Update, 12/27/2018: Recently, Elon Musk that the automaker will "cover the tax credit difference" for any customers who expected their cars to be delivered in time but fall victim to last-minute delivery delays. Below is our original article, first published Oct. 19, 2018.
Tesla has sold more electric vehicles than just about anyone, surpassing 200,000 cars and SUVs this year. That's presenting a unique challenge for Tesla, and for any US customer interested in ordering a Model S, Model X or Model 3 in the remaining days of 2018: There's no way of knowing how much your new Tesla will actually cost you to buy.
That's because, as we reported recently, Tesla is the first automaker to outgrow the US's $7500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. The federal program stipulated that the full tax credit would apply to the first 200,000 electric vehicles sold by an automaker. Once an automaker surpasses 200,000 EVs, any remaining eligible vehicles sold that year would get $7500; starting January 1st of the following year, the credit would drop to $3750, then to $1875 on July 1st, before being eliminated the following January 1st.
Here's where it gets complicated: You can't just walk into a dealership and drive home a new Tesla the same day. Each vehicle produced by the American carmaker is special-ordered; customers select their options, then, some weeks later, their car is delivered, either to a local Tesla facility or directly to the customer.
So if you order a new Tesla in the next few weeks, and it's delivered to you by December 31st, you'll get $7500 in federal tax credit. If your car shows up on or after January 1st, you'll only receive $3750 in tax breaks. In the last days of 2018, anything that causes a delayed delivery—be it inclement weather or production troubles at Tesla's factory—could end up costing a Tesla customer $3750 in missed tax credits.
Previously, Tesla guaranteed that any orders received by October 15th would be delivered by December 31st, allowing customers to receive the full $7500. But now that October 15th has passed, it's unclear how many new orders will be delivered in time to get the full $7500 credit.
And Tesla has already had problems with delayed deliveries. In September, of several Model 3 customers whose vehicles were repeatedly delayed, some "indefinitely." A customer frustrated by repeat delays got a Twitter reply from Elon Musk acknowledging the difficulty of delivering thousands of previously-ordered cars:
A customer who places an order at the end of 2018 could find themselves in this position come December—and end up paying $3750 more than they anticipated spending on their car.
On its website, Tesla estimates that a newly-ordered Model 3 will take four weeks to be delivered to the west coast, six weeks to reach the middle states, and eight weeks to get to the east coast. Individual delivery estimates vary based on the drivetrain and equipment selected. Once an order is placed, a Tesla representative stays in with the customer to provide more specific estimates and updates.
To certain Tesla buyers—particularly those opting for the highest-spec Model S or Model X, which can push well beyond $120,000—paying an extra $3750 likely won't break the bank. But to someone interested in the newly-announced lowest-price Model 3, a delayed delivery could mean the difference between a $37,500 car and one costing $41,250, a ten-percent price hike they may not have bargained for. [Update, 10/24/2018: Today, Tesla added $1000 to the base price of the least-expensive Model 3, bringing it to $46,000 before incentives, and cut $1000 from the base price of the mid-range variant, t0 $53,000.] Customers can opt to pick up their cars at Tesla's Fremont, California factory to cut down on wait time, and Tesla has always allowed customers to cancel an order without penalty as long as the car has not yet been delivered.
But it's hard to find an analogous phenomenon anywhere else in the car-buying world. Usually, you agree on a purchase price before you receive your car. For a certain number of Tesla customers, the experience will be reversed: they'll decide to buy the car, then at a later date, they'll find out how much it will cost them.
When reached by Road & Track, a Tesla spokesperson said, "the deadline we added to the website was simply the date by which customers can custom order a vehicle and we can guarantee they’ll have access to the full tax credit, if they’re eligible. But it does not necessarily mean that customers who order after that date will not have access to the full credit. All customers who take delivery of their vehicle before the end of the year will be able to apply for the full credit, and we will continue to work to deliver as many cars as possible this quarter, even if an order is placed after the deadline."