Tesla, to this point, has been selling luxury cars. The company, headed by Elon Musk, has pulled off the rare feat of getting people to sign onto a grand experiment in electric cars, and today the next phase starts. Tesla’s Model 3, its most affordable vehicle yet, will start arriving at homes for eager buyers. And the goal, in the end, is for it to be the last car people buy.
The Model 3 is being sold as a “mainstream” electric vehicle, but, truthfully, that’s a bit of a stretch. Starting at $35,000 before incentives, the Model 3’s sticker price is a hair above the average price of a new car, although it is cheaper that many other EVs and, at 215 miles, it has a better range than most. That said, you’ll have to wait for one — current orders won’t arrive until mid-2018 or later, according to Tesla.
The real point of interest, though, is that Tesla’s hardware is just a tool. The real product, the place where new features and ideas come from, will be the software the company codes. Wired, in an enthusiastic profile of the Model 3, notes this is Tesla’s real advantage:
But some day soonish, Tesla will send an over-the-air update that enables full self-driving for all its cars on the roads—no hardware changes needed. It’ll be like the day Apple introduced the app store. Flicking that switch led advances that nobody imagined from a phone: new ways to do things like date and move money, social media’s dominance, and the rise of the sharing economy. This Tesla change will enable drivers will come up with clever ways to lend, share, and monetize their vehicles in ways that are inconceivable now.
This is, perhaps, a bit optimistic. Tesla’s hardware and software have had problems, some serious, where the rubber meets the road. Elon Musk may be prone to grand gestures, but Tesla is more likely to simply incrementally upgrade their cars.
That’s the real innovation here, and one other automakers may be forced to embrace sooner rather than later. Increasingly, cars really are like smartphones. Automakers build the hardware, but they use the computers inside the car to use that hardware in new and novel ways. Think of how smartphones can track your steps with an accelerometer, for example, or how some camera software can let you take panoramic shots by waving your phone around. Admittedly, software can be used for evil, as Volkswagen’s diesel fraud shows us. But it can be used the other way — bringing older cars up to inspection standards, refining software-driven features on the car from how the radio works to how the suspension works, and, even, in the case of cars with touchscreens and the like, adding entirely new functions to the dashboard.
That’s the future Tesla is unlocking here, allowing automakers to improve cars on the road by sending out an update, making cars safer and more efficient with the tools they already have, and keeping your car on the road for much, much longer. It’s not a future without risks; the most important updates will be security. But Tesla, one way or the other, is opening the door to a world where a car you buy is continually improved.