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Elon Musk’s launch of his first mass-market electric car could be Tesla’s iPhone moment

Tonight marks a significant moment in Musk’s famous “Master Plan.”


Over a decade ago, Elon Musk laid out Tesla’s master plan to help save the environment.

The goal: Accelerate the transition from a carbon-powered economy to a solar- and electric-powered one.

The plan: Build a sports car, use that money to build an affordable car, use that money to build even more affordable cars and provide zero-emission electric power generation options. Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this top-secret list.

Today marks a significant moment in Musk’s plan.

In an event outside of Tesla’s Fremont factory, Musk will be handing over the keys of the first “even more affordable” Teslas — the Model 3 — to their 30 new owners. The starting price is $35,000, putting it in reach of a bigger portion of the market than the luxury vehicles that currently characterize the Tesla brand.

For Tesla, it’s a moment that could be akin to the industry- and world-changing launch of Apple’s first iPhone. The electric vehicle manufacturer, which started by selling very limited numbers of the luxury Roadster, was founded with the mission of proliferating electric vehicles en masse at a time when there was little demand for them.

That’s changed in recent years. Though it still makes up just a small fraction of the U.S. car market, as of December 2016 there were 542,000 electric cars sold in the country, according to data provided by EV charger network ChargePoint.

Model 3

And it was Tesla that stoked this increasing demand for electric-powered cars. The Tesla Model S and Model X topped the list of highest-selling battery-powered EVs in 2016, followed by the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3.

Others have followed suit. Volvo recently announced it would only produce electric or hybrid cars after 2019. Ford announced this year that its first all-electric car will come out in 2020. General Motors launched the Chevy Bolt EV at the end of 2016 and as of July 2017 has sold just over 8,000 of them.

And there’s also been significant developments on the regulatory front. The U.K. and France announced they would ban the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2040.

But Tesla, for its part, has only delivered a total of a little over 100,000 cars as of January. The Model 3, which has 400,000 preorders, represents a big shift in Tesla’s ambitions, requiring a complete change in its manufacturing capacity.

That means the number of EVs on the market will more than double over the next few years, and not just because of Tesla. Other automakers have already begun selling mass-market EVs and, as we’ve seen with Volvo, will continue to invest in doing so.

It’s a big test for Tesla, which has struggled to meet delivery and production deadlines in the past. Musk previously said he expects the company to initially produce 100 Model 3s by August but eventually be able to manufacture 20,000 by the end of the year.

There’s also the question of whether the current EV charging infrastructure will be sufficient to support the impending boom of EVs.

ChargePoint, which sells chargers to local businesses, says the company currently has a network of 40,000 chargers across the U.S. and it will be able to quickly meet growing demand. That’s especially true since ramp-up of Model 3 production will be incremental and the process of installing chargers typically takes two to six months, he said.

The Model 3 also means a big change in Tesla’s customer base. The company was founded on the appeal of its sports car, the Roadster, which spurred interest in and helped fund the production of its luxury sedan, the Model S.

But the demographics of Tesla owners will likely change with the Model 3 and, eventually, so too will the fervor with which they rally around the ultimate mission.

It’s a considerable shift and it’s mostly a good thing. With the growing consumer demand for EVs, Tesla doesn’t have to necessarily sell its mission to sell its cars anymore.

"Now the 100 Roadster Signature owners and 1,000 Model S signature owners are joined by the 400,000 Model 3 loyalists — in similar fashion, I suppose, to how Apple II and Mac owners from the 80s feel when they see people on their iPhones and iPads,” angel investor Jason Calacanis, owner of a Roadster signature 16 and Model S signature 0000001, previously told Recode. “I was part of something important.”

You can watch a livestream of the event here starting at 8:45 pm PT / 11:45 pm ET.

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