Commentary: Tesla's carrot sells more electric cars than California's stick

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2018 Tesla Model 3

If you build them, they will come—as long as what you build is attractive.

That’s the message of Tesla’s dominant sales reports and awards this month. Buyers seem to be clamoring for the Model 3.

There was a time when electric cars seemed unattractive to a lot of drivers. Even with reports of global warming multiplying in the 1990s, gas was cheap, SUVs were on the rise, and electric cars had batteries the size of pickup beds, took overnight to recharge, and could go about 40 miles.

In light of this, the California Air Resources Board, tasked with keeping California cities’ air quality within federally acceptable levels, announced in 1990 that 2 percent of all cars sold by large automakers in the state must be zero-emissions electric or fuel-cell cars by 1998. The automakers didn’t meet that deadline and the state modified the regulation, going back to the drawing board several times.

By the time the first modern electric car, the Nissan Leaf, went on sale in late 2010 as a 2011 model, Green Car Reports was in full swing covering developments toward making the U.S. auto fleet cleaner and more efficient. We dubbed cars developed to meet the California mandate “compliance cars,” as opposed to more serious efforts by a few automakers, including Nissan, to sell more electric cars than the mandate required, and to sell them even outside California.

At the time, the landscape was awash in startup automakers hoping to capitalize on demand for electric cars to meet the mandate. Tesla was one of a dozen or more that had viable-looking new models on the drawing boards after it produced a couple of thousand Roadsters. It was not clear then why one startup might be more successful at building a functioning manufacturing and sales operation than others. Virtually all were deep in debt, dependent on government financing, and had never built a car before. 

Many observers and electric car advocates wondered whether the strategy of luxury startup automakers such as Tesla and Fisker—to follow the established technology business model of introducing technology breakthroughs first in expensive luxury products where costs can be amortized and then let it trickle down to more affordable products—would be more successful than the approach favored by California and the federal government to make electric cars affordable at the outset.

What was clear was that what was needed were products that would ignite passion in the hearts of buyers, not just appeal to cold logic, budget spreadsheets, and regulators. Few people aspired to buy such cars.

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