Image: Chris Kindred

A Tesla Is Not Just a Car for Elon Musk’s Superfans

As electric-vehicle rebates dry up, would-be Tesla owners are facing an existential crisis.

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Jul 20 2018, 6:52pm

Image: Chris Kindred

Last week, would-be Tesla owners in Ontario collectively lost their minds when the province cancelled an electric-vehicle (EV) rebate program that would have netted Tesla buyers a $14,000 discount on their new rides. All the people who put deposits down on Model 3s but haven’t yet received them just had a door slammed in their faces.

This unexpected loss of financial incentives is a precursor to what’s almost definitely about to happen in the US, where Tesla recently surpassed the 200,000 limit of car sales eligible for rebates. People are, predictably, incensed.

This week, inspired by the EV rebate cancellation, I did an informal poll in a Canadian Tesla owners Facebook group asking whether the incentive influenced their decision to buy a Tesla.

I received more than 100 messages from current and would-be Tesla customers, many of whom said they "believe" in Musk and that they are "obsessed" with Tesla. Respondents said they dislike other electric-car companies because they believe they are profit-driven, while Musk is doing it for more selfless, altruistic reasons. Some cited environmental reasons for going electric, but said they did not—and definitely would not—consider any other EV. One guy told me he now drives up to 90 kilometers more a day for no particular reason other than that he likes his Tesla.

Read More: Elon Musk Is Creating His Own Reality

Tesla owner Aaron Levenson told me in an email his main motivation for buying a Tesla Model 3 was because he has two young kids “and would like to leave them with an inhabitable planet when I go”—but that he likely wouldn’t have bought another EV, with or without an incentive. “Tesla is the only true EV company out there,” he wrote.

With the cancellation of the credit, Dr. Markus Giesler, a consumer sociologist at York University in Toronto, says wannabe Tesla owners are “existentially disappointed.” He has studied humans’ devotion to certain brands for years, and has noticed something peculiar about Tesla fandom: it’s kind of a cult.

“When we see really successful brands, and we try to explain the loyalty—which is really beyond belief—you have to ask yourself, ‘is this still a matter of user-oriented benefits, or is there something else going on?’” Giesler told me in an interview. He said that “something else” is that God-shaped hole in our morally bankrupt world that we continually seek to fill with something that gives us a sense of meaning—and for some people, Tesla is just the right size.

“We all have this Elon Musk inside of us”

“We all have this Elon Musk inside of us. We all think we’re maverick risk-takers while at the same time being sensitive towards nature and towards other species, and having this sort of futuristic [outlook],” Giesler continued. “It helps a lot to have that kind of person as the leader of the cult.”

It’s easy to understand why Giesler sees it this way. On Musk, Ontario Tesla owner Levenson said: “He has dedicated himself to transitioning the world away from oil-based transportation and is an example of what a leader should be. He is selfless and intends to use all of his fortunes if necessary to facilitate this transition.”

Lisa Kramer, an expert in behavioral finance who teaches at the University of Toronto, doesn’t see it quite as dramatically. “He’s not unlike many executives of large companies,” she told me. She did say, however, that Tesla’s sky-high valuation could reflect investors’ hopes and aspirations more than the company’s reality.

The people who answered my poll came from different economic backgrounds; a number of people sold belongings and took out big loans to afford their cars, and were counting on the incentives to afford the car. Others paid half down in cash. Many are still determined to get their Teslas, while some said they might bail.

Yet there was an overarching theme to the bulk of respondents: it was pretty much all dudes, and a good chunk of them were white and middle-aged.

Giesler isn’t surprised by my findings. He said the persona Musk has crafted for himself is steeped in a masculinity that many men find deeply relatable. “When you take the fame away, and look at the guy and how he acts publicly, he’s quite an oddball,” he said. “The message here is that even as an oddball, you can take over the world.”

People of all genders, meanwhile, are often drawn to a vision of “radical individualism” that Musk endorses—an Ayn Rand-inspired ideal that Silicon Valley has vociferously embraced because it coats capitalism in a sense of morality and righteousness.

In many ways, said Giesler, Musk’s ethos fits in with the Californian Ideology, a somewhat prescient concept proposed in 1995 to explain and critique the technologist-led merging of left- and right-wing principles to design a positive narrative around entrepreneurship. “I think many of us find meaning in technology,” said Giesler, “and technology is a library of stories and narratives and promises about a better world.”

As EV tax credit and rebate programs dry up across North America, the panic people feel is palpable. It’s not about missing out on a car. For those who can’t afford or can’t justify a Tesla without a rebate, it’s about enthusiastically subscribing to an ideology, only to have it slip away.