In 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stood on a stage in Los Angeles to introduce the company’s new car to the world: the Model 3. There was just one problem. The car didn’t exist yet.
In episode one of Land of the Giants: The Tesla Shock Wave, we’re diving into the tumultuous production of the Model 3, Tesla’s first electric car for the masses. Tesla became a giant in the auto industry based off the success of the Model 3, an affordable EV that seamlessly blended cool tech with an affordable price. But the car very nearly drove Tesla out of business — and, along with it, the company’s capricious, bombastic leader, Elon Musk.
Remember that in 2016, Tesla had only ever made three cars: the niche Roadster, and the premium-priced Model S and Model X. The Model 3 was going to be the vehicle that introduced Tesla to the world. But a combination of factors — limited factory space, an overreliance on automation, battery supply constraints, and a growing sense by many of the people intimately involved in the process that Tesla was just making it up on the fly — nearly caused everything to spin out of control.
“I’ve also heard the analogy of changing the wheels on a moving bus while it’s flying down the freeway,” said Kyrstin Munson, who led customer satisfaction at Tesla during the Model 3’s launch. “My job was to sell tickets on that moving bus, and that bus was often on fire.”
“My job was to sell tickets on that moving bus, and that bus was often on fire.”
Today, Tesla’s so-called “production hell” is firmly in the rearview mirror. The company is on its way to selling nearly 2 million cars this year and is widely considered to be on the vanguard of the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles. But for a brief time, between the Model 3’s reveal and when customers first started to get their cars, the entire operation was hanging by a thread.
“I went from being pretty, pretty confident in all the things that had to be done to get the vehicle to be right, at least within the time constraints, to like, ‘holy crap, this thing is a monster,” Doug Field, senior VP for engineering at Tesla during the Model 3’s production, said. “And I think the whole company realized that as well. Like, this is a monster like we’ve never seen, and it’s the survival of Tesla.”