2017 Will Be the Year Tesla Reigns Supreme—Or Finally Flops

In its first 13 years of its existence, Tesla Motors made some of the world’s biggest, best-known companies look stuffy as it charged electric cars with sex appeal, built a zealous fanbase, set records for performance and quality, and even made its cars drive themselves—all the while dodging bankruptcy and even flirting with illegality to keep up its frenetic pace.

Not bad, but this is just the beginning. CEO Elon Musk has long promised to change the world, with an affordable electric car for the masses, one that happens to drive itself—and to make a profit doing it. That’s the key to transforming Tesla from a niche player into the company Musk says it can be, one making a palpable, positive impact on people’s lives and the planet they share, while keeping shareholders happy.

And 2017 is the year Tesla has to pull it off, or lose its dominant position and risk being left behind as one more daring automotive startup that just could’t hang.

Because behind those headline goals are the challenges in turning vaporware into a physical product at scale, that stage at which so many companies fail. And Tesla has to make that transformation while fighting off increasing competition from mainstream and newer automakers, continuing to improve its autonomous technology, and avoiding negative press.

Yes, Musk—who also builds rockets, sells solar roofs, and advises Donald Trump on tech issues—seems to thrive on pressure. And hey, he has made it this far. But he also has a bad habit of letting deadlines slip and costs creep north. And that may not fly anymore.

A Model For The Masses

Musk’s plan for Tesla has long been to start by selling luxury cars (the Model S sedan and Model X SUV), then use the resulting revenue to fund the development of a car everyone can afford—the long-awaited Model 3. At a starting price of $35,000, it’s in mainstream territory. Selling millions of them is fundamental to Musk’s goal: popularizing sustainable transport and slowing climate change.

For Tesla, the problem isn’t creating a car that appeals to millions—the automaker took 400,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 within weeks after revealing a prototype. The problem is producing millions of cars, on time, up to quality standards, without losing money.

“Delivering a brand new electric vehicle built from scratch is not an easy task to accomplish,” says Raj Rajkumar, an expert in autonomous and electric vehicles at Carnegie Mellon University. Tesla has pledged it will start deliveries in late 2017, but Rajkumar says 2018 is more realistic. “They need to learn about volume production, and test new capabilities and functions.”