Image: AFP

Tesla showroom in Corte Madera, California — PICTURE: AFP


The 40th anniversary of Apple’s founding on April 1 1976 prompted a wave of nostalgia about this remarkable company and its effect on the world we live in.

From the first personal computer (Macintosh), through the evolution of music (iTunes and the iPod), the kickstarting of the smartphone era (iPhone), the birth of tablets (iPad) and the revolution in desktop publishing, music production and other now digital industries, Apple has been the key protagonist.

Even though it’s still the most valuable public company, its star is being eclipsed by another man and company widely seen as the successor to its mantle of innovation: Elon Musk and Tesla, the maker of electric cars that look like they were designed and built in some distant future.

Last week Musk, the SA-born founder and CEO of Tesla, gave the everyone-glued-to-their-screens type of keynote address that was the hallmark of the Steve Jobs era. Unveiling the Model 3 electric car, which is aimed at the mass market, unlike its current high-end models, he said: “You will not be able to buy a better car at $35 000.”

In today’s exchange rate that’s roughly R500 000, about the price you’d expect to pay for a compact luxury car; and around what BMW’s i3 electric car will cost.

As Musk tweeted to his 3.6 million followers on Thursday: “Model 3 orders at 180 000 in 24 hours. Selling price [with average] option mix [probably] $42k, so [about] $7.5-billion in a day. Future of electric cars looking bright!”Indeed it is. Pre-orders require a $1 000 deposit — and reached 276 000 in the first two days, giving Tesla a quarter of a billion dollars in deposits alone. And the car is destined to ship only towards the end of 2017. Nobody puts a deposit down on the latest iPhone.

The Model 3 has all the hallmarks of the high-end Tesla cars, which have come to define not only electric cars, but also luxury cars themselves. As with many other motor manufacturers, the innovation on top-end cars has enabled the development of mass-market models.

“Roadster, S and X customers are the ones who got us here and are paying for 3. They deserve a lot of credit,” Musk tweeted.

It’s part of his “master plan”, which he unveiled in August 2006: “Build sports car. Use that money to build an affordable car. Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options.”

The man credited as being the real-life inspiration for the fictional Tony Stark character behind the superhero Iron Man finished that blog post with his trademark humour: “Don’t tell anyone.”

Just four years since it launched, the Model S now outsells other premium cars from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi to be the best-selling large luxury car in the US. Starting at $71 070 (R1-million), the Model S (which sold 26 202 units in 2015) costs less than the Porsche Panamera ($114 263 for 4 985 units), Mercedes-Benz S class ($112 856 for 21 934) and BMW 7 Series ($102 919 for 9 292), according to figures from Bloomberg.

The Model 3 is no slouch. It can accelerate from zero to 96km/h in six seconds, and can drive 346km on a single charge of its batteries. The beautifully designed body is made from aluminium and steel. The car will fit five adults and is controlled using a touchscreen mounted in the middle of the dashboard. The roof is a continuous sheet of glass that blocks UV while giving a panoramic view. All the dials and displays you’d expect to see in the dashboard above the steering wheel are gone, and appear on the 38cm touchscreen. The Autopilot feature comes standard, meaning when legislation and technology catch up, the car could conceivably be autonomously driven.

Given how dependent the world is on oil, it’s not unrealistic to say this car will help usher in the age of electric cars.

With demand already piqued, Musk tweeted: “Definitely going to need to rethink production planning ...”

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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