When the apocalypse comes, will anyone have the new Tesla?

The electric car firm’s Model X even offers protection from ‘bioweapons’. But with people who ordered the new SUV years ago still awaiting delivery, the company is going to drastic lengths to defend its reputation

When Jay Arbetter put down $40,000 in 2013 to reserve Tesla’s newest electric showpiece, the Model X, the Dallas financial adviser was told he would be driving his roomy, battery-powered SUV by the autumn of 2014.

Instead, Mr Arbetter has become one of the many Tesla pre-buyers left in the dark about when he’ll get the key – and increasingly frustrated at the celebrated carmaker’s customer service, which he calls “the worst I’ve ever received of any company”.

Since missing its first shipping date in 2013, the Model X has been beset by repeated delays, raising investor ire over the launch of Tesla’s first new car since the Model S in 2012. 

But the Model X’s launch has also raised tensions among some in another important crowd: Tesla fans, who paid up early and now feel spurned after supporting the popular carmaker’s next big thing.

Tesla’s billionaire chief, Elon Musk, has called the Model X “the hardest car to build in the world”, and its feature set boasts much of the space-age wizardry for which Tesla has become famous: “falcon wing” doors that open up instead of out; lightning-fast acceleration; and an air-filtering “bioweapon defence” mode that Mr Musk said could prove helpful “if there’s ever an apocalyptic scenario of some kind”.

But actually getting all that road magic ready for the masses has proved a challenge. Since the SUV’s official launch in September, Tesla has delivered only 208 Model Xs to paying customers – a small fraction of the more than 20,000 reservations logged worldwide by September, according to an unofficial tally from a Tesla fan group.

Tesla stock fell around 7 per cent on Monday, its biggest one-day decline since August, after the company said it delivered 17,400 cars – mostly Model S – in the last three months of 2015. That was at the low end of its earlier forecasts.

“Model X deliveries are in line with the very early stages of our Model X production ramp as we prioritise quality above all else,” the company said this week. 

Production of the Model X sped up by the end of the year to around 238 SUVs a week, compared with only around  five a week at its September launch, the company added.

The Model X shares an assembly line with the Model S at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, but there have been production slowdowns outside the factory. In November, Tesla said it had stopped outsourcing the production of its custom-made Model X seats after problems with its supplier, and would begin making them in-house.

The delays have bolstered criticism that Tesla, one of America’s youngest carmakers, is not ready for mass-market production.

But the company has plenty of reasons to make sure cars are rolling off the line not just quickly, but safely. Consumer Reports, which had once given top honours to the Model S, pulled its recommendation from the sedan last year after drivers reported a series of surprising defects. Tesla was praised for its customer service and responsiveness in handling those flaws, and 97 per cent of owners surveyed said they would buy the Model S again.

To handle high demand for the X, Tesla has tried out an unorthodox sales tactic: pushing customers away. In 2014, Mr Musk told analysts:  “If somebody comes in who wants to buy the X, we try to convince them to buy the S. So we anti-sell it.”

Mr Arbetter said his frustrations began when he put in his order for a Model X Signature edition in 2013 – before its price and full feature list were unveiled – and was told it would arrive in his driveway in the next year. But as delays mounted, Mr Arbetter said he found it impossible to get any responses from Tesla on the car for months – even when its price was finally set, at $132,000 (£90,000).

After a reporter asked Tesla about his case last month, Mr Arbetter said he had been contacted by the carmaker for the first time since he paid his $40,000 deposit. He said he now receives daily updates on what stage of production his car is at, but still has no delivery date; he was most recently told the company would try to finish it by 31 December.

The company, which declined to speak specifically about Mr Arbetter’s case, began offering a similar level of updates for customers after its first Signature deliveries began last month. And on forums like the Tesla Motors Club, drivers who say they are cancelling their reservation have been joined by just as many who say they are happy to wait. Visitors to the Model X’s website are told new reservations will have an estimated delivery in “the latter half of 2016”.

Mr Arbetter is happy with Tesla’s recent responsiveness, but he said he’s still wary until he gets the key. “I still don’t know if I’m getting a line… or getting my car.” 

© Washington Post