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Tesla’s new ‘Master Plan’ is coming — let’s grade the first two

Tesla’s first ‘Master Plan’ was widely seen as a success. But the second is where things started to go off the rails. In advance of the release of the third version, let’s go through the previous two with a fine-tooth comb and assign some grades.

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Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

The third installment of Elon Musk’s “Master Plan” for Tesla will be revealed March 1st during an Investor Day event held at the company’s Austin, Texas-based Gigafactory. Musk has said that it will outline “the path to a fully sustainable energy future for Earth,” adding that “the future is bright!”

That sounds nice, but before we can usher in this new era of sustainable energy, we need to contend with the successes and failures of Tesla’s previous two “Master Plans.” Did Musk accomplish what he set out to do? Or did his ambitions get the better of him? How well did Musk master his own plans? 

Did Musk accomplish what he set out to do? Or did his ambitions get the better of him?

While Tesla’s first Master Plan is broadly seen as successful, the second is where things started to go off the rail. I’ve asked The Verge news writer and resident Tesla owner Umar Shakir to join me as we go through both plans and assign a grade to each. 

Elon Musk, in a tux, looking befuddled
Illustration: Lille Allen / The Verge

Andrew: Okay, so the first Master Plan was posted on Tesla’s blog on August 2nd, 2006, under the title “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me).” Clearly, Musk was trying to make a joke about how car companies’ strategic plans shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy. But it’s important to remember that when this plan was published, Tesla’s first vehicle, the Roadster, was still two years away. Musk wasn’t even the CEO of the company yet! That job was held by co-founder Martin Eberhard. Musk was running SpaceX at the time, but essentially, this Master Plan was his introduction to the world as chair and chief product guy at Tesla. It’s kind of wild to think of this as our first glimpse at the person who would go on to become one of the richest (and most controversial) people in the world. 

Here are the main bullet points, according to Musk’s blog post:

Build sports car

Use that money to build an affordable car

Use that money to build an even more affordable car

While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

Don’t tell anyone.

Haha, get it? Because he’s telling everyone

Anyway, Umar, how would you grade this first Master Plan from Tesla?

Umar: Well Andy, I think the first Master Plan is a success story. It outlined exactly what the company’s goals were as it switched from selling a $100,000-plus sports car to a more practical family sedan with the Model S.

With the Model 3, we were promised a $35,000 car, which could have fulfilled the goal of making a truly affordable car. But instead, the initial 2017–2018 models were priced at $52,000-plus, with a promise of cheaper models to follow. A $35,000 Model 3 would eventually become available but only for a few months and for special order (plus they did some weird interior strippage in an attempt to make it cheaper). But I’m sure it cost more due to economies of scale on a low-volume trim.

Nonetheless, the first Master Plan undeniably had a major impact on the broader automotive industry, which was initially content with experimental EVs or ones designed just to earn compliance in the state of California. I’ve owned two of them: the Nissan Leaf and a Ford Focus Electric — the former looking like a bulbous monstrosity only a tree hugger could love and the latter being a conversion of a normal car that felt like both an experiment and a compliance vehicle.

Andrew: Shout out, Ford Focus Electric. Gone too soon. 

Illustration: Alex Castro / The Verge

Umar: Tesla’s original corporate mission statement was to “accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation.” (Now, it’s sustainable energy, but let’s save that for the next Master Plan grade.) The first Master Plan did the most to uphold that statement. Now, we have legislation that incentivizes both car buyers and automakers to make EVs. And man, there are some cool EVs: from the Mustang Mach-E to the Rivian R1T truck. Truly affordable EVs are still yet to come.

The first Master Plan was a win for Tesla and an even bigger win for Musk, but that might have been to a fault. Musk and followers of the company see fulfillment of the “super secret plan” as evidence that anything is possible with this company — something even I fell for. The whole Tesla hype got me to stand in line to reserve a car sight unseen in 2016 (the Model 3 was revealed later in the evening). I don’t think the auto industry has ever seen something like that before.

The first Master Plan was a win for Tesla and an even bigger win for Musk

Andrew: That’s an interesting point. Viewing the first Master Plan through the lens of what was to come — the rise of the so-called Musketeers and all the problems that followed — really casts a shadow on what should be a huge win for the company. Of course, it was never preordained, and Tesla went through hell — or more specifically “production hell” — to get the Model 3 out the door. 

It nearly bankrupted the company, and Musk arguably pushed his workforce to an extreme to get what he wanted. It worked, but the cost was pretty enormous, at least for the employees. And we see that in the lawsuits that have been filed against Tesla alleging horrible working conditions, including racism, gender discrimination, and a spate of on-the-job injuries

With all of that in mind, I think I would give Tesla a B+ on its first Master Plan. This was mostly a success story, but as Umar noted, the failure of the original $35,000 promise loses Tesla some points. What grade do you give it?

Umar: Great minds think alike! I would also give Master Plan part one a B+. Again, it outlined exactly what the company’s goals were at the time, and it fulfilled most of it — although with a huge asterisk that the cheapest Model 3 was barely available. Like you mentioned, the production hell of getting the Model 3 at volume casts a shadow over the entire plan, but I’m willing to apply those issues to the next grade.

Additionally, for Master Plan part one: SolarCity and Tesla worked together and provided renewable energy options — all prior to the former being acquired. But I’ll let you get more into that as we move on.

a very shiny red sedan with lots of curves
Photo: James Bareham / The Verge

Andrew: Moving on to the second Master Plan, or “Part Deux,” as Musk called it. (Assumedly a reference to the 1993 movie Hot Shots! Part Deux. Musk loves himself some ’80s / ’90s movie references. See: Ludicrous mode.)

Part Deux is where things get really tricky for Tesla. Let’s review the bullet points first:

Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage

Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments

Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning

Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it

Right off the bat, we’ve got problems. Tesla revealed its solar roof product a few months after the publication of this plan. And the company’s acquisition of SolarCity, a company owned by Musk’s cousin, was supposed to supercharge Tesla’s solar ambitions. But instead, it fell kind of flat. 

Viewing the first Master Plan through the lens of what was to come really casts a shadow over what should be a huge win for the company

Can you buy a Tesla solar roof today? Yes, you can. But the rollout has been extremely slow going, and solar products currently only account for less than 5 percent of Tesla’s revenues. In 2021, dozens of solar roof customers were shocked to find that Tesla was jacking up the prices on them, sometimes as much as 100 percent. The company has since drastically cut down on installations, exited several major markets, and generally scaled back its solar ambitions as a whole. 

This next bullet point is even dicier. Umar, you want to take this one?

Tesla Solar Roof
Image: Tesla

Umar: Oof, Andy. Well, I’m going to start with some Tesla wins. At this point, Tesla is no longer selling its Roadster — and hasn’t been selling it for years. And that’s okay. The company needed to fulfill segments of vehicles normal people would actually buy. The Model S was the sizable family sedan — at the time, it even had an option for rear-facing seats suitable for kids — but increasingly, more families were buying SUVs.

You can buy a Tesla solar roof today, but the rollout has been extremely slow going

So Tesla started producing the Model X at volume by the time Part Deux came about, which was more spacious for families but built on the same platform as the S. But it’s even more expensive than the S, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea — mostly because of those showy Falcon Wing Doors, or FWDs (not front-wheel drive, mind you; this was part of a great Tesla community debate on how to abbreviate them. It’s all about context).

Those doors are also prone to mechanical failures and accidents. Heck, I was watching The Late Late Show With James Corden on Monday night, and Joel McHale was on as a guest. He talked about how his Model X FWDs (sorry) were left open and crashed on the side of his garage — on two separate occasions! Those sorts of incidents aren’t unique, though. I test-drove a Model X and somehow, while parked, the wing tried to close without command and smacked my sister’s head until she moved.

Andrew: Wow. I was not aware of the threat posed by these ridiculous doors. Truly mind-blowing stuff. 

Tesla Model X

Umar: It’s unfortunate. The point is, Tesla needed to fix the Model X. The answer became the Model Y. It was built on the Model 3 platform but added some height and put itself in the popular compact SUV category. Model Y is now the top-selling Tesla model, and it makes a ton of sense, even though it’s effectively a boring and derpy tall-boy Model 3.

And… that’s kind of it for the wins. Tesla has its family cars, but before the Model Y was announced, it had an answer for tractor trailers with the Tesla Semi and a beautiful new second-generation Roadster to fulfill the niche supercar segment. After long delays, the Semi is finally on the highways — or at least the side of them — but the new Roadster seems to be indefinitely delayed.

And finally, there’s the Cybertruck. 

Andrew: Yes! Everyone’s favorite vaporware vehicle. Cracked windows, stainless steel, and one comically large windshield wiper.  

Tour Of The Elkhorn Battery Energy Storage System

Umar: Tesla badly needed to have the first modern all-electric pickup truck to compete against the highest-selling vehicle in the US: the Ford F-150. After literally tossing a metal ball and breaking the Cybertruck’s glass onstage (which somehow became its own piece of viral marketing), the electric pickup is still stuck in limbo.

After several delays, and more than three years since its initial announcement, Musk says deliveries of the Cybertruck will start this summer — though he alluded that volume production will probably still happen next year. In the meantime, people are moving on to electric pickup trucks that are actually on the road, including the Rivian R1T and Ford’s F-150 Lightning. The Chevy Silverado EV is likely to reach customers before the Cybertruck. 

It’s going to be tough grading this part of the plan, Andy. On top of this, Tesla still doesn’t have a $25,000 vehicle — let alone a $35,000 car to fulfill the affordable EV segment. It seems to be leaving that to the Chevy Bolt EV and EUV and Nissan Leafs of the world.

Andrew: All of this is certainly true. But to me, the biggest failure of the Master Plan Part Deux is building our hopes up for “high passenger-density urban transport” and then never delivering. Rude! Musk didn’t have to be so specific! He said that Tesla was working on semi trucks and some sort of urban transit vehicle, most likely a bus, and that both would be ready to be revealed “next year,” which meant 2017. Sure, Musk has been pretty open about his disdain for public transportation. He admitted to his biographer that he originally proposed the idea of the hyperloop as a backhanded way to get California legislators to cancel the state’s high-speed rail plan. The guy hates trains! 

Umar: Yup, and instead Musk got infatuated with the idea of Teslas going down city street-level elevators and riding in underground tunnels dug by his Boring Company dozers. But even that idea was watered down — it’s now just Teslas rolling through really tight tunnels.

Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Andrew: So we’ve got an extremely scaled-back solar roof division, a mythical Cybertruck, a handful of semi trucks, no urban transport, no bus, a tunnel project that’s mostly smoke and mirrors… what’s left? Oh, right:

Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning

Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it

[Cracks knuckles] Where to begin?

Full Self-Driving (FSD) beta is the advanced driver-assistance system that is neither full self-driving nor a beta program. Yes, at times, FSD is incredibly capable. And many Tesla owners love it. Umar, we took a ride around New Jersey together last year in your FSD-equipped Model 3, and despite a few stressful moments, it seemed to handle itself fine. But it’s still just a Level 2 driver-assist system that requires constant monitoring by the driver. And if anything goes wrong, guess who’s liable? Not Tesla. 

The biggest failure of the Master Plan Part Deux is building our hopes up for “high passenger-density urban transport” and then never delivering

Podcaster, Cannonball Run participant, and rally driver Alex Roy once said that the only question you should ask about a self-driving car is “can I sleep in it?” If you can’t, it’s not self-driving. End of story. Some Tesla owners have certainly tried sleeping in their vehicles, but my god, please don’t do this. 

Could FSD eventually lead to fully autonomous driving? Color me skeptical. Let’s not forget that the video released in 2016 showing a Tesla Model X driving on urban, suburban, and highway streets, stopping itself at a red light, and accelerating at a green light was staged. Tesla’s own director of Autopilot testified that the video was staged using 3D mapping on a predetermined route, a feature not available to consumers. 

I don’t think FSD is a scam, necessarily, but Musk has been accused of selling something that doesn’t really exist. His customers are mad; some are suing him. California’s DMV accused Tesla of making false claims. And the company had to temporarily halt the rollout of new FSD installations after federal safety regulators forced Tesla to issue a safety recall. It’s not looking good!

Umar, talk to me about robotaxis. 

98th European Motor Show
Photo: Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images

Umar: This was a warning sign too many people ignored. I agree with most of what you said, Andy. Musk has absolutely oversold Full-Self Driving as something it is not. But the real red flag should have been his pitch about robotaxis in which your Tesla can go out and make you money while you’re working your real job. This wasn’t some nebulous concept: Musk said Tesla robotaxis would earn their owners upward of $30,000 a year!

Could FSD eventually lead to fully autonomous driving? Color me skeptical

I can’t lie: Musk had me believing it in the first half. As we talked about earlier, the success of Master Plan part one got people paying attention, and it really boosted Musk’s confidence. But he upped the ante too far. We have self-driving taxis on the road right now from Waymo and Cruise, but Tesla’s FSD as is — with only Tesla Vision cameras and no ultrasonic sensors — can’t really match their capabilities today.

I agree that FSD isn’t entirely a scam. It’s surprisingly capable, though more like teaching a dog an amazing trick. It can get easily distracted. That’s where FSD is right now. It’s a well-trained animal, and you’re the trainer. That’s not full autonomy, but you’re going to be somewhat amazed and on your toes the whole time — and you can actually own a car that does these cool things.

The inflated $15,000 price is very scam-ish. That’s with previous-generation Autopilot hardware. Musk has already alluded to the fact that there won’t be a retrofit to the latest Hardware 4 (HW4) for FSD. And if you bought FSD, you can’t transfer that software to a newer car that does have the new HW4. That’s a lot of limitations for such an expensive add-on. 

But I’m giving Tesla some points for making the best EV charging network in the world with its Superchargers. It’s the most reliable network, and you can drive almost anywhere with much less worry about whether you’ll be able to charge. And now that there are Superchargers with CCS combo “magic dock” ports popping up, Tesla is finally actually helping to accelerate sustainable personal transport.

Overall, I give Master Plan Part Deux a C-. Tesla is making cars people do want and has the charging network to back it up. The Cybertruck is still MIA. Tesla has Autopilot, and it works great — as long as you understand that you’re a conductor of a system and need to pay attention to the road. Full-Self Driving is capable, but it’s only a hat trick. Every Tesla on the road today with HW3 or older hardware will likely never be a robotaxi. Oh, and solar roofs and power walls exist, I guess.

Andrew: That’s a very generous grade. I would give Part Deux a D-. Too many failed promises, too much risk, the dangerous confluence of an active safety feature with full autonomy — these things are unavoidable. The goals of the second Master Plan are certainly noble and well-intentioned. And maybe under a different set of circumstances, they could have been achieved. 

There’s nothing wrong with having some ambition. But when the follow-through has been so hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits, then those ambitions can curdle, and anything that comes after can just feel like hot air blowing in your face.