The Important Thing About the Model 3

Last night Tesla (finally) unveiled the Model 3. Many immediately went to work dissecting the minutiae — the small design decisions Tesla made to build a car at such an attractive price. Things like "where are the gauges?" (they're on the ginormous, landscape, touchscreen). Others oohed and ahed over the multi-billion dollar factory that Tesla is building to make the battery packs. But it's not the design nor the admittedly impressive supply chain which is really transformative. 

Tesla hinted at this on stage when they talked about their previous vehicles, and others nibbled at the edges on Twitter: the Model 3 will make electric cars acceptable. Not mainstream — the existing Teslas, VWs, BMWs, and Leafs have already done so (at least in the dense urban and suburban markets)  — but accepted normal purchases. Thus far, the electric vehicle market has been aimed at two groups. The everyday electric cars, like the Prius before them, are targeted at people who want to make a statemen about their environmental friendliness. The Leaf, so far the largest selling full-electric, is weird and wacky looking even though it didn't really have to be. It shares its structure with much more conventional Nissan compact cars; cars that have more interior room and more familiar controls. Let's face it, people who buy these cars are sacrificing range, speed, comfort, roominess, style, and cost over comparable gasoline vehicles. Nobody buys one just as a car.

The other end of the electric market is also for those who want to make a statement. The Model S has rapidly become the car for the nouveau riche, the car to say 'I've arrived.' There's not necessarily anything wrong with this — but it means people will perceive the car in a different way. Even if you can afford one, you wouldn't park a Mercedes in front of a nonprofit organization. 

The Model 3, by contrast, doesn't look like an alien spaceship. It doesn't have gigantic "electric" stickers down the side. It's not priced in a way that makes it only affordable for the top 10% of the automotive market. It's shockingly normal — design elements cribbed from the Germans, manufactured in an old GM plant, and priced at exactly the median new-car price. The most revolutionary thing about the Model 3 might be that it's just a car.