Model behaviour: Elon Musk raises the stakes

Andrew WadeAndrew Wade
Senior reporter

When it comes to product launches, Elon Musk is no Steve Jobs. For all his flaws, the former Apple boss was a natural showman, skilled at whipping a crowd into frenzy, delivering big moments with timing and aplomb. Granted, that crowd was generally comprised of Apple mega-geeks who would’ve cheered if Jobs had been peddling actual apples. For the rest of us though, there was usually some pretty exciting technology to froth over, rather than the mere presence of the dear leader.

Watching Musk on stage, you sometimes get the impression he’d rather be anywhere else. The South African born entrepreneur’s academic background is in physics, and one imagines he’s probably more comfortable crunching numbers and tweaking designs than he is presenting to a room full of people. And while the launches for his Tesla Model S and Model X electric vehicles have garnered plenty of attention, they haven’t exactly been watershed moments like the introduction of the iPhone.

(Credit: Tesla)
(Credit: Tesla)

But Musk is definitely looking to up the ante with his latest launch, the Tesla Model 3. Where the Model S and Model X have been niche vehicles with high price tags, the Model 3 is Tesla’s bid to finally bring the electric car to the masses. A base cost of $35,000 in the US puts it squarely in the mid-range sedan bracket, and a range of at least 215 miles (346km) per charge means it can make it further than the shops and back without needing to juice up. The extra space afforded by the lack of an internal combustion engine translates into legroom for five adults, and the base model will do 0-60mph in less than six seconds.

The Model 3 will also have free access to Tesla’s Supercharger network, where vehicles will be able to get an 80 per cent charge in less than 30 minutes. Musk said he aims to double the number of locations offering supercharging to about 7,200 worldwide by the end of 2017, when the Model 3 is slated to enter production.

(Credit: Tesla)
(Credit: Tesla)

All these factors add up to make the Model 3 a very interesting proposition. At the launch event in Los Angeles last night, Musk said his goal was to deliver about 500,000 vehicles a year once production gets up to full speed. These are ambitious numbers, and many believe Tesla needs this car to be a success if the company is to have a future. Revenues to date have been ploughed into R&D, meaning Tesla is yet to post a profit. This was always likely to be the case in the carmaker’s early years but investors are beginning to lose patience. Its previous endeavours have won acclaim for their technological innovation and performance. However, they were never likely to sell in huge numbers. With the Model 3 (Model T, anyone?), Musk feels he has an electric car that can finally break through to the mainstream.

Signing off his presentation, the Tesla CEO was clearly delighted to reveal that 115,000 pre-orders had already been made. Hundreds of people had queued up outside Tesla showrooms in scenes reminiscent of an Apple product launch. The company also started taking online orders an hour before the press event, with availability in around 50 countries, including the UK. With just a $1,000 refundable deposit required, it’s hard to know how many of those 115,000 orders will result in actual sales come 2017. It’s a clever ploy that’s as much about PR as anything else. Jobs would almost certainly have approved.