When I heard that Elon Musk’s Tesla was likely to come to India this summer, my first response was that this is not going to work. Okay, that’s not exactly true. My first response was a very happy ‘this cannot be true!’ jig. My second more sobering thought was ‘but this is not going to work’. I have since changed my mind about all of that.
The reasons for why Tesla doesn’t really work in an Indian context are simple. Elon Musk’s larger project – across his almost science fictional repertoire of companies SpaceX, OpenAI, SolarCity – are about ‘saving humanity’. Running electric cars, charged on electricity generated through renewable energy, reducing humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels, reducing pollution, creating fast transport that is also clean, side-stepping the end-of-oil apocalypse, not to mention space exploration; these are the dreams that this prophet of Generation Geek stands for.
And India still works largely on coal-based energy. Besides, large parts of India still don’t have electricity in their homes. How are we going to get Supercharger Stations? Also, what about the state of Indian roads? Not just the bad roads in most of India, but also the bad driving that is a hallmark of our chaotic road systems, where traffic rules are usually like the Pirate Code – more guidelines than actual laws. Self-driving cars in India is a distant dream, I argued to my friends, just like clean public toilets and the eradication of caste discrimination.
And then one of them said, ‘forget the self drive, but in Gurgaon, it is easy to install charging points in those people’s garages who can afford to buy a Tesla’. And then it struck me that he was absolutely right. Even if self-driven cars won’t work in India, Tesla still can. If Tesla doesn’t care where the car’s electricity comes from, there won’t be much of a problem. And for globe-trotting, brand conscious, upper class, urban Indians driving around in Porsches and Ferraris, Tesla is the Next Big Thing.
It was then pointed out to me that the Tesla Model X has a great suspension system and a ground clearance that is better than many luxury cars that are currently selling in India (Model X has a ground clearance of 183mm, Mahindra Scorpio 180mm, Toyota Corolla Altis 175mm, Volkswagen Jetta 159mm), which will make it easier to drive along the potholed roads of the country. As for charging points, a single charge is expected to be able to give the Model 3 215 miles (that’s 346km). That should be enough to get from office to home and back for a few days; or to do the odd weekend drive from Mumbai to Panchgani or Delhi to Jaipur.
Tesla’s cars are intended for the luxury car market, given the most inexpensive Model 3 is priced at $35,000 or a little more than Rs 23 lakh without taxes; and the car may draw massive customs duty on completely built electric cars in India, unless they plan to manufacture or at least assemble the car here for a tax break.
Other than simply selling because of its brand value or the near-religious fan following that Elon Musk commands, there is a possibility that Tesla and Musk may be able to bring about some much needed changes in the way that we look at off-grid electricity and electric and hybrid vehicles in India. Tesla brings with it the possibility of its subsidiary company SolarCity also coming to India, which (in the USA) sells renewable energy commercially at prices below utility rates, making it possible to go completely off-grid.
As the Indian automobile market continues to grow, Elon Musk and Tesla may be simply making a sound business decision to bring their cutting edge cars to India, without necessarily hoping to achieve the ideals of it. There has also been talk of Tesla setting up a manufacturing plant in India, which might be able to bring down costs a bit more.
My initial enthusiasm at Tesla’s coming to India may have been tempered with the realisation Musk’s project of clean energy and driverless cars will not sell here. But knowing that the brands of both Tesla the company and Elon Musk the person have become big enough to be able to sell simply on the basis of themselves, I no longer think that Tesla is setting up to fail in India.
While I don’t think I will be able to buy a Tesla car any time soon, I am hopeful that Elon Musk and his famous cars will be able to bring a new turn to the conversation about electric cars and inexpensive renewable energy in India.
Well, fingers crossed.