The Tesla Australia WhatsApp group is in the middle of an in-depth discussion about eccentric Australian politician, Clive Palmer. Back in February, the Palmer United Party leader reportedly expressed a desire to buy one of Tesla’s electric cars. Palmer made his millions off coal, so they ponder, is he a true convert to the Tesla or not?
On the busy chat thread, dozens of Australian Tesla owners offer hacks, commiserate about the long wait time for the car in Australia and indulge in basic “trainspotting” of other Teslas.
For many Tesla drivers, owning this hyper-expensive car is not just about driving fast, it’s about using technology to do good. Still, what’s the point of being part of an exclusive club if you can’t talk about it?
Mark Tipping, a telecommunications consultant and Tesla owner, is at a breakfast at Tesla’s north Sydney dealership on a Wednesday in late November. He is among a group of 12 Model S owners about to drive the almost 900 kilometres (559 miles) from Sydney to Melbourne in a day. Australia’s first Tesla Supercharger rally, set up by Tesla, is a chance for owners to get together and put the car through its paces.
Tesla, founded in 2003 and now headed by its enigmatic CEO Elon Musk, builds a car unlike almost any other yet on the market. It looks like a luxury automobile, but with its electric engine and battery system, it sells itself as an entirely new zero-emissions proposition.
On Wednesday morning, eating the mini-bacon and egg rolls supplied by the dealership, there are young men in suits, a couple of families who have taken their children out of school for the occasion and a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy called Duke.
Apple Watches glint on the wrists of many of those assembled, but apart from that tribal marking of the early adopter, they aren’t an immediately identifiable type. Except they must, of course, have the cash to join this exclusive club.
The Tesla Model S is a luxury-on-luxury car, costing a cash price of A$201,738 (US$146,556) for the top model in the state of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. At least owners never have to pay for petrol, simply charging up at home with a Tesla Wall Connector.
You don’t often see the vehicle on Australian streets, which makes the world of Tesla ownership in the country a little mysterious. The company won’t comment on local sale figures, but it claims to have sold 90,000 Model S vehicles worldwide.
So, why are a select number of Aussies spending big on these cars?
Ask someone who the typical Ferrari driver is, and they will probably describe a middle-aged man needing a little horse power to get through the crisis of ageing.
While Teslas can go fast enough for any sad banker — as part of Tesla’s latest software update, the company claimed its “Ludicrous” mode in the Model S offers speeds of 0 to 96.56 kilometres per hour (0 to 60 miles per hour) in 2.8 seconds — the Australian owners at the Tesla rally are a different breed, who seem more charmed by the green credibility, even if they didn’t originally buy the car for that reason.
Tipping describes himself as “a disciple, an advocate” for Tesla. He says while he originally bought the car as a performance vehicle and nothing else, it has acted as something of a catalyst for his interest in environmentalism.
“People come because they’re green and fall in love with the performance,” he explains. “Or they come because of the performance and become green.”
Watching his car recharge under the hot midday sun at the newly launched Gundagai Supercharger station, John Hoad, a helicopter pilot for the charity CareFlight, says his Tesla cost four times more than he had ever spent on a vehicle before.
“I don’t consider myself a wealthy person, so I really surprised myself when I made the decision to get the Model S,” he explains. “I guess that tells me that it actually represents more than just a car.
“I’m concerned about climate change, and I think what motivated me to spend that extra money is that unlike other car manufacturers, Tesla is not just building products to make money for its shareholders. They’ve got an ethos, if you like, that I agree with.”
Michael Wehrhahn, a pathologist and physician, who took his kids Abigail and Elijah out of school for the trip, describes a similar appeal. “I think, if we’ve got the means, we feel it’s an appropriate ethical response [to buy an electric car],” he says. “If you believe in the technology, there is almost an obligation, I feel, to put your money where your mouth is.”
He is not making his statement half-heartedly. Wehrhan’s car is green and has the number plate “GRNNRG,” and he says he is trying to extend his commitment to conservation. His family is building a new house, and their plan is to add sufficient solar panels and battery storage to allow them to live almost off the grid.
Among this group, it seems you are unable to own a Tesla without adopting a Silicon Valley pioneer mentality.
The Supercharger station in the small NSW town of Gundagai opened in November and completes the first link between major cities in Australia, allowing drivers to travel for free. The other Supercharger stations along the Sydney-Melbourne route can be found at Goulburn, Wodonga and Eurora.
Until now, long-distance travel from Sydney to Melbourne in a Tesla has been difficult without a few good hacks because of the difficulty of replenishing power without a pre-installed charging station, and it remains problematic in the rest of the country.
While charging up at the Supercharger point in Goulburn, NSW everyone gathers around Keith and Lizzy Wein as they describe their strategy for road tripping in areas far from their home charger. The retired couple, who say they are “totally converted to the Tesla,” bought their car specifically for long-distance travel despite the challenges.
“I carry my own charging equipment, and I even have an outlet in the back I can give to people,” Tom says. “You’d be surprised how accommodating people can be,” Lizzy adds.
Pia and Mathew Peterson also drove from Sydney to Melbourne in early 2015 when the Superchargers weren’t yet installed. In Wodonga, Victoria they had arranged to charge the car using a three-phase charger they brought over from Europe. “We ended up charging at the welding bay at the TAFE,” Pia laughs, referring to a local technical college.
While a number of the drivers have owned fancy vehicles before, with Tesla, they prove there’s no zealot like the convert. Many express a commitment to the company they couldn’t imagine with other manufacturers.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a car person,” Peterson says. She recently quit her job in banking to focus on a new business she’s created off the back of Tesla: Evoke, a zero emissions chauffeur company run exclusively using the electric car.
Warren Bolton, a retired computer businessmen, bought his first Mercedes when he was 28 years old but now he has a Tesla, he says he won’t be going back to hydrocarbons. “I’m not a person that follows cars, I just like good cars,” he says.
“I just like the fact it’s a car that’s using technology. I drove it all the way down here without touching the wheel,” he adds, referring to Tesla’s new Auto Steer function that allows the car to keep itself between the lines. Despite rolling out the capability, Tesla advises drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
“I’m definitely just a Tesla person,” Wehrhahn says. “Before I came into contact with Tesla, I had no interest in these Mercedes and BMWs. I would never spend any sort of money on these cars.”
He describes Australian Tesla drivers as technology people, for the most part, given the car is “a computer on wheels, essentially.” He points to the number plate of a fellow rally driver that reads “HTML.”
Tesla seems to recognise, and even rely on the intensity of its drivers.
“There are a lot of people here today and all around the country who bought the car without test driving it,” Heath Walker, Tesla’s Australian marketing and communications manager, says at the Gundagai rest stop. “Putting in an order without seeing the car. [It is an] incredible thing, when you think about how much they’re paying for the vehicle.”
For the Tesla drivers, half the joy of being part of the rally seemed to be the chance to geek out with other owners.
“I’ve noticed that people who have Teslas love talking about them,” lawyer Marcel Sahade says, who took his son Thomas out of school for the ride. He is heavily into the Tesla forums on WhatsApp, Facebook and other venues, chatting with friends in the U.S. who also own the car.
There are also in-person meet ups. Pia says she attended one on the NSW central coast area earlier in the year where 20 to 30 people showed up.
Being a Tesla owner also comes with simpler, clubby pleasures.
For one, the jargon: Get your hands on a Tesla key fob, and you can talk with scorn about basic “ice” cars — cars with internal combustion engines, and being “iced” — when an “ice” car parks in your charging bay. The owners also amuse themselves coming up with nicknames for some of the car’s more odd features, such as its bonnet boot, empty because of the lack of standard engine, which is alternatively known as the “froot” or “frunk.”
Tipping points out another group identifier: Many drivers leave their energy efficiency stickers on the windscreen of their car — it’s a point of pride, after all. The cars are also spotless. There’s no beach sand on the mats or old takeaway coffee containers underfoot.
Plus, of course, you get that thrill when everyone watches you driving by in a car from the future. “I just love the part when you pass someone,” Bolton said. “Vroom, you’re gone. Everyone goes ‘what the hell was that’.”