It’s finally here: The Model 3, Tesla’s $35,000 electric gamechanger. A single black Model 3 rolled off the production line Friday with a serial number all its own, kicking off a company-defining six months. The car will belong to Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO and co-founder, who shared images of it on Twitter over the weekend.
Tesla has already taken in roughly half a billion dollars in Model 3 deposits, at $1,000 apiece, and its proposed ramp-up schedule would have it rivaling well-established U.S. market peers like BMW and Mercedes by year’s end. The only thing standing between Tesla and being the world’s first mass-market electric carmaker is proving it can build, deliver, and service enormous numbers of these vehicles—without sacrificing quality.
One down, millions more to go.
The production acceleration will be slow at first. Tesla plans to hand over the keys to 30 cars at a launch celebration on July 28. It then envisions building 100 cars—less than three a day—for the month of August, according to a series of Twitter posts by Musk last week. September will bring another 1,500 cars, and the ramp will build to a rate of 20,000 cars a month by December, Musk said. It’s an aggressive schedule that will more than double Tesla’s total production rate in six months, and then quintuple it by the end of next year.
If Tesla achieves all of Musk’s targets, it will build more battery-powered cars next year than all of the world’s automakers combined in 2016. U.S. sales under Musk’s 2018 targets would significantly outpace the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class, the best-selling small luxury cars in the country.
Tesla, by tradition, delivers the first new car off the line to the first customer to pay full price once the car officially goes on sale. Musk’s collection includes the first Tesla Roadster and the first Model X—but not the first Model S. That trophy belongs to Tesla board of directors member Steve Jurvetson, who told the Chicago Tribune in 2010 that he scored the first of Tesla’s flagship sedans by writing out a check just before a board meeting and tossing it across the table. The right to the first Model 3 was won by board member Ira Ehrenpreis, who then gifted it to Musk for his 46th birthday, on June 28.
Here’s what we know about what might be coming next:
The rollout begins. Key handoffs will begin in California and move east, focusing first on employees of Tesla and Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, then on other U.S. reservation holders who stood in line before the car’s unveiling some 15 months ago. People who place new orders today won’t receive their cars until the middle of next year, according to Tesla’s website.
The carmaker will be taking things slowly at first, as it looks to avoid the disastrous rollout of the Model X, which was marred by misaligned body panels, software glitches, problems with the falcon wing doors and spaceship-like seats, and a fleet-wide recall tied to a seatbelt issue. (These faults have largely been addressed, and the Model X is now the fourth best-selling luxury SUV in the U.S.)
There’s tremendous demand for the Model 3 among Tesla’s 30,000 employees—most of whom are unable to afford the pricier Model S and Model X. Musk is putting that interest to use, releasing the first several thousand Model 3s to employee reservation holders. Any problems identified during the early rollout can be quickly addressed at the factory.
Features are being stripped down. Over the past few months, Musk has consistently tried to downplay expectations for new features. The car that rolled off the production line on Friday shouldn’t stray far from the original prototype unveiled in March 2016. There will only be one display—the car’s 15-inch touchscreen—with no additional gauges or heads-up-display projected at the windshield.
Additionally, the dual-motor all-wheel drive and high performance versions of the Model 3 will be delayed for six to nine months to keep initial production as simple as possible.
New Aero wheels are coming. Tesla was granted a patent on June 6 for this new aerodynamic wheel face, one of two designs that the company has deployed on the test cars seen driving around the country in recent months. (The other design is shown in the production car above).
Tesla briefly offered Aero wheels for the Model S in 2013, but they were considered unattractive by many consumers and were quickly pulled from the market. At the time, Tesla said they could boost the car's range by 3% to 4%.
How far is Tesla going with Autopilot for the launch? Last October, Musk set some wild timelines for full self-driving capabilities in the Tesla fleet. The company upgraded the hardware suite of its full line-up of cars to eight surround cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, a forward radar, and a massively powerful new computer. He said it was all the hardware that will be needed for driverless transport. By the end of 2017, Musk said, he hoped to demonstrate a cross-country trip without any driver interaction.
So far, Tesla hasn’t backed off those predictions. For the past nine months, it’s been charging customers an extra $3,000 for an option called “Full Self-Driving Capability.” However, the software still hasn’t been released to make any new features available, and to date, the pricey option adds no additional functionality.
Musk has dropped a number of hints that those features will start rolling out around the launch of the Model 3. In January, I asked him at what point “Full Self-Driving Capability” will depart from the “Enhanced Autopilot” features. His response, via a post on Twitter: “3 months maybe, 6 months definitely.” Six months would coincide with the July launch.
Tesla has yet to release a detailed list of the Model 3’s specs, features, and pricing, more of which will be revealed at the car’s launch party on July 28. Here’s what has been disclosed so far:
The Model 3 goes from zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds, according to a spec sheet Tesla published in May. That’s faster than the base model BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C Class, the leading cars in the compact luxury space. The car will be able to drive at least 215 miles on a single charge, with options to upgrade to a bigger battery. Last year, Musk said the company will push for even greater range. The roof is an almost continuous sheet of glass that stretches from the front of the car to the rear to give riders a sense of openness. The layered glass is designed to block UV rays and manage heat. All Model 3s will come equipped with hardware for Tesla’s Autopilot features and high-speed Supercharging. Customers will have to pay to use them, though pricing hasn’t been made public. The Model 3 will have two trunks with about 14 cubic feet of combined storage space, and the rear seats will fold down to accommodate longer items. That’s comparable to other cars in its class but less than half the storage volume of the Model S sedan. The body is made of a mix of lightweight aluminum and cheaper steel, primarily the latter. Tesla’s signature touch-screen control panel will be flipped on its side and shrunk from 17 inches to 15 inches. It handles everything from navigation to speed. The traditional instrument panel under the dash is gone entirely. The car is designed to fit five adults comfortably, in part by pushing the front passengers forward to provide more legroom in the back seat. Rear-wheel drive is standard, with a future option for dual-motor all-wheel drive. Reservation holders who want all-wheel drive or other delayed options will be able to defer their purchase without entirely losing their place in line. The number of Tesla’s high-speed charging stations will double by the end of the year to 10,000. Slower destination chargers will jump from 9,000 to 15,000.
The era of the Model 3 has begun. Now it’s time for Tesla to really get to work.
By Tom Randall