When we got our Tesla Model 3 about 2.5 years ago, even though the car itself was fun to drive and a precursor to our EV future, the experience of receiving the vehicle ended up being pretty underwhelming. The event amounted to a bunch of new Tesla owners gathered in a showroom close to the Fremont factory, signing bits of paperwork on an iPad, and then having an advisor briefly help us connect our phones to the new car en route onto the next delivery. Missing were any type of feature demonstration, much opportunity to examine the car for build issues1, and absolutely no chance for a test drive. If we balked at any of it, our car would just go to the next preorder in line.
Recently, history rhymed as I took delivery of a Tesla Model X, refreshed back in January but had stalled for the entire year in production hell. Granted, it’s one of Tesla’s lowest-selling vehicles; coupled with well-documented production difficulties due to its build complexity, and I don’t completely fault the company for deprioritizing the large SUV when the demand for Model 3s and Ys is so much higher. That they even bothered to refresh the car—and there are very few large SUV EVs in the market, and none other than the X with 3 rows—is itself an unexpected but welcome commitment.
But Tesla does a terrible job communicating with its customers: post announcement, they stayed radio-silent for 10 months, before finally shipping, quietly, a handful of cars to a lucky few customers. Since then, the single production line at the Fremont factory has been trickling out new Model Xs at a snail’s pace2. In fact, I suspect the main reason I got my vehicle before the new year was because the company always makes a push to deliver its cars at the ends of quarters and years3. Essentially, I was given a day to wrap up all my paperwork, pay for the vehicle, and pick it up from the delivery center or lose my place in line.
All that said, I want to focus on the updated experience, now streamlined to be even more hands-off due to the realities of COVID. Tesla calls this their “express delivery,” and they have been able to eliminate all human interactions as well as most in-person processes by doing it all in the app. Everything from DMV registrations to ID verifications to making the final payment4 can be set up beforehand. Although my registration navigated through the “happy path” no-errors workflow, I’m sure Tesla can deal with most of the edge cases online as well—if nothing else, to keep the new cars flowing through their delivery centers.
I’m not one to faux-romanticize how things used to work, but I did find that the completely hands-off, humanless and touchless receipt of a vehicle to feel…anti-climatic. Given how hard it is to produce cars right now and the fact that this model has been stuck for a year, it’s too bad that the first impression it’s able to give its new owner isn’t a bigger deal. I remember how the Model 3 delivery rep. emphasized that setting up a Tesla is as easy as setting up an iPhone; while he was trying to highlight the intuitive user interface as a plus, the analogy may be apt also because getting a new smartphone isn’t as momentous an occasion as it once was.
In contrast, I have fond memories of our last non-Tesla vehicle, the also-newly-redesigned 2016 Volvo XC90. In the pre-COVID times, a number of European car manufacturers had these overseas delivery programs to entice American customers to pay MSRP for their imports, by offering trips to the factories in their home countries where their car would be built and letting the new owners drive around Europe. BMW couples their deliveries with a driving school lesson; Mercedes gives tours of their museum and factory, and Volvo—well, they offer 2 free plane tickets. I remember the delivery itself also being an occasion, with a factory tour and lunch, and plenty of helpful staff around. They actually took it pretty slow, as the overseas program only released a couple of cars per day, and they took their time going over the details. Of course, all these overseas programs have been discontinued in COVID times, and I wonder if the European car makers will bother restarting them post-pandemic.
I guess that’s what makes Tesla different than other car manufacturers, even other EV startups. It’s been described as a tech company that happens to build cars, and the insistence on pushing for software solutions is a manifestation of that ethos—upsides and downsides both.
That was and remains a real risk with Teslas, and it was particularly risky to receive one of the first editions of the newly mass-produced Model 3.↩