Last week, Elon Musk unveiled a new model of his Tesla electric car, one that—in contrast to the brand's previous flashy and expensive versions—would actually be somewhat affordable at $35,000. 

Consumers jumped. Within days, over 270,000 preorders had been placed. That's more than the total number of electric cars sold in the last 5 years, combined.

What's behind the hype? Is it the constant drive to have the newest, coolest gadget? Or a new generation of consumers tuned into environmental concerns?

Both, says Harvard historian Nancy Koehn—but a lot of it is also wrapped up in the company's eccentric and compelling founder.

"There comes in every epoch, every historical moment, a few inventors that see the future and find the means and the audacity and the backers and the chutzpah to really try to actualize that," said Koehn. "This is someone who doesn't just make cars, he's going to take us to Mars in 30 years."

That isn't to say that there aren't major limitations. Out of the 253.1 million cars on the road in the United States, only a tiny fraction—just 420,000—are electric. This Tesla model in particular could only go 215 miles before requiring a charging station, and only 4,000 charging stations can be found on American roads, mostly in the state of California. 

But Koehn points toward the seemingly insurmountable problems that faced Henry Ford before the release of the Model T—steel shortages, late deliveries on earlier models, to name a few—and notes they didn't stop the Model T from taking off. Things in America today are changing rapidly, too—by the end of the year, there will be 7,200 charging stations around the country, a doubling of the current number.

Perhaps most importantly, Koehn thinks Musk's maniacal drive and demonstrated commitment show that the odds he can pull it off are better than average.

"It's going to be messy, and there's going to be a lot of stuff that goes wrong," she said. "But we neglect and criticize and belittle the possibility of this at the peril of being wrong in a big way."

Nancy Koehn is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. To hear more from her, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.