The Tesla Model 3 Makes Me Wonder About the Future

Tesla's small sport sedan isn't perfect, but it's undeniably a milestone.

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Daniel Zalkus

The joke goes that we live in the future. You know, that cliché we trot out for anything amazing and tech-related—mind-blowing gifts, seemingly ahead of schedule. The telephone-supercomputer that lives in everyone’s pocket. Or how Google’s self-driving-car arm, Waymo, recently announced a deal to put up to 20,000 autonomous Jaguars on the road by 2020, for public ride-hailing. (I don’t know what’s more amazing—that goal, or the fact that, in 2018, it seems only half insane.) Or even just that recent moment one evening after dinner, when my coffee grinder broke. I cracked open my laptop, and two hours later, Amazon Prime had dropped a new one at my door.

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That last one thrills me perhaps a little too much. The world of tomorrow, shipped to you today! Or maybe just tomorrow’s coffee, when you feel like giving Je Bezos one more detail of your private life in exchange for not waiting another sleep for more teeth-staining bean water. Funny how the mind can ignore the rational in the face of want.

The novelist Warren Ellis once noted that the future sneaks up on us, in the fringes of daily life. I like that line. It suggests keeping a weather eye open for reasons to be stoked, wary, or both. Like the Tesla Model 3: An affordable electric sedan that resembles neither doofy novelty nor commuter penalty box, with real battery range. Discount emotion and brand hype, and the Tesla resembles the similarly priced Chevrolet Bolt. But car buyers rarely discount emotion or hype. The Model 3 looks like a stylish, adult device. More than half a million people put down a deposit to buy one. The Bolt looks like a cartoon beaver that ate too many doughnuts, and it isn’t exactly flying off lots. I’m told the Chevy drives well, but to paraphrase Coco Chanel, it’s a lot easier to sell pretty than it is to sell Good Lord, Helen, Why Did You Wear That?

The Tesla isn’t perfect, but it’s undeniably a milestone. Assuming, of course, that Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, can meet demand before another carmaker builds something better. Also assuming that he can keep his company from collapsing into a steaming pile of unprofit and technical-service bulletins. (TSB: a postproduction quality update recommended by the manufacturer. At press time, the 3’s TSB list was . . . telling.)

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I tried a Model 3 recently, in L.A. My car was privately owned, rented for a test. It had a few assembly niggles and was thus a better representation of real-world Teslas than some pampered media loaner. An untrimmed door seal, with loose rubber flashing near the window. Funky panel gaps. But the car was still impressive. On a fun-to-drive scale, somewhere between a Civic Si and an old 3-series. I was reminded of a Sixties Mini, in terms of democratization of a form factor. And ideas around which others pivot.

So many questions, though, if you’re of a certain bent. Good EVs prompt this stuff, because they work like ordinary cars, no excuses or caveats. Your brain moves from the singular product to the situational long tail.

Say, for example, that the gasoline-powered car becomes so uncommon that its infrastructure withers. Gas stations grow rare, fuel and insurance exorbitantly priced. Will I live to see debate over the legality of the human-driven, gas-powered automobile? Will we talk about the internal-combustion engine and human driving like we talk about guns? (Either backed as necessary freedom, by an organization like the NRA, or reviled as dangerous social flotsam.) Will people start electric-motor-swapping old Mustangs and Miatas just to keep them alive, the running costs on a combustion car too much to bear?

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One school of thought holds that the automobile as we know it will go the way of horses, a leisure item kept in specialized parks. In 2018, most people can’t afford a horse. How rich will you have to be to go fast and make loud noises?

I first drove a practical electric car almost a decade ago. Years later, the silence is still the strangest part. EVs are almost noiseless in traffic, so you listen more and focus on what you hear. Which is largely the collective grumble of thousands of dirty little explosions, exhausting under nearby bumpers. If you possess an ounce of logic, you think, Hell, what are we doing? Digging up large bits of the planet just to burn them? Pipes pumping stinko gases into the air? Who thought this madness was sustainable? Of course it should come to an end. No matter how much we like it.

Perhaps this is the thing with the Model 3. Even with issues of quality and company, the car is enough of a solved question to make you look at the calendar. It’s a lens into a world where cars like it take over. It feels real, and it makes you feel sheepish for a want, however small, to hold on to the old.

How rich will you have to be to go fast and make loud noises?

At the end of my second day with the Tesla, somewhere in West Los Angeles, I found myself at a stoplight behind a first-generation Mazdaspeed 3. Its windows were tinted, and the hatch glass held a cartoonish decal of a turbocharger.

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Another sticker sat beneath that one, in a serif-heavy font. It read Blow Me. (Get it? Forced-induction sex joke!) The car was running rich enough to smell.

I chuckled, and then the light turned green. The Mazda left the line with a fruity bark. I was reminded of a few old girlfriends, and how those relationships felt as they approached their respective ends. That hazy sense of a ticking clock. Where two parties realize they would damage the other in the long run, but letting go isn’t easy, because the good bits of the relationship were so good.

Irrational, of course. But then, what love isn’t?

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