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Why is the Tesla Model 3's dashboard so weird?

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Welcome to the interior of your self-driving car

Judging from the $200 million in deposits Tesla has already raked in, the Model 3 has quickly found its fans in the last 24 hours — so quickly, in fact, that Elon Musk is openly wondering how he'll make all those cars.

Don't get me wrong, the car looks nice (complaints about the grille-less front end aside). And from the all-too-brief moment I spent in it as a passenger last night, I get the impression that this is probably going to be a great car, just like the Model S before it. But I can't stop thinking about the dashboard, a spartan expanse of absolutely nothing broken only by a steering wheel and a plain 15-inch touchscreen on a floating mount that looks like it could've been pulled off a Lenovo workstation pilfered from an office cubicle. In place of the instrument cluster, the driver has to sneak peeks at the speed by glancing at a widget in the upper left of the big screen.

Although there are ongoing debates about the safety and ease of use of the portrait-mounted, 17-inch touchscreen found in the Model S and X, at least they're mounted in attractive, functional dashboards. In fact, the interiors of the S and X look phenomenal. But instead of hewing close to those interiors with the 3, Tesla went in a pretty radically different direction.

Why'd they mess with a good thing?

The obvious explanation is that Tesla had to cut corners to bring the Model 3's base price down to the promised $35,000, and I do think there's probably an element of that. But a $35,000 car is still not a cheap car, and if you look across the auto industry at $35,000 vehicles, you'll see a lot of attractive interiors.

tesla-model-3-dash-gif-01

Another plausible explanation is that the interior simply isn't done. That is true: there will be more to this car by the time it's released a year and a half from now, but I was told by a Tesla staffer at last night's event that the dash is essentially production-ready in its current state. In other words, the details may change, but the overall concept isn't likely to change much; I would be shocked if a traditional instrument cluster magically sprouted between now and late 2017.

The remaining explanation, I believe, is the biggest one: the Model 3 is a self-driving car.

Tons of ink has been spilled in recent months about how radically the interiors of cars could change in a world of autonomous driving — the notion that we'll reclaim hours of our lives every week for work and play simply by letting our cars take the wheel is, after all, an enticing one. Mercedes envisions that we'll rotate our seats to face each other like a tiny living roomVolvo thinks we might have a big cinema display that rotates into place for watching moviesBMW thinks the windscreen itself will be the display. And by completely dispensing of the driver-centric cockpit in the Model 3, Tesla is signaling that it wants you to sit back and ride.

In his relatively short, fast-paced presentation last night, Elon Musk took time to note that every Model 3 off the line will be equipped with Autopilot hardware and have safety features like emergency braking enabled as standard. (Perhaps full-on Autopilot will be an extra-cost software option, as it is on the Model S.) That gives Tesla the better part of two years to collect high-definition mapping data and refine algorithms from the Autopilot-equipped Model S and Model X vehicles that are already on the road.

In other words, Autopilot — and systems like it — are going to get a lot better over the next couple years. Then the Model 3 launches, and before you know it, you've got a few hundred thousand Model 3 owners letting their cars do the highway driving for them.

So perhaps Elon and team felt the time was right to acknowledge that shift with a dramatically simplified dashboard and a landscape-oriented screen that's perfect for taking in an episode of BoJack Horseman, or Girls, or... you know, whatever it is one watches in a self-driving car. Someday it might look and feel normal — but right now, I just want a speedometer. Call me old-fashioned.