Comments on Tesla Model 3 Unveil

3 April 2016

Some quick notes and observations after the first unveiling of the Model 3 on 31 March 2016:

After the presentation, more information came out in YouTube videos of people getting test rides and Elon's twitter feed. Many of the YouTubed test rides were conducted by Doug Field, Tesla's Engineering Vice President. (Search YouTube for "Tesla Model 3 first ride" to find some.)


In terms of exterior styling, Model 3 is mostly a 20 percent smaller Model S with some of the nose and glass treatments of the Model X. For example the deep, front, header-less window of the X became the deep, rear, header-less window of the 3. The preproduction prototype 3 got some of the squared-off, and blanked-off nose of the X. Unfortunately this was one of the uglier elements of the X. Many people don't like it, and Musk has hinted it may be modified before production. The rest of the 3 exterior is a bit sharper and cleaner than the S. It's very good looking except for the nose.

Because of the smaller size, the front shrunk a bit in length, gained a bit in height or steepness, and is generally a bit more compact. It has a nice general shape that many people have likened to the Porsche Panamera, but which I think also has a bit of Ferrari 360 Modena. The general shape is very pleasing. However...

One criticism about the Model S which can be carried forward through X and 3 is that the general shape of the car, and particularly the nose, is based on a design language of internal combustion cars, in particular their need for copious cooling air. Combustion cars have large grilles to allow enough airflow to dissipate the 80% or so waste heat they generate. (They are about 20% efficient. In contrast, EVs generate about 20% waste heat; they are about 80% efficient. EVs have 4 times lower cooling needs for the same useful power output.) Because it draws from this design history, Model S has a black nose cone blocking off the opening where a grille would be in a combustion car. Model X closes off most of the the grille, leaving a tiny slit opening at the upper edge. It's strange, and the "missing grille" is a consequence of the combustion car design language. Apple's early graphical user interface design was also criticized for skeuomorphism.

While the resulting car shapes are generally pleasing and familiar, they also represent a missed opportunity to strike out in a new design direction that truly reflects the novel characteristics of an EV. EVs should not have a "mouth" that's closed off; they should use a design language that doesn't have a mouth. Admittedly such a form may appear strange to people, since we seem to mentally model cars as animals with a face, nose, mouth, eyes, etc. Model 3 continues this arguable design error and in a sense highlights it with mouth that's noticeably blanked out. The "missing grille" effect is symptom of an anachronistic premise in the inappropriately applied design language of combustion cars. EVs don't need a large grille and therefore shouldn't have a mouth, at least not if form follows function.

The flanks are sleeker and sharper than the Model S, in very much a Southern California school of design also seen in some of the Toyota Calty designs for example. In many ways they are an improvement. The sharper flank edges may act as vortex generators to improve the airflow trailing the car, keeping it attached to the car longer and reducing drag. It looks more aerodynamically correct than smooth rear flanks, which can lead to flow detachment, turbulence and increased drag. A large flat lip spoiler is stamped into the rear trunk lid. All of the details, smooth front, sharper rear, and overall clean design may contribute to a hoped-for 0.21 drag coefficient, which would match Volkswagen's limited-production XL1 but not the 0.19 of GM's production EV1.

The greenhouse is one large, graceful, aerodynamic, curving arch from the base of the windshield to the trunk. It's aesthetically very pleasing and probably good for drag, but for safety I'd like to see more steel and less glass. The large greenhouse may add to the internal thermal load also, though the glass surely has some heat management properties. The concept of a tall, long, smooth, curved greenhouse seems carried over from X, but is better-proportioned in smaller 3. The greenhouse is still a bit too large in Model 3, but it's good looking.

As mentioned above, I find the 3 interior a significant improvement over S, which is in comparison a bit busy. 3 is definitely highly minimalistic on the inside, but follows Bauhaus principles of keeping it very simple, clean and functional. I thought it was a bit stark at first, but like it very much now. It's a lot like the futuristic spaceship interior in Stanley Kubrik's 2001, or indeed Musk's Dragon v2 space capsule. Model 3 has a very different interior design language than S; much cleaner. At the same time, I'm sure there will be people who won't like it. I prefer classical minimalism and functionality over baroque filigree; Bauhaus over Rococo.

EV1 Part Deux?

Tesla benchmarked the EV1's 0.19 drag coefficient and may not have quite met it, but it's very clear they had EV1 on their minds. EV1 may have been one of the reasons Tesla was started in the first place. It was truly shameful that GM built such an incredibly advanced car in the EV1 then took it back and crushed them.

EV1 had no dashboard, instead placing instruments in a band directly below the windshield. Model 3 has a similar band and could put instruments there. If so, it would be a direct homage to EV1. Even if Model 3 doesn't put instruments in the band below the windshield, it may have been influenced by EV1's lack of driver side instrument binnacle and low, pushed forward dash. EV1 had a somewhat protruding center console with pushbutton controls and vacuum florescent displays, were Model 3 has a more protruding center touchscreen control. EV1 had a broad, unusually tall, flat center tunnel housing some of the batteries and providing an arm rest, cup holder, change pocket, shift lever, etc. Model 3 has its batteries below the floor, but adds a broad, flat center console missing from Model S. Model 3's center console has cup holders and a possibly adjustable arm rest.

Some of the details and maybe some of the shape of Model 3 are reminiscent of EV1. The rear trunk opening is almost exactly as I remember EV1. The main difference is that EV1 had curved struts locating the trunk lid that attach inside the trunk, while the Model 3 prototype has shorter struts near the top where the upper arms of the trunk lid meets the C-pillar. This exposes the shorter strut mechanism to more weather. The water channels around a weatherstripped dam wall protruding up from the trunk opening is exactly as EV1 handled it.

Also the general shape of the Model 3 is like a slightly curvier EV1. One difference is that the EV1 was strongly curved-in front to back in plan view where Model 3 is probably more squared off. But the somewhat wedgy front ends of both cars is similar in philosophy. The wedge blends in from the sides in a curve that's somewhat EV1 like. At least a little of the EV1 design and sprit lives on in the Model 3. Model 3 is better looking. EV1 had 10% lower drag.

Some Perspective

Many of these are relatively small details, even if they're really positive and cool. The big picture impact is that the reception of Model 3 has been incredibly enthusiastic, with likely the first couple years of production already reserved. That's amazing, and perhaps what happens when you make a great-looking, modern, less-polluting, great-performing, great-driving car that can also drive itself, etc. Also EVs cost about a third to quarter as much to operate as internal combustion, so there are major economic benefits over a similarly-priced combustion car, and 35k to 45k is pretty mainstream pricing. Future owners may not realize this aspect yet, but they will save many thousands of dollars over buying gasoline. Tesla built a great brand and great car with the Model S in particular, and it's paying huge dividends in orders for Model 3.

Certainly Tesla may dominate the near-term EV market, but I hope it's the start of mass adoption of EVs in general. If so, Tesla will deserve a lot of credit for getting it started.

A related, interesting question is what happens to the rest of the car industry. Sure 200k cars is a small fraction of global annual production of about 100 million, but the popularity of the car must cause concern for the benchmark competitor BMW 3 series, Mercedes C class, Audi 4 series. Hopefully it pushes more manufacturers into EVs just to stay competitive. GM is really the closest with the 200-mile-range Bolt, and it may get wiped out by the similarly priced but much more sophisticated, better looking, and more advanced and automated Model 3. BTW, GM could have owned this market by continuing to build and develop the EV1 while advancing battery technology, just like Xerox could have owned the GUI PC market long before Apple and Windows. Instead, they crushed them.

The grassroots support for this car is amazing. 100k people ordered without seeing it; and 200k more ordered knowing they would not get a car for a couple years. How many other cars in history had 300k+ pre-orders? Very likely none.

People going to the stores to place their orders noticed that the mix of cars in the parking lot was mainstream: SUVs, Hondas, Camrys, minivans, and only a few Teslas and Leafs. These are ordinary Americans, not radical eco-warriors, hypermilers, etc. That's a great sign of mainstream adoption. And apparently they want an amazing car. :)

Once you go electric you never go back. The instant torque is addictive, even on lower-powered cars, and the operating costs are a small fraction of gas or diesel. Getting the battery cost curve down is critical and especially with Gigafactory, we may have already passed the point of no return for combustion cars, even if most people don't realize it yet.

I wish the Model 3 great success and hope it's the start of a new era of much more efficient, cleaner driving. It's off to a great start and EVs couldn't have a better representative than the Telsa Model 3!