Tesla unveils ‘electric car for the people’

Mass-produced: Tesla aims to produce 600,000 cars a year by 2018. © Tesla

Electric cars have long been seen as the preserve of super-rich technophiles. But now Tesla is unveiling its first mass-market electric car. Is this a pivotal turning point for the industry?

Until 2008, Tesla was just one of many companies aiming to build an efficient electric car.

Then it produced the Roadster, the world’s first electric sports car, and Elon Musk’s fledgling company rose to worldwide fame. In 2012 it produced its second vehicle, the Model S, an electric luxury sedan.

Both of these cars were aimed at the super-rich. A Roadster is priced at around $120,000, a Model S upwards of $70,000.

But now Tesla has arrived at what The New York Times has called “a moment of truth”. On Friday it unveiled a sedan that is aimed at ordinary people. The price of the Model 3 will start at $35,000.

To the cheers of hundreds of employees and guests, Musk drove onstage in a Model 3 and heralded a new chapter in the company’s growth.

However, the company’s new venture comes with risks. It plans to quadruple its annual production, and is aiming to sell into a market that it still not wholly sold on electric cars. There is also the question of whether Tesla will retain its reputation as an innovator if it is churning out family cars.

But if the Model 3 proves a success, it may well turn out to be one of the most important moments in the history of the automobile industry.

Early reviews are positive. Writing for Engadget Andrew Tarantola says: “The Model 3 really feels like the car that will bring electric vehicles as a whole into the mainstream.”

It could turn out to be electric cars’ Rolls-Royce moment. In 1904 Charles Rolls and Henry Royce built the world’s first genuinely impressive, functioning car. Before the Rolls-Royce, cars were, as Andrew Marr puts it, “derided as entirely unreliable foreign toys”. They were “noisy, dirty, clunking machines”.

Other cars to revolutionise the industry were the first Land Rover, which gave birth to four-wheel drive, and the Toyota Prius, the world’s first ever hybrid car. Today, almost every mainstream manufacturer has a hybrid of some sort in its range.

As governments gradually introduce measures to speed up the transition away from petrol cars, is the introduction of Tesla’s new model a pivotal moment?

Switched on

“This is another false dawn,” say sceptics. People are not ready for batteries, charging ports and all the accoutrements that come with embracing this completely new type of car. Tesla’s sales remain a mere drop in the ocean, and the company still comes across as too eccentric to appeal to ordinary drivers.

“Electric cars have finally come of age,” reply optimists. All reviews of the Model 3 suggest it is both affordable and wholly reliable, in contrast to previous electric cars. People will happily change their habits, as they did when taking to cars in the first place. This a huge breakthrough.

You Decide

  1. Do you expect to own an electric car in 2050?
  2. Should governments ban petrol and diesel cars?

Activities

  1. Draw a diagram illustrating how an electric car works, and how it is different from an ordinary car.
  2. Pick an invention that fundamentally changed an industry, and give a five minute presentation to your class about it.

Some People Say...

“People have become too reliant on cars.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That on Friday, Tesla, the company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, released its fourth electric vehicle, and the first aimed at the mass market. The Model 3 will cost around $35,000 — under half the price of Tesla’s previous cars. Many believe this is a key moment in the history of the automobile industry: if electric cars catch on among ordinary people, it could spell the end for petrol and diesel cars.
What do we not know?
Whether the Model 3 really will live up to the hype. Building vast numbers of cars will stretch Tesla to the limit, meaning it is unlikely to become a regular feature on ordinary roads anytime soon. We also do not know whether electric cars really are the future: many believe that hydrogen cars are more viable.

Word Watch

Tesla
Named after Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American engineer, inventor and physicist. He is most well known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system
Elon Musk
Also widely known for his ambitious work on topics such as space travel and artificial intelligence.
Charles Rolls and Henry Royce
They were an unusual couple. Rolls was the wealthy son of a landowner who was something of a speed-freak. Royce was a self-made man who left school at nine and went on to own an engineering works in Manchester.
Hybrid
A type of vehicle which uses two or more distinct sources of power, most commonly an internal combustion engine and an electric motor.
Governments
Last month France and the United Kingdom promised to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

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