Haters Gonna Hate: The Atlantic and Tesla’s Model 3

If T. Swift says it, you know its true: Haters gonna hate.

Yesterday, the Atlantic published an article by Ian Bogost titled “The Tesla Model 3 Is Still A Rich Person’s Car.

I have three main issues with the article.

First, the evidence that it’s “still” (the car was only introduced a little over a week ago and won’t be produced, at best, until the end of 2017) a rich person’s car is not exactly strong.

Second, even if now it is a rich person’s car, who cares?

Third, even if Tesla only ever primarily produces cars for rich people is that a valid criticism?

First things first: Bogost’s support for his claims do not inspire confidence.

To prove his point, Bogost points to a Mashable profile of seven people who spent $1,000 to reserve the Model 3 and how they’re mostly young, white, rich, and live in the Bay Area.  In addition to the major issue of small sample size (it’s problematic to be drawing many conclusions from a group of 7 out of 276,000), it’s not exactly surprising that a white writer who works for a media company focused on technology and digital culture and who found his subjects on Twitter might have found a group of people who are somewhat similar to himself.  It’s also not clear that the group is actually rich.  Only two of the seven are current Tesla owners (and it’s probably a good indication that they are doing well given the cost of the currently available Tesla models).  One person noted that she was going to use the long wait to save up for the purchase of the car itself, indicating that she’s not rich.  The other four people profiled don’t give any indications that they are rich and, in fact, some indications that they aren’t exactly ballin’ out of control (one is a 24-year-old marketing manager who drives a Honda Accord).

Bogost cites evidence that the average down payment for a car in 2015 was $3,488 and concludes that “[f]or the average person who needs a new car, tying up a third of a down payment in electric vehicle futurism is an unaffordable indulgence.”  But why?  The reservation payment is refundable and interest rates are so low that the opportunity cost is quite low.  It could even turn out to be a good investment, which the author even concedes, so it’s unclear why the reservation should be viewed as an unaffordable indulgence.

So the evidence supporting the major premise of the article is, um, not super strong.

Second things second: Even if the vast majority of people who reserved a Model 3 are rich, why does that matter?

Why would we expect any new product to be widely adopted years before its released, especially by people without lots of disposable income?  Most new technology is originally adopted by rich people and then as the technology becomes cheaper it becomes more widely adopted (that’s actually been Tesla’s not-so-secret plan).  It seems like an odd and unnecessary criticism of a new product to state that it hasn’t completely transformed the market in which it competes years before it’s even released. The true test of the Model 3 will occur when reservations need to be converted to sales and the car actually begins to be produced.  I think it’s very likely that sales will be very high, and not just by rich people, but we’ll have to wait to see.

Third things third: What if Tesla only ever produces cars bought by rich people?

Let’s ignore the issues of the evidence underlying Bogost’s claims and let’s ignore that we’re years away from the Model 3 actually being produced.  Let’s assume that in the future only rich people will buy Model 3s.  Would that be the worst thing in the world? If Tesla is successful with the Model 3, and the number of reservations has exceeded all expectations, it will be building lots of electric cars.  Cars that would otherwise be chugging gasoline and spewing emissions will be replaced by cars that don’t produce emissions (although the electricity used to charge the cars often won’t be emission-free, studies indicate that the electric cars are better for the environment than gasoline-powered cars and that’s likely to become even more the case as renewable resources power more the grid).  If Tesla “only” manages to transform the car industry for rich people, that would be quite a feat and a huge victory for the environment (and also likely would lead bigger companies to make stronger pushes into the electric market).

So, haters are gonna hate.  But this probably isn’t the best time to hate on Tesla.

And I’m only a little biased because we reserved a Model 3.  ; )

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