At the end of July last year, Brett Alcox, a 28-year-old software engineer in Kansas City, placed an order for a Tesla. Like hundreds of thousands of Tesla buyers every year, he placed the order through the company’s website, choosing the exact specifications and features he wanted. His confirmation email said the car would be delivered in 8 to 14 weeks.
That’s not unusual for buyers of Teslas, or electric cars in general, these days. Waitlists for EVs are long, and longer now than they were last July. Excited customers sometimes preorder cars years in advance. But even those who don’t may find they have to wait months or longer for their new car due to increasing demand and supply chain shortages as the industry ramps up EV production.
Most people wait patiently for their deliveries. But not Alcox. He knew something most Tesla customers don’t, and he had the programming skills to take advantage of it. Essentially, he figured out a way to skip the line by building a tool that would immediately notify him when a Tesla became available for purchase.
To understand how he did it, it’s important to recognize that car manufacturing is not intended for a preorder system where customers have lots of options and variations to choose from. Mass-producing cars is about volume. Tesla does not manufacture cars like a sit-down restaurant, where customers place an order, the order goes to the kitchen, and the chefs prepare a dish to fulfill that specific order to its specifications. Instead, Tesla operates more like a fast food restaurant—of course, fast-food restaurants modeled their operations on Fordian-style mass production—where the cooks in the back make a certain number of hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and french fry orders per hour in response to projected customer demand, aiming to align what comes out of the mass production system with customer demand as closely as they can.
The key difference between fast food restaurants and Tesla for our purposes here is that restaurants throw out food they don’t sell, whereas Tesla sells everything it makes. But there are still some number of cars that, like hamburgers sitting under the heating lights, don’t have a matching buyer. That’s where Alcox’s idea comes in.
For cars that don’t have a customer waiting for them—be it no preorder customer exactly matches its specifications, the customer rejected the delivery for any number of reasons that have nothing to with the car, or a showroom model is being put up for sale—Tesla lists them on the website as “existing inventory.” The price is the same as a brand new Tesla listed at that given time, although if the car is based somewhere far away it will cost a little extra to either ship it or pick it up.
“The idea with existing inventory, is you just skip the entire wait,” Alcox said. But they can be tricky to find or require a lot of page-refreshing. So Alcox made a tool to alert him the instant one got listed for sale.
By the second week of August, Alcox built himself such a tool similar to other Discord communities and bots for notifying and automatically buying sneakers, Playstations, GPUs, and other hard to find items. On August 15, he had a Tesla in his driveway, just two weeks after he had placed his order online, thanks to finding an “existing inventory” Tesla elsewhere and shipping it to Kansas City for about $500.
After making the tool more accurate and user-friendly—and giving it a semi-permanent home inside a Docker container on a Raspberry Pi in his living room—Alcox decided to share it on various Tesla forums. The tool runs in a Discord server which also has a community to discuss other aspects of EV ownership. Copycats have sprung up since, including a Twitter account for basic alerts with about 1,600 followers and a Facebook group Alcox says copy-pastes alerts from his Discord server which he says is “very obvious based on how my tool styles the notifications.”
Alcox can tell how quickly a car gets sold because the link will no longer work. He says the time varies from when his tracker posts a link to the link going dead depending on the car. A reasonably-spec’d out Model Y can be gone in literal seconds. Demo vehicles can stick around for hours.
Alcox cleans out the Discord server list periodically for inactive users, but he estimates about 4,000 to 5,000 people have passed through during the seven months it’s been active. He doesn’t have a way to track how many cars have been bought through his tracker, but he guesses somewhere between 250 and 500. But the people who do are often very grateful. After enough happy customers asked how to send him a thank-you tip, he posted Paypal and Venmo links for those who want to say thanks. He’s approaching four figures in tips and says the notes left with them are always always the same. “Everyone leaves a note something like ‘thank you I got a Model Y six months early’ or something like that.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Tesla Inventory Twitter account was run by Alcox, but it’s not. He only runs the Discord server.