Guest Blog Post: Charles Morris is the Senior Editor of Charged, the magazine of electric vehicles, for which he writes a daily blog and regular print articles. He's also written five books including Tesla Motors: How Elon Musk and Company Made Electric Cars Cool, and Sparked the Next Tech Revolution.
Outside of Mountain View, it would be hard to find anyone more knowledgeable about Tesla than Trevor Page and Kenneth Bokor, the proprietors of the Model 3 Owners Club online community, which includes a forum with over 4,000 subscribers, a video podcast with 16,000 YouTube followers, and a growing social media following on Facebook and Twitter. Their main focus is of course the upcoming Model 3, but they also cover the global electromobility scene in general, especially new EVs like the Bolt.
Above: Model 3 at Tesla event at Avaya Stadium (Imgur: ryaneager)
These are interesting times for the EV industry - sales are growing, industry holdouts such as Toyota and Chrysler are becoming more open to the idea of vehicle electrification, and even long-time EV skeptic the Wall Street Journal is coming around. However, just as the party is really starting to rock, the incoming US president has chosen a rogue’s gallery of oil industry insiders and climate change deniers to lead every federal agency with authority over the automotive and energy sectors. That said, Elon Musk appears to be gaining some surprising traction with Trump.
Above: Kenneth Bokor and Trevor Page of Model 3 Owners Club
I sat down with the two Model 3 experts to get their thoughts on what the future holds for Tesla and the EV industry. Will Tesla deliver the Model 3 on time? Should we expect any surprises when Model 3's interior is revealed? And will the upcoming crop of competing electric vehicles knock Tesla out of the game?
No one follows the Model 3 timeline more closely than these guys, so I asked them if they thought Tesla would deliver on time, and how important that is. “It is critically important that they don’t delay [but] a month or two isn’t the end of the world.” Far more important than meeting the official delivery date will be getting full-scale production ramped up quickly.
Above: Onlookers swoon over the Model 3 (Imgur: ryaneager)
Trevor and Ken think media fears about Tesla’s supposedly chronic delays are overblown. Looking back, in the case of Model S, Tesla had never built a volume vehicle before, and was still struggling to get its new manufacturing plant up to speed. And when it came to the X, the engineers went wild with fancy features. Tesla also learned about the pitfalls of relying on outside suppliers, and brought production of the Model X doors and seats in-house. Trevor and Ken believe the company has learned from those experiences. “Model 3 was designed for manufacturing simplicity. Barring any problems with third-party suppliers, I do believe the car will be on time.”
While the media has focused on the price point of the Model 3, and the “magic number” of 200 miles for 35k, Trevor and Ken believe that it’s a revolutionary vehicle for another reason that most people haven’t grasped yet. “The Model 3 was designed from the ground up for full autonomy, the first vehicle designed that way.”
Above: The mysterious, perhaps unfinished, Model 3 interior (Imgur: ryaneager)
These guys have ferreted out every detail that is currently known about the new vehicle. There’s one area, however, that’s still pretty much a blank - the interior. Tesla has a history of changing the interiors by the time a vehicle makes it to production, and this time the company is being especially coy about what Model 3’s inside space is going to look like. When a team from Motor Trend invited themselves to the Gigafactory for a photo shoot, they were specifically told not to take any pix of the Model 3 interior.
Above: Tesla Model 3 at the Gigafactory (Image: Motor Trend)
Could it be that Tesla is radically rethinking the interior, in order to accommodate full vehicle autonomy? Certainly, much about the way car interiors are designed has to do with the needs of the human driver at the wheel. True level 5 autonomy represents an opportunity to start over with a “blank sheet of paper,” a Tesla specialty. We can only speculate about what changes may be in store, but Trevor and Ken are convinced that Tesla is holding back some radical new features. “Autonomy’s coming. The controls of the vehicle are really going to shine.”
Tesla Competition: US (Big Three)
As I pointed out in another recent article, Tesla exists to sell EVs, whereas the legacy automakers reluctantly produce plug-in models, so it’s hard to take them seriously. Trevor and Ken agree. In the US, Detroit's Big Three “are not very interested in doing anything EV. GM has done a little bit with the Volt, and the new Bolt, but in light of their recent changes [deciding to launch the Bolt only in California and other ZEV states], it’s obvious that it is a compliance car.” They describe the Bolt as basically an electrified Sonic, a $17,000 car with a $20,000 battery, and almost every component aside from the body made by the Korean firm LG.
Above: Can Chevy's boxy EV design compete with Tesla's 'S ☰ X Y' looks? (Image: Motor Trend)
And while the press describes every new plug-in vehicle as a “Tesla killer,” more savvy EV observers don’t see increased competition as a major threat. Trevor points out that the Chevy Bolt just isn’t really comparable to Tesla's Model 3. “The Model 3’s direct competition is the BMW 3 series or the Audi A4 - the entry-level luxury market. It’s a completely different animal as far as the technology and the car’s target market. Even though they have similar base prices, the Model 3 will certainly exceed the Bolt in terms of quality, features and battery options.” True, GM will have a head start on Tesla, but Trevor and Ken aren’t seeing folks cancelling their Model 3 reservations to buy a Bolt.
Above: A meet-up of Model 3 reservation holders/members of the Model 3 Owners Club
And there's some political implications to keep in mind. The incoming US administration seems likely to support efforts by vested auto and oil interests to hold back the electric tide, but Ken sees this as “mainly a US effect. The rest of the world is continuing to grow in EV adoption. Other countries are leading the way.” Boosters of American innovation and industry are shaking their heads sadly, but it’s a situation that won’t last forever. “At some point the Big Three are going to see the shift.”
Above: Another angle that showcases the radically different EV design approaches between Chevy and Tesla (Image: Motor Trend)
Tesla Competition: China
Trevor also sees no reason for Tesla to fear Chinese startups such as Lucid and Faraday Future. “Tesla has a ten-year lead on them from a sales aspect. None of these newcomers have a factory that’s ready, so everything they’re talking about is [at least] two or three years down the road, and they have no sales infrastructure. If you look at how fast Tesla moves, Tesla will be at a different level by the time these guys come out with a vehicle that’s equivalent to what Tesla already offers today.” Ken adds, “I think it’s good that we have competition, but it’s a huge market and I think there’s room for everybody to do quite well.”
Above: Chinese startup Lucid just introduced their all-electric "Air" prototype which will run north of $100,000 (Source: International Business Times)
Tesla Competition: Europe and Japan
In Europe and Japan, attitudes do seem to be changing. Volkswagen and Mercedes have recently announced major EV initiatives. “Germany seems to be the only [auto manufacturing] country in the world that has a direct interest in doing EVs. BMW on the other hand seems to have retreated a little bit from their i series, and are trying to recalibrate. Toyota has finally realized that fuel cells are a dead technology...I wouldn’t be surprised if Honda follows very soon."
Above: Mercedes all-electric concept car, Generation EQ (Source: New Atlas)
"Right now where you’re seeing most of the announcements is on the high end of the scale,” says Trevor, “because most of these manufacturers realize that it costs a lot of money to do EVs, the batteries are still expensive, so they’re taking the high ground much as Tesla did, start at the high end and work your way down. Until the Model 3 arrives and starts to make a huge dent in the entry-level luxury market, you probably won’t see a lot more movement from the other manufacturers.”
Source: Model 3 Owners Club