac understand the benefits of one operating system over another? I’d bargain very few if any. Loiter at an Apple display at Best Buy and listen to the questions asked by buyers looking to convert. You’ll here things like; “will my old mouse still work”, “does it come in black” and, my favorite, “can it run windows?”
For the masses buying an Apple computer it has nothing to do with the operating system - they’re buying what they identify as innovation in a stylish package.
From the very beginning Apple builds the marketing into the product. I believe a similar association will develop as Tesla’s products mature in the market and progress through the technology adoption lifecycle (see below).
The test for Tesla will be crossing The Chasm, a term coined by Geoffrey A. Moore in Crossing the Chasm. This is where a product lives or dies – where it transitions from early adopter to early majority.
Because the Model S has so much visual appeal built into it and because the owners having nothing but good things to say - it should make this leap with little to no effort, just so long as the retail network (sales and service) can support it and it isn't plagued with any horrific fiery deaths.
And just as people buy Apple products without fully understanding how they work or why they’re 'better'; they’ll do the same with the Model S...and future Tesla vehicles. To the early majority the Model S just becomes motoring innovation in a sexy metal box.
I spent half a day with Tesla’s owners and they had nothing but praise for the company and for their cars. If their positive sentiment is indicative of how other early adopters feel across the U.S. - Tesla has a very good chance to cross the chasm and they have a bright future in the automotive business.
Well done Mr. Musk, well done indeed.