Elon Musk as Steve Jobs of the Space Age

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All in all, the Model 3 is Musk’s best chance yet to do an Apple on us

TESLA’S MODEL 3, the grand unveiling of which has generated hysteria a la Apple in America, offers us the first real clue to whether its CEO Elon Musk will finally live up to his reputation as the ‘Steve Jobs of the Space Age’. For a while, this 44-year-old man of ideas seemed in danger of being a visionary with a vision so far beyond ‘the rest of us’ that getting excited about his next big thing was no more than a theoretical exercise. Wasn’t this the guy who wanted to save humans from extinction by enabling an escape to outer space in case capping carbon emissions failed? As a dreamer, Musk has held popular imagination since at least 2002, when he used the fortune he made on PayPal to set up SpaceX, the aim of which was to turn us into a ‘true spacefaring civilization’ by offering ordinary folk extra-terrestrial rides (for a fee). In 2012, one of its crafts docked at International Space Station, and it even got itself a NASA contract for a job cheaply done, but its mission of placing space flights within popular reach is yet to be accomplished.

No matter. With Tesla Motors, a firm that Musk hopped aboard to help fund and took charge of eight years ago, he might now be on the verge of doing us the promised deed in a less dramatic arena: the market for electric cars.

That Tesla’s at the ionising edge of electric engines was evident four years ago, when its $76,000 Model S slammed test drivers back in their seats with its pick-up and made luxury marques sit up with its rave reviews. “It has more than enough kick,” says the owner of a 5-Series BMW who’s driven one in LA, adding that its autopilot features impressed him even more.

The car Musk sees cracking the market is Tesla’s Model 3, the $35,000 sedan unveiled last week to ‘blow your mind’ (as he pithily put it). It can zoom from 0 to 100 kmph in six seconds, claims the company, and go for a good 346 km on a single charge. With its sporty stance, sci-fi cabin—no gauges, just a touchpad— and sleek glass top, it scores well on aesthetics too. And at a price as low as this, Audi’s A4 and BMW’s 3-Series had better watch out.

Tesla, which has an SUV too, sold about 50,000 vehicles last year. The new sedan is slated to start rolling off assembly lines only next year, but over 276,000 people have already put down $1,000 each to book one. The company’s target for 2020 is half a million vehicles. This is eminently achievable, reckon analysts.

Is this, then, the point at which urban traffic takes its first big green turn?

So far, most electric cars have ended up as hobby horses, vehicles that work better to prove a point than get you there. Lack of vroom was their primary problem once upon a time, but this has been dealt with. Range was another worry, but—unlike, say, Mahindra’s Reva—Tesla’s car packs in enough energy to take you almost as far as a tank of petrol can. That leaves re-charge time as the main deterrent. Even an hour spent plugged in, which Tesla’s website says is good for about 47 km if done with a 240-volts charger (or 94 km with a dual-charger), may be an hour too long for those used to quick refills. An idea once floated for electric cars was to have interchangeable batteries that could be replaced in a jiffy at pit stops. What Tesla has in mind, instead, is a network of Superchargers along US highways that offer to recharge half the battery in 20 minutes flat: it’s not instant, but it’s not all that bad either.

Tesla’s cars also compare well with the fossil fuelled on running cost. An hour’s charge takes 10 kWh of power: while this costs an average $1.2 in America, it would only set you back Rs 22 or so in India if you happen to live in a low-tariff city like Delhi. To reduce this figure to zero, all a car-owner needs do is enlist the sun, the requisite equipment for which is sold by another Musk enterprise called SolarCity.

All in all, the Model 3 is Musk’s best chance yet to do an Apple on us. The only thing is, the project’s actual cost structure remains rather opaque. Like SolarCity and SpaceX, Tesla has been a huge beneficiary of state subsidies in the US: upwards of $1.5 billion by one estimate. Even with such a hefty cost write-off, its most affordable offering is a luxury car.

Nobody wants to be forced off the planet in a space ark. But the wait for an electric car that’s both electrifying and economic is far from over.