No matter how you look at it — technology, design, business — the Tesla Model 3 reveal last night in Los Angeles was a seismic moment. The new, $35,000 mass-market electric car, with clean sculpting destined for many a sci-fi-film cameo, promises to bring CEO Elon Musk’s forward-thinking transportation vision to folks who don’t necessarily have swollen bank accounts. But it’s so much more than just that. Think about it: When was the last time a $35,000 car has generated this much excitement? Never — not on this level, anyway. So then, why now?
On a purely fiscal level, the Model 3 promises to mollify the company’s persistent critics on Wall Street, who, rather than thrill to the futuristic vibes of Elon Musk, tend to focus on things like profits and losses — the latter of which have been consistently spectacular at Tesla. After government incentives, this 215-mile-range Model 3 could be had for as little as $25,000, handily beating the $30,000, 200-mile-range Chevy Bolt EV due later this year. It’ll be a huge financial victory for the company and a sweet score for anyone who manages to get their mitts on one.
The Model 3 will also — potentially — validate Musk’s long-held belief that EV technology can be scaled in all directions to save mankind from its polluting ways. (Though his backup plan, SpaceX, will be there to boost us off this rock in case it ultimately doesn’t.) Of course, there’s a lot that needs to happen for these visions to flesh out completely. First of all, the car needs to reach production by the end of 2017, as Tesla promises, and that’s contingent on Tesla’s lithium-battery-producing Gigafactory in Nevada coming fully online. It’ll also depend on Tesla’s ability to significantly ramp up its production capabilities. Don’t forget, the Model X SUV that debuted just a few months ago is getting off to an excruciatingly slow start, due to hiccups in the manufacturing process.
Another thing that needs to happen: the Model 3 must find its market. That sounds obvious — and even a foregone conclusion, given the 115,000 orders that were placed almost immediately after the floodgates opened. But Tesla needs to produce millions of cars to truly move the needle. In this age of cheap gas, it’s not a lock that everyone on Earth will want an electric car, even if it’s the sleekest thing this side of, well, the Model S. It helps that the Supercharger network Tesla wisely created is expanding briskly, enabling drivers to fill up their cars while getting coffee, rather than needing to wait overnight to achieve a full-range charge. But beyond early adopters, even a 30-minute top-off might prove too much of hassle for most.
That’s a pity, of course, because drivers should want this car. The Model 3 represents the high-water mark of Tesla’s broad technological vision to date: it’s quick, safe, stylish, and infused with technology aimed at making driving safer and more enjoyable (all of which has already been validated in its previous models). It will have Tesla’s Autopilot autonomous-drive capability standard, and a widescreen tablet to interface with the car’s navigation, entertainment, and operational functions. The car’s electric motors, designed and built in-house and in general rarely spoken of by consumers and reviewers, are simple, powerful solutions that benefit from their own century of global industrial development. Indeed, go open the hood of your car and tell me that the internal combustion engine — with its hoses, pipes, fluids and still-fickle reliability — is a better solution. Savvy drivers will realize that the Model 3 will be the tech bargain of the century, and a gorgeous beacon of high design on the roads.
All of this combined paints a picture of a bold new ecosystem, and a complete one, at that. There are Teslas up and down the spectrum now, battery production is humming along, and marketing and non-dealer sales strategies are in place that perfectly showcase the company’s determination to reshape how everything is done. It’s inescapable: Tesla’s vision is the way forward.