On certain Sunday afternoons, Laura Burns has met with a group of strangers to take a pleasant drive, their Teslas lined up in rally style, through a scenic location. Burns, 60, from Hingham, Mass., is one of the growing legions of Tesla fans.
"They show up with their cars," said Burns, who explains that there's no one way to describe the group's demographics. "They are capable of purchasing a luxury sports sedan, but that's all I can tell. Most of them are younger than I am."
So what are they all so exited about? The magazine Consumer Reports has an idea.
Earlier on Thursday, Consumer Reports said Tesla's Model S, which is sold for $70,000 to $100,000, led its owner satisfaction survey with a near-perfect score of 99 out of 100, the highest any car has earned in years. To top it all off, Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk today was named 2013 Businessperson of the Year by Fortune Magazine.
If the rabid fans and the accolades remind you of Apple and Steve Jobs, Tesla's "Teslovers" and Apple's "fanboys" do have much in common: a cult-like attraction to a market-changing product.
And just like Jobs, who weathered some dramatic twists and turns on the way to building the most valuable company in the world, Musk has had his share of controversy including three recent Tesla fires in six weeks that are being probed by U.S. officials.
Burns bought her red Model S all-electric car in May after several weeks on a waiting list. While it's easy to spot a Tesla on the road in California, there are only a few hundred registered in Massachusetts. But that's likely going to change with customers like Burns, who says she recommends the car to her friends and family "constantly, on a daily basis," despite the three highly publicized fires. No one was hurt in the incidents and Musk has vigorously defended the company's safety record. Still, the NHTSA said it is conducting a formal investigation.
That's not deterring Burns' love of the car and Tesla the company. The main driver of her devotion to both her car and Tesla the company, is its sustainability mission.
"It stands to reason that with a new car and new technology you'll understand you're a beta tester and things will turn up that you don't expect," she said.
When asked if she thinks Tesla's mission is on the same level of Apple's fans who camp out days before an iPhone release outside its stores, Burns said it is deeper.
"I think one thing that's different about Tesla fandom is that people are inspired by the social mission of the company to ultimately save the planet from global warming," she said. "That's not an element of Apple's mission."
The fiery incidents seemed to have only emboldened Tesla customers even more, similarly impassioning Musk after news reports questioned the safety record of the Model S.
After news of the third fire hit Twittersphere, one comment on TeslaMotorsClub.com, a community site not officially affiliated with Tesla, wrote, "I guess it's time for another round of speculation and media reports."
Another Tesla driver shared a story on the website on Oct. 5 with the subject, "I'm living proof the Model S is the safest car ever made!"
With the username Jdovi, the driver from Long Island, N.Y., shared photos the wreckage after claiming the Model S was hit by a driver talking on her cell phone.
"I was lucky enough to walk away with no broken bones while the person who hit me left in an ambulance," the message board comment stated. "I can tell you with absolute certainty, my model S protected me where other cars would have failed. This recent story of the car being unsafe due to a battery fire is ridiculous. My car did not so much as smoke, and not a drop of liquid was released. This is the safest car on the road hands down, and for me, I can say honestly say it saved my life. Thank you Elon."
Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said it's not surprising to see a high level of passion from Tesla owners. Many Leaf, Volt and Prius owners feel the same way, as do owners of 911s, Corvettes and Ferraris, he said.
"But Elon Musk combines technical talent with charisma, which has arguably contributed as much to Tesla's notoriety as the technology behind powering his cars," Brauer said. "Steve Jobs added a relatable human element to Apple's image, which made both the company and the individual more appealing to Apple fans. Whether by design or not, Elon is having the same effect on Tesla."
Ben Kallo, senior analyst for Robert W. Baird covering energy technology and resource management, said a recent Tesla car owners' event in the San Francisco Bay Area two months ago on a Sunday morning exemplified the company's cultish following.
With pastries and coffee, about 200 people gathered, half of whom were owners and their families while the other half were simply onlookers who wanted to look at the cars.
"It's pretty amazing you have that type of turnout on a Sunday morning at 10 o' clock," he said. "I thought that was a good indicator. Talking to Tesla owners, you get a sense that at least one of three claim to have led to a friend or family buying a car. Being in San Francisco, I talk to owners whenever I can. They are probably the best sales people out there for the car."
Still, Kallo says it's too early to tell whether the fire incidents are going to affect Tesla's sales. He forecasts a strong fourth quarter for the company, with shipments to Europe already delivered.
"I think it will take a little while longer. I think it will be a while until things are addressed," he said.
In Kallo's sector of energy technology, the level of fandom that Tesla customers show is certainly an "outlier." It helps that Tesla is a consumer-facing company, as is Solar City, Musk's other company.
Both companies are focused on customer service and are trying to build a brand, Kallo said.
Tesla's customer demographics tend to be highly educated, high-income earners.
"It's the cool thing to have in many circles," he said.