Moment of Truth for Tesla Model S: When Waiting List Is Finished

By · December 26, 2012

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S is one of the crowning achievements for electric cars in 2012. It’s a stellar vehicle that is helping change perceptions of battery-powered vehicles. Still, the long-term fate of the Model S has not been determined. In 2013, I’ll have my eye on what happens in the summer, when Tesla is expected to have delivered vehicles to its backlog of reservation holders. Then, we’ll see how deep the market is for the luxury EV sedan.

EV waiting lists are tricky. In the middle of 2012, Nissan reportedly had 26,000 reservation holders for the LEAF—presumably some of which had already received their cars, and others who had already decided not to buy (and relinquish the reservation). It’s partly a guessing game, because automakers don’t divulge all these numbers. (If any readers have accurate reservation numbers for Nissan or Tesla, please share.)

Based on my interactions with Nissan and its dealers, there were already signs in the first months of 2012, that the early-adopter hand-raisers—a volume of which supposedly meant sustained high sales in 2012—had received cars. At that point, the EV enthusiasts who wanted a LEAF had one. Then, it was much less forgiving mainstream buyers who started shopping for the electric compact. The waiting list was over, and sales went flat.

End of the Waiting Game

I learned last week from Tesla that a Model S buyer who made a reservation in November or so is likely to take delivery in summer 2013. The company maintains the goal of delivering 20,000 vehicles in 2013. So, by summer 2013, it sounds like the waiting list of reservation holders will be gone, and you can buy a Model S—from reservation to delivery—in a matter of several weeks. That’s not quite like walking on to a dealership lot, and driving off the same day—as is the case with most vehicles on the market. But it’s a lot closer.

The trends indicate that Tesla is successfully ramping up production. That’s great news. But it’s one thing to ramp up sales when there’s a backlog of orders, and another matter to sustain production and sales at the pace of 20,000 units month after month, year after year. For the sake of the overall EV market, my fingers are crossed. Some of the wild card issues are how the availability of the relatively cheaper 60- and 40-kilowatt-hour packs will open the Model S to new buyers. And also how many Tesla fans will opt for the Model X all-electric SUV, potentially cannibalizing some Model S sales.

In June 2012, Tesla said it had 10,000 reservations—and at least a couple thousand of those have been delivered. The Model S’s recent car-of-the-year awards probably meant a bump in interest. When the awards stop coming, and the buzz subsides, and the backlog is burned off, that will be one of the moments of truth for Tesla and the EV future.

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