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What do Tesla Model 3 buyers want from the most important electric car ever built?

‘There's enough information missing that people's imaginations are filling in the gaps and making this a magical car’

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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You probably haven’t heard, but today is a very important day for Elon Musk and Tesla. Later this evening, Musk will host an exclusive handover party for 30 customers who reserved the Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market electric car. They will be the first people in the world (not named Musk) to receive what is widely seen as one of the most important electric cars of our time.

For Tesla, it’s all been leading to the Model 3. If you believe the hype, this is the car that will rescue us from the evil clutches of the internal combustion engine — and for just $35,000. So the pressure is on Tesla to finally deliver on its promise of bringing clean, sustainable driving to the masses.

it’s all been leading to the Model 3

“The Model 3 is far more than just another car,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader. “If successful, it would mark a breakthrough for electric vehicles and would be promising in terms of the proliferation of the technology. However, the challenges are formidable.”

For the hundreds of thousands of people who plunked down a $1,000 deposit to reserve a Model 3, today is a moment of both angst and elation. After all, they’re not guaranteed a car until they’ve had the chance to access the online design studio and configure the vehicle to place an order. And Tesla’s employees, who reportedly made 10,000 of the estimated 500,000 reservations, are being given priority. Which means very few non-Tesla-employed people will be driving this car until at least next year.

Still, many have drunk Musk’s Kool-Aid, believing themselves to be on the road to environmental and technological righteousness. But they also openly question whether Tesla will be able to deliver the Model 3 as promised, echoing the skepticism from Wall Street about the company’s ability to meet its production goals. Tesla has failed to meet dozens of projections over the years, to the point where blown deadlines have become a hallmark of Musk’s tenure.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The first production Model 3 rolled off the assembly line at Tesla’s Fremont factory earlier this month. Musk has said production is expected to grow exponentially: 100 cars in August, more than 1,500 by September, and then 20,000 per month by December.

Musk is expected to host a handover party for the first 30 customers

We know what the Model 3 means for Tesla. This is a make-or-break moment for the buzz-worthy electric carmaker that has seen its valuation soar, thanks to the stalwart belief by investors that Musk has his fingers on the digital pulse of the future. Moreover, experts agree this is one of the most important — if not the most important — electric car ever released.

But when speaking to would-be buyers of the Model 3, a more aspirational narrative emerges. Some just want the facts: how much is it going to cost, when will the configurator launch, what version of Autopilot will they get, etc. But other reservation-holders say the Model 3 represents the future, a cleaner, more sustainable way to travel. And ironically, buying this car gestures toward a future where personal car ownership, and driving itself, is entirely obsolete.

We interviewed a handful of Model 3 reservation holders. Here’s what they told us:

Tesla Model 3 Gallery
Photo: Tesla

“I really believe in electric vehicles”

August Bigelow, a 33-year-old software developer, first bought his 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI believing he was doing his part to improve the air quality in his central Utah town. So he was understandably dismayed when he learned in 2015 that VW had installed illegal software in millions of diesel vehicles, including his own, to deceive regulators about NOx emissions.

“While it’s an excellent drive, I am reminded every day of the pollution it’s expelling,” Bigelow said. “I bought that Jetta because I was told — lied to — that it was a clean and good car.”

Now he can’t wait to turn in the Jetta and use the buyback money from VW to buy a new car. “I wanted a Model 3 because I really believe in electric vehicles,” he said. “My hope with the Model 3 is that it's finally an electric car that is performant, with enough range for the majority of my use, and ends up pushing the automotive industry forward.”

“It’s my dream car”

Neeraj Periwal, 25, a content marketing manager for Cisco Meraki in San Francisco, said it’s “nerve-wracking” to put down $1,000 for a car, and then not receive any updates about the status of his order. “But then again, for most people — including myself — who put down a reservation, $1,000 isn't enough to break the bank.”

Though he’s never owned a Tesla, he’s always been a fan of the electric carmaker. “I want a car that clearly represents a break from the past,” Periwal said. To him, car ownership is headed toward extinction, thanks to innovations like app-based ride-hailing and autonomy. He sees the Model 3 as an investment in that future.

“If possible, I would love to continue living without a car until autonomous, on-demand cars become a reality, at which point I'd be able to pay a small monthly fee to have unlimited transportation wherever I need to go,” Periwal said. “The Model 3 is a new type of car. It's modern, yet affordable. It's my dream car — though whether I want a car at this point in my life is still up for debate.”

“It’s the future of cars”

Don Drake, 46, an independent technology consultant living in Arlington Heights, Illinois, doesn’t expect to receive his Model 3 for at least another year — and probably longer. “Before the end of 2017? Haha, no way,” Drake said. “Before the end of 2018? I sure hope so.” He was disappointed when he read he’d likely to have to wait even longer for an all-wheel-drive version of the Model 3. But living in the snowy suburbs of Chicago doesn’t leave him with a lot of options.

Drake has always wanted a Model S, but couldn’t justify the expense of Tesla’s luxury sedan. “I want one because it’s the future of cars and autonomous driving is the future of transportation,” he said. “The technology is amazing.”

He vowed that he would never buy another American car after problems with two previous US-made vehicles. “I’m breaking that vow with this order, and it still makes me a little nervous,” Drake said. “I’m hoping that this car lives up to the hype and will work, be fun to drive and be as safe as it’s advertised. I’m also hoping it doesn’t break the bank, but I know from experience that cars starting at $35,000 can get to $60,000 pretty fast with fancy upgrades.”

Tesla Model 3 Gallery
Photo: Tesla

“My biggest hopes for this car”

Jordan Hart, a real estate consultant from Dayton, Ohio, was first in line outside the Cincinnati Tesla store back in March 2016, ready to hand over his $1,000 deposit for the Model 3 sight-unseen. But unlike other reservation holders, Hart says he’s confident he’ll receive his car before the end of the year. That’s because someone figured out that by looking at the HTML code of Tesla’s Model 3 reservation page, you could find your place in line.

Tesla has since hidden that from public view, but Hart took a screenshot. “I'm in the top 30,000 globally,” he boasted.

Hart’s not your typical Tesla fan. Earlier this month, he and a friend set the record for fastest transcontinental drive in an electric car: a “cannonball run” from California to New York in a Tesla Model S in 51 hours and 47 minutes. That said, Hart has a very specific wish list for the Model 3, especially as it relates to Tesla’s trend-setting semi-autonomous features.

“My biggest hopes for this car are that Autopilot will advance enough to allow fully self-driving from on-ramp to off-ramp on highways... and that it will be able to pick me up and drop me off at restaurants [and] stores before it goes and finds a parking spot on it's own,” he said. “I'm also hoping there is some exciting new tech on the interior that Elon has kept secret.”

Tesla has yet to offer a clear look at the interior of the Model 3. The quick glimpses and spy shots we’ve seen so far indicate the car lacks an instrument panel, trading the traditional cluster of controls for a single, 15-inch touchscreen display. It could end up turning off a lot of potential customers, but Tesla is betting heavily that self-driving cars are the future of transportation. “The more autonomous a car is, the less dash info you need,” Musk tweeted recently. “How often do you look at the instrument panel when being driven in a taxi?”

Tesla Model 3 Handout

“My first ever ‘new’ car purchase”

Dan Mitchell drove his grandmother’s old Ford Taurus all through high school and college. His next car was a used 2009 Kia Rio, which he used to criss-cross the country while doing political work. He continued driving the Rio through business school and up until last year, when he reserved a Model 3. “My Kia didn't even have power windows or locks,” Mitchell said, “so the Model 3 would be a huge upgrade.”

Mitchell, 31, put down a deposit while in business school at UCLA, thinking he was going to stay in California, however, he recently moved to Boston to work at a start-up and now relies mostly on public transit and ridesharing apps. “Like many other millennials I really like not having to worry about parking [and] driving and can get more done on my commute,” he said. 

That said, he’s excited about the change he believes the Model 3 represents. “My hope is this car could be a step forward for the entire automotive industry, toward a future of every car being electric, self-driving, and shared,” he said. “Progress is going to take time, however by being an early adopter, maybe I can do my part and help speed it up, just a little.”

Mitchell is doing more than most to speed up that progress: “I put down two deposits, the other was for my mom, who lives in the Bay Area and is still very excited about getting the car.”

Tesla Supercharger

“The ultimate gadget”

For Tyler Hayes, a 33-year-old communications manager from San Diego, the allure of the Model 3 are twofold: “I've wanted a Tesla since the Model S debuted, for all the reasons most people want a Tesla vehicle, including the speed, no gas consumption, and attractiveness. But I also see Tesla cars as the ultimate gadgets, full of rad technology and a way to get rid of all the unnecessary hassles of a combustion engine.”

Wall Street has set low expectations for the ability of Tesla to meet its production and delivery goals. Morgan Stanley predicts only 2,000 Model 3s will ship this year, while Goldman Sachs assumes 2,205 vehicles will be delivered. Still, Hayes is hopeful he’ll get his Model 3 sometime next year. If spring comes and goes without a delivery, he says he’ll start getting nervous.

While Hayes and other reservation holders wait, Tesla’s expanding fan base fills its online message board and subreddits with speculation and predictions. Sites like Tesla Motor Club and Teslarati contain posts parsing every Musk quote and every snippet of code for clues about this hotly anticipated vehicle. Wading through all this content, one loses perspective on the Model 3. It becomes less of a car and more of a catalyst — but for what? Hayes says he’s trying to stay grounded.

“I know the Model 3 seems largely a mystery, or there's enough information missing that people's imaginations are filling in the gaps and making this a magical car, but my hopes for it are mostly simple,” he said. “My hope is that if the Model 3 turns out to be a dependable, fast, and attractive car like it appears it will be, then I'll be satisfied with it.”