In April 2016, when American electric carmaker Tesla first opened pre-bookings for its Model 3 sedan for Indians, a bunch of prominent tech entrepreneurs immediately shelled out—and flaunted—the $1,000 (Rs72,000) needed to get into the queue. These people neither knew how much Tesla Model 3 would cost in India nor had any idea about when it would be ready for delivery. For most of them, the decision was based either on their admiration for Tesla or its CEO Elon Musk.
Among these early birds was Arun Bhat, a now 34-year-old manufacturing industry professional from Bengaluru, who fell in love with Tesla many years ago when he saw glimpses of the company’s Nevada Gigafactory in an episode of a National Geographic show called Megafactories. “It captured my imagination. I started following what kind of automation they do…and their dedication,” Bhat told Quartz over the phone on March 9.
Almost six years on, even as Bhat awaits delivery of his Model 3, his craze for the company has only grown.
In March 2019, Bhat got together with Nikhil Chaudhary, a now 21-year-old Delhi University student, founded the “Unofficial Tesla Club of India.” The club is currently run by a nine-member team and has over 8,500 Twitter followers.
In October 2020, the club, which is not recognised by Tesla so far, came into the limelight when Musk responded to a tweet from its handle, confirming that the electric car will be available in India in 2021.
Tesla Club India
Chaudhary first thought of setting up the club when he was still a teenager. “I was closely watching the origin of Tesla fan clubs in Silicon Valley in the US. So, I thought we should have something like that in India, too. And I didn’t want to wait for it to happen, I wanted to start it myself,” he said.
He got in touch with Bhat in 2018 while looking for someone who shared the same passion for Tesla, and the duo decided to start a blog. Over time, they attracted more members and followers. According to the two, this is the first club of Tesla fans in the country. Tesla did not respond to an email from Quartz seeking details about its India plans.
The club has been instrumental in reaching out to the Palo Alto-based company via emails and social media platforms on a regular basis to bring out updates on its India plans. It has also been in touch with India’s corporate affairs ministry to get first-hand information on Tesla’s entry into India.
Besides owning a Tesla car, Chaudhary hopes to “get on a Starship to Mars one day,” according to his bio on the club’s website.
The near-term goal, though, is to get their club recognised by Tesla. “As of now, we are an unofficial club because Tesla does not sell in India. We hope that we become an official club when they start selling,” Chaudhary said.
To be an “official” Tesla club, interested groups need to follow a bunch of rules laid out by the company. For example, after being recognised as an official club, members are needed to participate in lobbying efforts if requested by the firm, and also help protect the company’s intellectual property.
“Club members help advocate for Tesla by supporting legislative efforts, offering test-drives, volunteering at shows, educating new and prospective owners, hosting social events, and passionately referring friends and family to explore Tesla ownership for themselves,” as per the company website. Sometimes, there are variations to the guidelines based on where the club is based.
Chaudhary believes getting this recognition is simply a “matter of time” and the members of Tesla Club India are already working on the layout of the group’s effective functionality. Once Tesla cars start selling in India, the club may start charging a membership fee for entry.
Besides fanboying Tesla and Musk, the club is also trying to build a strong case for EVs in India.
Tesla and India
If there were any doubts about Musk’s intentions after his October 2020 tweet, Tesla made its interest in India pretty clear in January when it registered a local office in Bengaluru. As per source-based reports, the company has booked a seat at the co-working office space at Awfis in Bengaluru.
The Tesla club team is not aware if the company has hired any employees in India.
Despite the fact that EVs make for a minuscule share of India’s car market—fourth largest in the world—auto enthusiast and the media has been in a frenzy ever since Tesla’s Bengaluru office news came out. While the company has not yet disclosed any price range for its cars in India, estimates say that Tesla Model 3 could cost around Rs60 lakh ($82,578), which is way higher than other popular electric cars in the country that cost between Rs7.5 lakh to Rs24 lakh.
The craze for Tesla also seems misplaced given the fact that EVs are expected to make for less than 15% of the personal mobility segment in India even 10 years from now.
But Bhat, who owns a Hyundai Kona electric car since 2019, believes the low penetration is simply because “there’s a massive misconception” about EVs in India.
“I sold off my Audi Q3 and Mercedes because I don’t like driving them,” he said. “Electric cars are far superior to conventional vehicles. I have been driving an EV enough to know that infra won’t be a problem.”
One of the most frequently sighted reasons why EVs are not popular in India is the unavailability of charging infrastructure. But Bhat says he has never been stranded because of charging problems. “I’ve always charged my vehicle in public just out of curiosity and not because of need. My car gives over 300km of range on a full charge. My daily travel is 50-60 km. Besides, EV charging points are being set up aggressively anyway.”
Until June 2020, India had installed over 900 EV charging stations. The number is expected to go up drastically by December this year as the Delhi government alone plans to set up around 10,000 EV charging stations in the capital city.
Chaudhary, Bhat, and other members of the Tesla Club India are certainly not the only cheerleaders for Tesla in the country. The Narendra Modi government itself has been making several efforts to lure Tesla to start manufacturing and selling in India soon.
However, experts are sceptic about how successful the company will be in India. “While the price could be a problem for an average urban Indian, it remains to be seen how Tesla would brave the poor infra in the country,” said Samir Agarwal, founder and CEO of Revfin, a New-Delhi based fintech lending platform.
But Bhat disagrees with such arguments and says that those who raise such concerns are “advocates of traditional vehicles.”
“If I thought Tesla would be a failure, I wouldn’t invest thousands of dollars in it. The company has already given me so much, now it just needs to deliver my Model 3,” he said.