The unprecedented 275,000 pre-orders for the Tesla Model 3 in the three days since its March 31 unveiling signals a tectonic shift in the dominance of gasoline as the country’s principal transportation fuel. The stunning number of Model 3 pre-orders, more than 2.5 times the number of electric vehicles sold in 2015, suggests there is enormous pent-up consumer demand for electric vehicles offering range, performance, and affordability comparable to (or better than) equivalent gas-powered vehicles.
What does the Model 3’s early success mean for auto manufacturers, oil companies, consumers, and governments, the four pillars supporting America’s 375 million gallon-per-day gasoline consumption habit?
For carmakers, the Model 3 pre-sales are a wake-up call after sluggish sales for electric vehicles in 2015. With the partial exception of GM and Nissan, most major car manufacturers have invested halfheartedly in the design, production, and sales of electric cars. They will now be under increased pressure to increase investment in electric cars and battery technology, or risk being left behind in a major transformation of the auto industry, especially given Tesla’s big lead in technology and its construction of the Gigafactory battery plant. GM and Nissan, both of which have 200+ mile range economy cars expected to reach market about a year before the Model 3, must be wondering whether the enthusiasm for the Audi-like Model 3 will also extend to their downmarket offerings. Apple, rumored to be working on an electric car to rival Tesla’s for launch in the Year 2020, is likely encouraged by Tesla’s success to bring their own offering to market.
The shift towards electric vehicles signaled by Model 3 pre-sales represents a significant threat to the long term interests of oil companies. California’s 200,000 electric cars reduced gasoline demand in California by 56 million gallons in 2015. If electric cars become popular with consumers, as the Model 3 pre-sales indicate they will, then consumer demand for oil will slip and oil companies’ investments in petroleum reserves look increasingly uncertain. We can look for the oil industry to defend itself by funding studies and propaganda questioning the value and environmental benefits of electric cars, much like the tobacco industry did when smoking came under attack in the 1960s. We will also see well-financed lobbying efforts from the oil industry seeking to stop public dollars going into investments in public charging stations and subsidies for electric car purchases.
Governments will be increasingly challenged to respond to increased demand from their constituents for access to convenient electric vehicle charging, although Tesla is adding to its own charging network to help meet the increased demand from Tesla customers. Highway rest areas and public buildings will increasingly be targeted for charging stations. Urban dwellers will demand legislation to encourage apartment building owners to make charging access the norm in apartment parking areas. At the same time, governments will need to come up with a mechanism to replace tax revenue from the gasoline tax, because an increasing proportion of drivers are avoiding gasoline purchases entirely. Carbon taxes may become more palatable to the public, as alternatives to gasoline become commonplace.
Finally, the Tesla Model 3 raises many questions for consumers, who are probably the most important players determining the future of the electric car. Will consumers on the pre-sale list wait 2-4 years for Tesla to deliver their car? Does the Model 3 raise the standard for affordable electric cars so high, that would-be purchasers of the Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf, and other electric cars with a 200 mile range decide to wait for the Tesla Model 3 to become widely available? Is Tesla’s brand and mystique the real reason for the huge pre-sale numbers, or do consumers simply want a quality, reasonably spacious, and affordable electric car with a 200+ mile range, regardless of brand?
The aftershocks of Tesla’s stunning Model 3 pre-sales will be felt throughout the auto industry for many years. How automakers, oil companies, governments, and consumers respond to the Model 3 will shape the auto industry for the decade to come, and will determine whether our consumption of oil falls sharply by 2030, as it must if we are to meet our goals to reduce America’s CO2 output to the levels required by the Paris Climate Accords.