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Elon Musk Thanks Tesla Customers As Model 3 Production Nears

Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken may be the perfect metaphor for Elon Musk’s career. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” Frost wrote. Not only has Musk taken the road less traveled by, he blasted a trail through the wilderness where none existed before. Now, as production of the Tesla Model 3 is set to begin two weeks ahead of schedule, he and his company face a watershed moment.

Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken may be the perfect metaphor for Elon Musk’s career. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” Frost wrote. Not only has Musk taken the road less traveled by, he blasted a trail through the wilderness where none existed before. Now, as production of the Tesla Model 3 is set to begin two weeks ahead of schedule, he and his company face a watershed moment.

Tesla Model 3 factory

A Compelling Electric Car

Musk has almost singlehandedly forced the world’s automotive manufacturers to alter their production plans. In a very short time, they have begun pivoting away from conventional cars with internal combustion engines to cars powered exclusively by batteries and electric motors. A few years ago, Musk challenged them to build “compelling electric cars,” a challenge those companies were extremely reluctant to accept. The Tesla Model S and Model X have captured significant market share and are the darlings of the premium vehicle market. But will Tesla play in Peoria, as HR Halderman once said to Richard Nixon?

Is the Model 3 itself a compelling car? That is the question on everyone’s lips. So far, approximately 400,000 people around the world have placed a reservation for the car without a final reveal. Musk says Tesla will manufacture as many as 500,000 of them a year by the end of 2018 and foresees a time in the very near future when a million or more will be manufactured every year.

An All-New Assembly Line

Not only is the Model 3 unlike any car ever made with its stunning good looks and novel interior, it is also being built on an all-new assembly line using techniques never before seen in the industry. Not only is Tesla disrupting the auto industry, it is disrupting manufacturing in general. Musk believes that factories of the future will operate up to 10 times faster than they do today — so fast, in fact, that human workers will not be able to keep up with the pace. Only machines will be capable of moving quickly enough to make Musk’s vision a reality.

Change is wonderful stuff, of course, but what few people realize is that changes often lead to slowdowns in production at first. Workers need to be retrained. Software that seemed fine while under development needs tweaking to make it function properly in the real world. Lots of people think Musk has bitten off more than he can chew with his push to build an all-new car on an all-new assembly line and do it ahead of schedule.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Most manufacturers take 3 to 6 months to get a new model into production. They build a few hundred pre-production cars to use for testing purposes and to verify the production line is properly dialed in. Musk has leapfrogged over that “business as usual” phase completely. As little as 8 weeks ago, the Model 3 production line was awaiting the installation of a flotilla of robots from minuscule to monstrous in size. Now they are all in place, calibrated, and ready to become the Alien Dreadnaught — an illusion to an Empire battleship from Star Wars — that Musk has in mind for his factory of the future.

Instead of following conventional practice, Tesla will build the first Model 3 cars for Tesla and SpaceX employees and deliver them to those who live closest to the factory. That way, if quality control issues are found to exist, the early cars can be returned quickly and efficiently to the factory for corrective action before they find their way into the hands of ordinary customers.

After that, people who already own a Tesla will get their cars. It is assumed that both groups will be more tolerant of minor glitches than those who are less familiar with the company and its products. In effect, employees and existing customers will serve as willing beta testers.

Slow Now, Fast Later

All the new technology and production techniques may lead to slow going at first. In a tweet earlier this week, Musk said he expects the ramp up of the Model 3 line to begin with a few dozen cars to a few hundred to a few thousand in September. By the end of the year, he predicts 20,000 cars a month will be rolling off the assembly line, with 40,000 a month expected by the end of 2018.

Just this week, the sky-high belief in Elon Musk’s magic powers was shaken somewhat when the company reported production of 100 kWh batteries for the Model S and Model X had run into a snag at the Gigafactory. The number of cars built in the second quarter was off about 12% from projections. The company blamed it on a “severe production shortfall of 100 kWh battery packs, which are made using new technologies on new production lines.” Q2 production fell to 22,000 cars versus 25,000 made in Q1.

Might the same thing happen with the batteries for the Model 3? They are also manufactured at the Gigafactory using new technology on new production lines. Then they are going into cars that bristle with new technology that are built on a completely new production line. Tesla stock is still widely shorted by those who believe Musk’s goals exceed his grasp. Any stumble out of the gate will be seized upon as proof that the Tesla miracle is little more than a fairytale.

But those with a longer view will look back at how Tesla has come so far so fast and decide their focus is on the long term, not what happens next week or next month. Musk had a special word for all Tesla owners and Model 3 reservation holders. As usual, he took to Twitter to spread his message.

Classy, Elon.

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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