Has Tesla Become a Driverless Car Company?

What social media can tell us about Tesla’s mission to reimagine the car

header via getty images

When Tesla’s first car hit the road in 2008, nobody was totally sure what to make of it. The Roadster was unlike any vehicle that had come before. It was the first mass-market electric vehicle, capable of traveling 200 miles on a single charge of its groundbreaking lithium-ion battery. It was also a luxury sports car in the truest sense — a $100,000+ beauty that went from 0 to 60 in under four seconds.
More than anything, the Roadster was a curiosity — an exciting step into the world of electric vehicles that was still a long way from the mainstream. In 2009, Tesla produced about 800 Roadsters, scarcely worth mentioning in an industry that cranks out millions of vehicles a year.
The Roadster was, in other words, a remarkable — if confounding — first step in Tesla’s march toward a new automotive future. The company proved that electric vehicles could be covetable, but it had barely made a dent commercially.
But Tesla’s cartoonishly audacious leader, Elon Musk, always intended the Roadster to be just that: a first step. His grand plan is nothing short of transforming the auto industry. And in the last few years, it has become clear that this doesn’t only mean introducing and popularizing electric vehicles, but completely reimagining the commercial vehicle by marrying it to the most cutting-edge technology.
In the years since the Roadster’s launch, Tesla has continuously upgraded the technology associated with its cars — and not just in the interest of becoming more eco-friendly, which appeared to be the company’s primary objective. Rather, Tesla has added expansive touchscreens, adaptive headlights, and incrementally rolled out their self-driving technology.

Tesla and Tech

All of this makes one thing clear: Tesla is no longer simply an electric car company. It is, rather, an electric carmaker with its sights set on remaking the car from the tires up.
And if you need proof that this is what is going on, look no further than social media.
In the last several years, the social media conversation surrounding Tesla has evolved in lockstep with the company itself — from a small conversation about eco-friendly autos in 2010, to a massive online conversation today, covering everything from self-driving cars to direct-to-consumer sales.
That’s a long way from 800 eco-friendly sports cars. So what happened? How has Tesla changed in the eyes of consumers? Is the company still talked about as an electric car maker? Or has it evolved into something more?
In this post, we analyze the evolving social conversation about Tesla to better understand how consumers view the groundbreaking company, its products, and the future of personal vehicles.
To start, let’s look at how the social discussion of Tesla has grown since 2010.

Electric Buzz

In its early days, the social media conversation about Tesla was small and primarily focused on the company’s perceived mission to make cars greener.
But, before long, the conversation around Tesla changed. Like many tech-industry disruptors (notably Airbnb), the Tesla discussion on social grew and, as it did, it became more multifaceted.

From 2010 to 2014, Tesla conversation increased steadily, but it wasn’t until the first quarter of 2015 that discussion took off. Since 2013, conversation has increased five times its volume in the past year.
But the more important question is: How did the conversation change? As more consumers started talking about Tesla, which topics did they focus on? Was it the brand’s eco-friendly bona fides? Or its ever-evolving technology?
Or, put another way:

What, precisely, has Tesla become?

When we zoom in on the Tesla conversation and bucket it by features, we see that Tesla, as a company, has shifted in the eyes of consumers over time.

This chart, which tracks the most popular Tesla-related features from 2010 to 2016, makes it clear that Tesla’s driverless technology has displaced almost every other topic in the conversation. Before 2012, the feature was not even on consumers’ radars, and now it accounts for nearly 80% of the top-features discussion.
Before autopilot arrived on the scene, Tesla’s touchscreen technology drove the conversation. But in the last few years, that topic has almost completely fallen off the map. Instead, consumers are fixating on autopilot.
More than anything else, this shows that Tesla has not only gone well beyond its reputation as an “electric car company,” but also that Tesla itself has been absorbed into the larger auto industry conversations of the day.
In the last few years, self-driving technology has emerged as a (if not the) central topic in the auto industry.

Prepare for takeoff

It seems like you can’t open a browser these days without seeing a new story about driverless technology. Some of it is good; some of it is bad; and some of it is, well, complicated. But, long-term impacts aside, self-driving cars have begun to occupy a lot of consumer attention. Especially on social media.
Here’s how the self-driving car conversation has grown on social media.

In the last few years, the discussion about self-driving cars has exploded, and, since 2014, the conversation volume started to truly spike. This is also the year Tesla introduced its autopilot technology.

Tesla Goes Mainstream

The huge social conversation surrounding Tesla’s autopilot feature is just part of the larger picture, though. As the company has become more of a mainstream car company, the conversation surrounding it has begun to resemble the discussions of more traditional carmakers. That is to say, it has become more negative.

In 2012, when Tesla was still in the margins of the online car conversation, the discussion about it was largely positive. Nearly half of the conversation was classified as ‘joyful’ as consumers talked about the company’s forward-thinking design and inspirational ambitions.

But by 2016, joy had declined to just over a quarter of the overall conversation, as anger, sadness and fear have all climbed.

You might see this as a cautionary tale. Tesla, once a company defined by its ambition to popularize the electric car, has been felled by its own overreach. When we divide the Tesla conversation into emotions, and look at the topics driving those emotions, we start to see a story of a car company that has expanded into potentially dangerous territory.

There is still joy in the Tesla conversation for sure — especially around Elon Musk and the cars’ sleek design — but there is also a lot of negative conversation around troublesome software updates, performance issues, and, of course, self-driving fears.
But seeing the growing negativity in the Tesla social conversation as an indication that the company has gone off the rails misses the point. The negative conversation is not a symptom of major missteps — it is a symptom of a company that has gone from Silicon Valley curiosity to a major player in the international car market.

The Future of Tesla

There is a big difference between a small company chasing a narrow, admirable aim and a massive company disrupting one of the world’s largest industries. Tesla is learning that now. As it has slowly shed its “eco-friendly car” reputation in exchange for the much broader “future of the car” reputation it has, unsurprisingly, encountered some headwinds. Its autopilot feature has engendered fear, its cutting-edge automatic software updates have caused anger, and its enticing (but expensive) internal technology has led to sadness from those who can’t afford it.
But, taken together, these negative aspects are counterbalanced by Tesla’s large ambitions and increasing presence in consumers’ minds. For more information about the evolution of Tesla, download our social media analytics report below.

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