Tesla Motors production line for Tesla Model S, Fremont, California
Electric-car maker Tesla Motors has always followed a different path than the rest of the automobile industry.
Among the ways it has violated industry convention is ignoring annual model changes and simply updating its cars whenever changes were ready for production.
This has occasionally made for some very frustrated high-end customers already.
In October 2014, for instance, Tesla announced new all-wheel-drive versions, using two drive motors, known as the "D" option, and began taking orders for those cars.
The highest-end performance model of the D-series was initially the P85D. Then, in late 2015, Tesla began taking orders for an even faster P90D version.
But the company let P85D buyers upgrade to the P90D and its "Ludicrous" acceleration option for $5,000 (reduced from an initial $7,500).
Red 2013 Tesla Model S cars roll down the production line (Photo: @elonmusk on Twitter)
Now, only a few months into the production run of the P90D, it has been supplanted at the top of the range by a P100D.
The latest high-end Model S P100D now finally achieves the long-promised 10.8-second quarter-mile, and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in just 2.5 seconds.
The performance is due to an entirely new battery pack, and costs $20,000 as a trade-in for existing P90D customers.
The latest update to all Teslas was announced in October: “all cars leaving the production line henceforth will have Level 5 self-driving hardware,” which can be fully activated in the future with software changes.
This set of hardware cannot be retroactively installed in any previous Tesla, and customer orders now in the supply chain cannot switch—only orders that have not yet been cued up for production can be changed.
Following each of these "evolutions," which come with no prior warnings to customers, buyers who ordered or took delivery of their cars just before the changes have complained, sometimes bitterly, about receiving no notice that their cars would already be obsolete when delivered.
2016 Tesla Model X
Regular car buyers are accustomed to annual changes in model specification and details; they wait for the next year’s improvements to finalize their buying decisions.
That is impossible with the current Tesla approach.
Early Tesla adopters have largely accepted the practice. Many often also philosophically support the Tesla approach to technology and the environment.
Since the Model S and X sit at the high end of the vehicle market, they are often bought by customers who can often afford to “take a hit” on selling their now-outmoded Tesla for the latest and greatest.
The mass market is different.
Car shoppers only make their decisions once every several years, and they expect to have solid information on current features and upgrades for the model year, so they can make a choice they'll live with for years to come.
Tesla Model 3 Driving on a Public Road
And at least some of them are likely to be far less tolerant of any company that changes its cars suddenly and without warning, meaning that their brand-new car is instantly outmoded.
Will Tesla move to more predictable annual changes in the mass-market Model 3 and later Model Y, or continue with its spontaneous introduction of upgrades and changes?
If I were a Tesla product planner or marketer, I would strongly urge annualized changes for mass-market vehicles, while keeping the introduction of new features when ready as a unique quality for our more upscale models.
I'm a Tesla customer who has already accepted the rapid-upgrade process. I sold my first Model S (85-kwh, single motor) to migrate to a P85D. Now, I'm absolutely lusting for the 100-kwh battery pack as a upgrade exchange for my 85-kwh pack.
I appreciate Tesla offering me the best driving experience possible, as quickly as possible.
But with the company planning to increase production by 10 times in just a few years, I don't see that approach as viable when offering a lower-priced car to mass-market buyers.