Tesla’s Model 3 debut: How to watch it, what we know about it, and why scientists are excited by it

The razzamatazz.
The razzamatazz.
Image: APMarcio Jose Sanchez
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Outside of the iPhone, almost no product announcement in modern history has ignited as much buildup as tonight’s live webcast unveiling of the Tesla Model 3, the mainstream-priced electric car to which Tesla CEO Elon Musk has pinned his hopes for his startup company, and what he says is his contribution to resolving climate change.

Musk has methodically kept details about the car’s styling and functionality under wraps. And, true to form, he has fashioned a launch party that will be more like an exclusive concert—an invitation-only, evening soirée for 800 guests at his southern California design offices. (You can watch the live-stream here at 8:30 pm Pacific time.) Tesla itself hasn’t said so, but Barclays analyst Brian Johnson expects Musk to have 10 to 20 Model 3s on hand for test rides, so that attendees can boast to their friends and amplify the already considerable buzz.

Update: Tesla has announced that on-line sales for its make-or-break electric Model 3 will begin an hour early, at 7:30 pm Pacific time, in the face of higher-than-expected demand.

Musk himself tweeted a photo of people lining up in Sydney, Australia, to reserve one, and queues of eager customers in camping gear have also formed outside Tesla showrooms in Dedham, Massachusetts, and Vancouver, Canada.

What does the Model 3 look like? Tesla would only allow Wired, visiting Tesla’s Hawthorne facility, to take a photo of a car covered with a black sheet, and say it was the Model 3. And analysts seem settled around a belief that the base Model 3 will go 225 miles on a single charge.

As for cost, while the base price will be about $35,000, Johnson estimates that the average cost with options will be about $46,000—ranging up to $70,000 when fully loaded with all the available bells and whistles.

Johnson also expects Musk to announce a crossover SUV version to come some time after the Model 3 sedan, which, if accurate, could be the most bullish announcement of the night given SUV demand.

But one of the most scintillating bits of talk comes from Sanford C. Bernstein’s Mark Newman, who in a note to clients today (March 31) described a significant advance in battery technology that would make the Model 3’s batteries far more energetic and cheaper than anything else on the market.

Middling batteries are one of the top frustrations across the technology space, and especially so in electric cars. Because battery researchers have not yet devised a relatively inexpensive superbattery, electric cars don’t go far enough for most drivers’ tastes, and they cost too much; those are the main reasons why they have remained a niche product.

But Newman says that the Model 3 batteries, made by Panasonic, start with a negative electrode—an anode—made up of 10% silicon. This achievement will cause eyes to glaze over outside the field, but experts say it is a serious breakthrough.

A large part of the battery research field has been focused on creating a working silicon anode because the resulting battery would be significantly more powerful. Graphite anodes, the current standard, store one lithium atom for every six carbon atoms (lithium being the energy in a battery). The more lithium, the more energy. But silicon anodes can store up to 4.4 lithium atoms for every silicon atom. Simply put, you get far more energy in a small space with silicon.

The trouble with it, though, has always been swelling. When you use silicon, and start charging and discharging, the anode swells, eventually causing the battery to self-destruct.

Working to resolve this problem, Panasonic had already been putting small quantities of silicon in Tesla anodes before now. Battery experts say that if Panasonic has delivered on what’s expected for the Model 3, then this would be the first commercial battery they know of containing so much silicon. “Wow,” says Venkat Srinivasan, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

According to Newman, the Model 3 battery will achieve energy density of 300 watt hours per kilogram, and cost $200 per kilowatt-hour. If so, both of those are industry-leading.

But will anyone buy it?

For Musk, the big question is whether that kind of achievement will translate into sales—enough, at least, for him to capitalize on the frenzy to raise more cash for his voracious company.

Johnson, a relative Tesla skeptic, forecasts that Musk will receive 100,000 reservations for the Model 3 in the first three months. Sam Jaffe at Cairn Energy Research Advisors expects Tesla will get 30,000 reservations in the first 24 hours, 90,000 the first week, and more than 250,000 by the middle of next year.

Longer-term sales forecasts range wildly, with analysts estimating that consumers will buy between 200,000 and 450,000 Model 3s in 2020. While respectable numbers, they’re not in the higher range that competing gasoline-driven BMWs and Mercedes models sell.

Interestingly, General Motors has already beaten Musk to the punch with a mid-price electric. Its Chevy Bolt, unveiled in January, is scheduled to be ready for sale by the end of 2016, at least a year and possibly three before the chronically late Musk delivers on the Model 3. Both cars are meant to go at least 200 miles on a single charge and cost roughly $35,000 before government subsidies. Yet to listen to the analysts, it is Musk who is the first-mover. Newman’s research note today explicitly lines them up oppositely, with GM following Tesla.

This is precisely the psychology that Musk is seeking: to make himself out as daringly in the vanguard. It’s the one he will try to put on display tonight.