Find out why the Model 3 is the fastest-selling car in history and how this will change the EV market in the UK
Tesla has blazed a trail through the electric vehicle market with its devil-may-care business model, as the record-breaking Model 3 shows…
The Tesla: from workshop to worldwide
Every few months, my job takes me to meet a small crew of hopefuls starting a car company. Even those with modest ambitions almost always fail. In January 2007, I visited Tesla, a company of a few people – albeit some were already dotcom squillionnaires – in an unprepossessing workshop. The roof leaked, but the people were persuasive as they outlined their astoundingly ambitious plan.
I rode in the prototype of their spartan little roadster, the first ‘performance’ electric car the world had seen. Their plan was to sell a few of those at a high price and fund a second – more complex – saloon, sales of which would in turn fund an electric car to sell in large numbers. Even more unlikely, they were using what was, in cars, the unproven technology of laptop-type lithium ion batteries.
The Tesla Model 3 I’m in today became, on its launch in America, the fastest-selling car in history. Now, it’s available in Britain – but why the fuss?
It’s because it can do things most drivers simply wouldn’t believe possible: its extraordinarily strong silent acceleration; its near-self-driving capability, at least on motorways; also, don’t underestimate the fact that Tesla has gone beyond building the car, and installed the means to supply its energy.
It’s not just the scale of Tesla’s achievements that’s remarkable, it’s the rush of it all. Even in early 2012, Tesla was selling just one vehicle, in tiny numbers – that little roadster. Seven years on, it has launched the luxury model S and the related model X SUV, and this mid-sized Model 3. Tesla’s rate of sales has now overtaken that of the whole Mini range.
Already three more vehicles are in prototype: a mid-size crossover, a heavy truck and a super-sports car. It also leads the world in autonomous driving. Tesla’s battery plant is the world’s biggest, with another ramping up and a third, in China, planned. The firm also makes solar panels and grid-electricity storage systems.
In general the motor industry doesn’t change much in seven years – the Volkswagen Up has been around longer than that – yet Tesla has shot from obscurity to being a full-size player, with an influence far beyond even its present size. It has proved there’s a mass appetite for electric cars in cheap-gasoline America and in Europe, even if Nissan’s Leaf beat the Tesla Model S to be the first plausible electric saloon.
But only now are the rest of the big global car companies launching their own purpose-designed electric cars. The Silicon Valley techies re-invented the old, slow car business and Tesla has been more nimble, flexible and connected. Also vastly more cool. But Tesla has shown another common characteristic of a Californian startup. It has swallowed billions of investors’ money and consistently failed to turn a profit. It believes in an emissions-free, accident-free future. Generating an income seems to be secondary, which might be why the old-guard industry didn’t exactly rush to follow.
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The latest Tesla car: the Model 3
The Model 3 is the size of a BMW 3-series and costs similar money – a bit more to buy, but less to run and tax. The nose is low and stubby because there’s no engine, so you get a small second boot under the bonnet. The battery is under the floor, so rear passengers sit slightly knees-up – no big deal.
The real wow is the dashboard, an ultra-clean piece of furniture, with hidden air vents and a single, huge touchscreen to impart all information and serve almost all the controls. This seems magical at first, but many commonly used functions are buried in the menus. Dabbing at it as you drive can be hit-and-miss – especially when you hit the accelerator. This is the Performance version, with a powerful electric motor driving the rear wheels and another for the front. Emerge from a 30mph limit past the derestriction sign and its acceleration will match a Ferrari four times the price, in force if not in nature. In a supercar, you press the throttle and it draws breath while spooling up its turbochargers and changing down some gears, then it pelts forward in a furious maelstrom. The Tesla simply bolts silently forward. No initial delay. The digital speedo numbers blur and passengers are thumped back in their seats.
The acceleration is so easy and the traction so secure that it takes no particular skill to drive very fast; the skill is in anticipating the hazards that might appear while you’re back here, because suddenly you’ll be over there. It’s a little tricky to drive smoothly, too, because even a small bump in the road sets your foot wobbling, unleashing and releasing the power. Still, there’s an on-screen menu choice for ‘chill mode’, restricting acceleration and making it less nervy. Gliding in silence at normal traffic speed is wonderfully relaxing. That’s also the way to hit the official-test 329 miles range.
Cheaper versions of the Model 3 have less power and they’re still lively cars. In other respects – the steering’s progression, the suspension’s cushioning fluency, the seats’ support – the Model 3 doesn’t quite match the best of its rivals from BMW, Audi or Mercedes. But it’s broadly competitive.
Charging up an electric car
We stop with friends and graze some electricity from their charge point. Most electric-car owners do charge up at home or work. True, it’s slow, about 12 hours from flat to full with the Model 3, but if you have a driveway, it’s more convenient than going to a filling station. Imagine starting every day with more than 250 miles range ‘in the tank’. How often would you need to recharge on-the-go?
Still, Tesla has invested hugely in its network of Superchargers. They’re fast and hugely convenient. The charger recognises the individual car and your account is billed. Roll up near-flat and half an hour later you’ve got another 170 miles range.
We head onward. Part of the dash screen displays a continuous graphic of the road lines and edge with the traffic around the car, distinguishing cars, vans, trucks and motorbikes – people, animals and cycles too. The Model 3 has all the cameras needed to view the scene, plus the powerful processor that, via powerful algorithms, interprets it and predicts the path of all the traffic, to plot a path for itself as long as you rest your hands on the wheel. At the moment it can do this only on motorways, including through cloverleaf junctions, but it will be updated as the software is proven elsewhere.
Tesla's autonomous driving system
Tesla’s autonomous driving system is very different from the ones being developed by the ‘traditional’ car makers. In line with Tesla’s Silicon Valley roots, it uses simpler sensors and maps, but much smarter intelligence, with algorithms being continually refined by the experiences of the other half-million Tesla cars connected to the company’s central data analytics server. Already, prototype Teslas can do door-to-door drives in Californian cities, suburbs and freeways, although even when it works well, it’s still not legal to use a car autonomously.
But one day it will be – and at that point Tesla’s business could transform. The Tesla Network is the company’s planned robo-taxi app. Users summon an autonomous Tesla car on their phone and it drives them to the destination. The fare is split between the car’s owner, defraying purchase cost, and Tesla itself.
This could radically transform Tesla’s business, in a way that – unlike manufacturing cars – could have very high profit margins. Sure, at first it will be in the US only – indeed, autonomous driving is acknowledged to be far harder in Europe than the US, and our lawmakers will be more conservative, with post-Brexit UK possibly taking a different approach from the EU – but, eventually, Tesla’s predictions have an eerie habit of coming to fruit.
First affordable long-range electric car, first affordable autonomous car – and the first car for a mass robo-taxi business. The Model 3 could be the most transformative car since the Model T Ford. The crazy performance and futuristic interior are just the tiniest part of the revolution.