WHEN DOES A six second video send the car and tech communities into a frenzy? When it’s posted by Elon Musk, and it shows his long-gestating new baby, the Tesla Model 3, peeling away from a standstill under heavy acceleration before braking to a hard stop 100 feet up the street.
What makes this clip—grainy, short, stripped of context—so interesting? The same reasons that pushed rabid fans to mock up an online configurator, the automotive equivalent of fan fic. For one, Tesla has revealed close to zilch about the car since showing it off as a prototype a year ago, even though production should start this summer. And two, this is the most anticipated—and most important—vehicle the upstart automaker will ever build.
Starting at $35,000 ($27,500 if you can land the federal tax credit) and offering 215 miles of range, the Model 3 is Tesla’s bid for the mass market, the car that could move it out of the luxury segment and realize Musk’s dream of changing how humanity moves.
So, with a few months before production is supposed to start, here’s a look at what we know about the current state of the Model 3—and when you can get your zap-happy paws on one.
First drive of a release candidate version of Model 3 pic.twitter.com/zcs6j1YRa4
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2017
First, a closer look at that tweet. Musk captioned the new video, “First drive of a release candidate version of Model 3,” indicating the on-screen star is pretty much ready for sale, but might need some bugs ironed out. So, good news: The Model 3 looks just like the sleek, handsome prototype Musk revealed on stage last year (at least from the outside). That’s unusual; in the real world, regulations and production restrictions tend to kill off design flourishes. Compare the similarly affordable, long-range Bolt EV to the concept Chevy showed in 2015: Gone are the heavily raked windshield, grille-free front bumper, and wrap around rear window. The car looks more ‘normal’.
Now, in the non-Tesla world, car development is a slow process. Engineers typically work through alpha and beta prototype phases, where technicians assemble vehicles by hand. They wait to fine-tune the heavy machinery that stamps out body parts in case they need to modify the design. By calling this a “release candidate,” Musk implies the car was assembled on finalized equipment, meaning Tesla might be skipping some steps, and speeding through the process. No surprise, given Musk’s focus on production line improvements, and disdain for the “traditional way” of doing things.
“My reading is that Tesla felt confident in the shape and design of their parts, so they can go ahead and invest in the heavy duty machinery,” says Arthur Wheaton, an auto industry expert at Cornell University. That could signal smooth sailing, or it could be resignation on Tesla’s part—a recognition that it can’t afford a delay, so it’s just going to press ahead with the design it has and hope for the best.
So, when can you get one? Musk has pledged Tesla will begin production of the Model 3 will mid-year, and deliver cars to customers before the end of 2017. That’s an aggressive target, especially for a car company with a long history of missing deadlines by months or even years. Even today, owners of the latest Model S and X cars are waiting for a software update to enable updated Autopilot features Tesla promised would be ready three months ago.
Tesla has also built a reputation for quality control issues. Future-hungry early adopters might put up with wobbly seats and poor panel gaps, but down market buyers, whom Tesla must now woo away from BMW, Chevrolet, and the like, won’t forgive flaws so easily. Wealthy Model S and X owners probably have another car in their garage to fall back on, Model 3 owners likely won’t, which will only exacerbate their frustrations if their new ride spends half its life at the service center.
Musk knows all this, and has a strategy: simplify everything to make production easy. The Model 3 might look like a shrunken Model S, but Tesla is stressing that under the skin it’s a different kind of machine, and it has got this car building thing sorted out now. That’s why the new car has just one screen, instead of the two in the S and X (each with their own computer). The S has nearly two miles of electrical cabling, the 3 has half that. Tesla nixed the automatic pop-out door handles and jettisoned the falcon wing doors that led the Model X into what Musk calls “production hell.”
“It’s a simpler design, and we also understand manufacturing a lot better than we did in the past,” Musk said during a recent call with investors. He says the first cars will be rear wheel drive only, to keep things simple in the factory. If you want all wheel drive, or high performance versions, you’ll have to wait an extra six months a year. Not so say the Model 3 won’t have any fun. It will carry the hardware for Autopilot and self-driving, as well as supercharging, but Tesla is yet to reveal how much those features will add to the base price.
Say the first vehicles off the line have some problems. That’s cool, because they’re all going to Tesla employees, for an unofficial, continued search for bugs, particularly any that can be fixed with an over-the-air software update. For all other Model 3 fans, a combination of patience, speculation, and obsessive watching of Elon Musk’s Twitter feed will have to be enough for now.