Four years ago on a small stage in downtown Detroit, a cautious, nervous Elon Musk shared a vision.
In a room packed to the exits, he asserted that Tesla could turn a profit, build a dealer network and change a culture around electric vehicles.
“By 2020, we should have 500,000” cars sold, Musk told me at our annual Automotive News World Congress. “But I think we’ll probably continue past that. … By 2025, we will probably get to a few million cars a year. We will just keep driving our volume as high as we can.”
Musk came as an electric champion, a voice of reassurance in a sea of doubters.
“We are cutting a path through a jungle to show what can be done with electric cars,” he said.
It was the last time Musk would address Detroit with such candor, openness and pure humility. It was pre-Model X, pre-Model Y, pre-Musk as we know him. That was January 2015.
Four years later, the fascination persists, but the jungle is getting wilder.
Last week, the company cut sales staff across the country, paring back personnel as it tries to find firmer footing. Musk says Tesla is saving money as it ramps up production of the Model 3 sedan and prepares to launch the Model Y crossover.
He has flip-flopped on his retail strategy, failed to stay in the black, fallen short of his sales forecasts and tangled with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Musk remains the industry’s fascination — a man who releases no official sales numbers by region, wears his experience in “production hell” as a badge of honor, has endured countless personnel defections, has no PR machine and yet remains the envy of every auto executive this side of Mars.
Any car company would kill for the brand cachet Musk has built on zero paid advertising and one Twitter account. Tesla has the devotees that every brand craves. How do they do it?
Luxury chiefs scratch their heads; volume makers wonder the same.
One auto exec told me that “there are plenty of things to learn from Tesla that are so different than the way Detroit works.”
As for the rest of the industry, the EV road won’t be smooth. Many luxury and mainstream EVs are on the way, but there is no guarantee that customers will follow with anything near the velocity of Tesla buyers.
Four years since that conversation on a Detroit stage, Tesla remains as captivating and as confusing as ever.
Implosion seems to be lurking around each corner. But its impact cannot be denied.
Jason Stein is publisher of Automotive News. You may email him at [email protected] Keith Crain’s column will return.