Tesla questions linger after Elon Musk reveals world's fastest consumer car

Elon Musk said the Roadster would be able to reach 96.6 km/h in 1.9 seconds and travel nearly 1000 kilometres before needing to recharge. Tesla
by Marco della Cava

Another Elon Musk extravaganza is in the history books with two new electric Tesla products birthed into the world: a futuristic semi truck that looks like it's straight out of a Transformers movie and a sports car so quick that drivers might consider buying a g-suit.

Time to take a sober post-party inventory of what just happened.

One thing remains clear. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO's favourite two words must be, "Why not?"

What else explains a contrarian bravado that includes setting Mars as a rocketry target for SpaceX or drilling tunnels under cities to speed traffic as a mission for another pet project, The Boring Company.

Those ventures benefit from serious slack. We don't expect them any time soon.

But Tesla is quite another matter.

It's a publicly traded transportation company that is trying to get its bearing as a purveyor of mainstream electric vehicles and not just fast four-door toys for the rich.

Specifically, Tesla is in the midst of what Musk has called "production hell" on the new Model 3 sedan, an entry-level vehicle — Musk's vision posits it as the popular Volkswagen of the electric car revolution — that carries on its slim fenders the responsibility of quintupling Tesla production to 500,000 electric vehicles a year.

Wall Street still doesn't seem too worried.

Elon Musk reveals the new Tesla Roadster. Call it the ultimate "halo car", the term automakers give to a vehicle that borders on the absurd and is there less to make money and more to lure consumers to the brand. Tesla

Over the past year, Tesla's stock has jumped 70 per cent to $US315, and spiked briefly on Thursday's dual announcements.

But while investors continue to cheer Musk's bullish game plan, there are signs that mistakes with the Model 3 could quash the party.

"Tesla's announcements underscore the company's incredible level of innovation and ability to disrupt industries," Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi wrote in note published shortly after the unveil. 

"That said, we continue to view the near-term risk reward for Tesla as neutral to somewhat unfavourable, due to the uncertainty surrounding the company's execution on the Model 3."

The Roadster. What would one do with such a beast? There's nowhere to drive it to its potential beyond a track. Tesla

It's worth breaking this down a bit and looking at the pros and cons of the truck and sports car.

Let's start with the Tesla Semi, and why it might, or might not, revolutionise the long-haul trucking industry.

Beyond playing up its Batman-Does-Trucking looks, Musk took great pains on Thursday to explain how the vehicle would, on a vital per-mile basis, cost less to operate than a conventional diesel-powered tractor-trailer. 

That's good, because trucking is about efficiency and making money, not hood-ornament bragging rights at the diner counter.

Inside Tesla's Roadster, which costs a "mre" $US200,000 ($264,000). Tesla

Musk also said the Semi's battery-powered range would be 500 miles (800km), which would allow for regional round-trip deliveries without recharging.

That's also critical, because a proposed network of Megacharging stations — which would take a depleted truck from empty to 80 per cent charge in a mere 30 minutes — surely would be as difficult and costly to set up as the company's network of Supercharging stations for its sedans and SUVs. 

But what about long haul truckers who might find a Tesla Semi the answer to their money-making dreams but worry about being stranded on a lost highway?

For them, Megacharging is a must, not a nice-to-have. That's a massive financial and logistical undertaking in and of itself.

Tesla's Roadster comes with a targa top. Tesla

In fact, Sacconaghi notes that could be a $US1 billion proposition.

Truck faces growing pains

There's also the matter of reliability.

Today's trucks run on diesel engines that have more than 100 years of proven tech behind them.

They might not be as green as an electric vehicle, but they are dependable.

Tesla's big rig, which is anchored to myriad Model 3 parts, would have little room to go through the growing pains Tesla's Model S and X cars have endured.

"In contrast to Tesla's current buyer bases, the priority for truck drivers and fleet operators is reliability and uptime," says Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs.

"The truck is a tool for making money. When a truck is out of commission, money is lost."

Tesla's Roadster is far faster than its truck, which is also comically fast (0 to 96.6 km/h in 5 seconds, decent sports car fast). Tesla

Finally, there's the price — or lack thereof.

Although trucking giant JB Hunt and retailer Walmart both announced on Friday that they had placed orders for the Tesla Semi, these are companies that can afford to perhaps swap a few million dollars for the public relations boost that comes with being on the cutting edge of green-vehicle tech.

But can the average trucker who's paying off his or her $US150,000 Class 8 truck afford to trade for a Tesla?

That might be a tougher sell, or at least one that might have to come with guarantees along the lines of Musk's promise that the Tesla Semi's mechanicals will be good for a million miles. 

In sum, the truck is Hollywood cool and comically fast (0 to 96.6 km/h in 5 seconds, decent sports car fast), but there is a lot of economic calculus that has to go on before fleets of them hit the road. 

Roadster is a 'halo car'

As for the new Tesla Roadster that Musk also revealed, call it the ultimate "halo car", the term automakers give to a vehicle that borders on the absurd and is there less to make money and more to lure consumers to the brand.

For some context, this reporter was driven in a $US3 million Bugatti Chiron by a race-car driver who pinned the throttle to 100 mp/h in around 8 seconds. Tunnel vision and a punch to the chest ensued.

Beyond playing up the Tesla Semi's Batman-Does-Trucking looks, Elon Musk took great pains on Thursday to explain how the vehicle would, on a vital per-mile basis, cost less to operate than a conventional diesel-powered tractor-trailer. AP

And the Roadster, at a "mere" $US200,000, comes billed as faster than the Bugatti. [Musk said it would be able to reach 96.6 km/h in 1.9 seconds and travel nearly 1000 kilometres before needing to recharge.] 

So what would one do with such a beast?

There's nowhere to drive it to its potential beyond a track.

Actually Tesla could well afford, with its $US52 billion market cap, to throw a few million at a racing team.

Not so crazy: Porsche recently withdrew from a legendary race that made the company's name, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in order to next year compete in the burgeoning new electric-car racing series, Formula E.

And as with the last 100 years, success in any form of racing has trickled down not only to technological upgrades to production cars but also sales in showrooms.

But then again, there's always Musk's favoured "why not" rationale.

"While Tesla doesn't necessarily need a $US200,000 halo vehicle, Elon Musk has never been one to do things simply for practical reasons," says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds.

Tesla's big rig, which is anchored to myriad Model 3 parts, would have little room to go through the growing pains Tesla's Model S and X cars have endured. AP

"[It's Tesla's] salvo at what could end up being a hotly contested EV supercar battle in the coming years. The major luxury automakers are getting serious about EVs, and a lot can happen between now and 2020."

The bottom line for the moment is simple. Musk continues to bite off pieces that are too big to chew, but he hasn't choked yet.

His rocket company is winning government contracts.

The drilling company is in talks with Maryland to start work. 

And Tesla has populated our roads with a very real electric car that many thought would never take root. 

So now he wants to take over the trucking world.

Safe to say that for most business people, trying to upend that industry with a battery-powered challenger would be a life's work.

But for Musk, it's likely just an idea hatched over lunch.

Elon Musk said the Semi's battery-powered range would be 500 miles (800km), which would allow for regional round-trip deliveries without recharging. AP

At the moment, the world's would-be Tony Stark has a pass from consumers and investors alike.

Until he doesn't. 

MCT