Five Must-Have Features for Tesla's Affordable Mass-Market Car

By · May 21, 2013

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Tesla C.E.O. Elon Musk and chief designer Franz von Holzhausen talk frequently about the company’s next car, which is intended to be a $30,000 “people’s car.” Internally, it's referred to as “Gen Three.” von Holzhausen, who penned the sublime Model S, told me recently it’s still a doodle on a napkin. But I suspect it’s further along.

“It has always been my dream to produce a low-cost, compelling electric car,” Musk said a few days ago. “We are three to four years away. Wish it could be sooner.” The car might appear around 2016 or 2017, Musk said. He added that it will go 200 miles on a charge and have some “really cool tech that we can’t talk about yet.”

I haven’t peeked behind the curtain, but I have some ideas for features that would make that people’s car a solid hit. Here are six:

Versatility. As a ground-up design, the new Tesla will benefit from really efficient battery storage, meaning a trunk and a “frunk” like the Model S. It should also have a high greenhouse, and folding “magic” seats like the Honda Fit so, despite its small size, it can carry a lot of stuff. With clever planning, a super-sporty BMW M3 killer Tesla could handle bigger loads than a mid-sized SUV. That’s part of Tesla’s legacy.

Range. That 200 miles will be hard to achieve without a big budget-busting battery. Musk could be counting on the cost of such packs coming down, or maybe he has other approaches in mind. The new car could have range-extender technology in the form of swap-in packs. The company’s most recent SEC filing included a reference to being able to “…rapidly swap out the Model S battery pack, and the development of specialized public facilities to perform such swapping, which do not currently exist, but which we plan to introduce in the near future.” Yes, this could mean just swapping the current lithium-ion pack for a charged one, but an alternative would be a second metal-air pack that could be slotted in for longer trips of 500 miles or more. Those batteries aren’t easily rechargeable, but they do offer good range. Tesla actually filed a patent for such a set-up. “The power source is optimized to minimize use of the least-efficient battery pack (e.g., the second battery pack) while ensuring that the electric vehicle has sufficient power to traverse the expected travel distance before the next battery charging cycle,” it said.

Styling. Sure, the car could borrow some styling cues from the Models S and X. BMW, Audi, Mercedes and many other companies see the value in brand identity. But I’m seeing a hatchback here. It’s got to be long enough to offer stellar rear seat legroom, but it needs bold and swoopy lines to carry that off—the car can’t look stretched. I trust von Holzhausen to get it right.

Lightweight. The new car can offset its heavy battery pack with low-weight construction. Carbon fiber is one solution, and the Roadster used some composites, but in the BMW i3 it’s proving an expensive approach. The new car, designed for the mass market, is likely to also be built of extruded aluminum, but it needs to really push the envelope in getting weight out of the platform without reducing strength. Says von Holzhausen, “For limited or low-volume production cars like the Roadster, carbon fiber is a great material to reduce weight. It’s not a solution for higher-volume production due to cost and manufacturing time….Aluminum is as strong as steel but lighter in weight, and has similar manufacturing capabilities. Lighter weight translates directly to efficiency.”

In Touch. I want to see the first truly intuitive voice command system on the new Tesla, coupled to an easy-to-use, non-distracting control interface. A Chevy Volt owner complained to me yesterday that he loves his car, but its controls are very confusing and counter-intuitive. Tesla bettered the dashboard interface on the Model S (by a mile), but the company now has the chance to turn its new car into a mainstream object of desire.

In Control. No, the new car won’t be the self-driving car Musk has been talking about, but the company is working on some driver-assist features for the near future. These are likely to be in full flower on the new car, though likely as options to keep the base price down. Tesla is in talks with Google about various levels of “assistive tech,” or “autopilot” as Musk refers to it. But the company could also develop its own system, as it likes to do. Hidden menus on the Model S reveal that such useful add-ons as lane departure warning, blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control are all coming soon.

The mass-market car is the one that will really put Tesla in the hunt with today’s well-established automakers. It has to be really good and you know what? I think it will be—this company tends to be smarter than the competition. Tesla will have to be exceptionally smart to bring all the right features, including decent range, rapid acceleration and fast charging time, for $30,000.


· · 5 years ago

"The car might appear around 2016 or 2017, Musk said."

Although this statement comes with one, big, *fat* asterisk, that looks to be about the time the lease on our Leaf will be coming due.

Well, only time will tell. :)

· · 5 years ago

Great right up and I can't wait for the Gen 3 Tesla. I hope congress passes an exception to the side view mirror law to allow cameras to be used instead. That'd cut down on drag and allow more driving distance.

· · 5 years ago

Doh. I wish there was an edit...

Great write up^

· · 5 years ago

I wish the Gen 3 Tesla was coming out sooner, but it will probably be a much better car with 2016 technology. I believe the batteries are going to improve quite a bit in the next few years. I would also like to see a non-combustion range extender, like a metal-air battery or a fuel cell. It makes a lot more sense than pushing around a huge LI battery.

· · 5 years ago

I hope some one would come out with plain vanilla car with 200 mile electric range. Just the bare minimum features, but with a range of 200 miles and a 10KwHr on board charger. Price after federal rebate: $20, 000.

Nissan can actually do that. But they choose not to increase the range, but added creature comfort. Next may be the Indians - Tata or Mahindra.

· · 5 years ago

Along the lines of range, I would think this car must have access to Tesla's supercharger network. That, plus 200 miles, and I'm sold. I have already started saving for this one - 2017 can't come soon enough!

· · 5 years ago

$30k, 200 miles range and Tesla's Supercharger network, 0-60mph under 6 seconds.

With those features, I will be the first one to buy it with ca$h.

· · 5 years ago

If they get the car to a low enough aerodynamic drag, they can get that range on a smaller battery - which will save both the cost and the weight, too.

The Cd needs to be <0.20 and then the range can be 200 miles on a 32-36kWh pack. That, and solving the heat and A/C issue as efficiently as possible; so the range won't drop as much in less than ideal conditions.


· · 5 years ago

Sounds like a good option a few years down the road, so timing's fine for me. Just got the i-MiEV last fall, planning to swap our Prius out for some PHEV in the next couple of years (Volt's too tight on rear seat & trunk, but PriusPI, C-MaxE, or Outlander PHEV are possibilities). Assuming the i-MiEV holds up in our EV-friendly high desert environs (and no impassioned collector of EV oddballs pries it from me with a generous offer - ha!), could be pushing up near 2020 before we're back in the market for a new EV.

I'll be keeping an eye on developments, though - if we get early word of a viable road-trip strategy for the TGen3 and it seems a flexible enough package, we could be motivated to stretch our gen2 Prius a wee bit further . . .

· · 5 years ago

Giving themselves another 3-4 years to come out with a 200 mile car gives them time to incorporate newer battery technology. Assuming something actually gets past the technology announcements and actually make it to production, there have been quite a few postings about new materials/processes/science that should improve battery capabilities. If they become real, a 200 mile car is much easier to make in the price range Tesla hopes to bring out. As it is, they are just basing it on what it costs them to make their current battery technology, which is not the cheapest method by far, but still probably one of the most energy dense.

· · 5 years ago

It was mentioned twice in the article that this new model ought to have a hatchback, the first time implying that with the Honda Fit. I say no. Americans have voted with their wallet that their favorite format of car is the 4 door sedan with trunk. Camry, Accord, Fusion, Altima, Malibu, Sonata, Civic, Corolla and so on, these are the TOP selling cars in the US.
Trunks are easy to use, offer very decent cargo space, but more importantly, secure cargo space in case of an accident. They don't offer the oversized cargo space of wagons or SUVs, but it seems most people don't need that much cargo space often.
I suspect trunked sedans inherently have less cabin noise than hatchbacks given the same treatment of insulating materials. If someone can confirm, that would be appreciated.

Midsize wagons (hatchbacks like Acura TSX Sportwagon) have sold terribly in the US. This is a guess, but I suspect the shape inherently reminds some people of a hearse. I showed my niece a pic of the Sportwagon and she bowed her head, saying it looks like a hearse. SUV with big tires are ok obviously, but wagons were called 'the kiss of death' in sales. I'd cringe to see Tesla's next car proto'd as a wagon or lower volume selling hatchback.

What if they went for the throat with an all-electric midsize sedan, basically an Accord, Camry or Fusion sized 5 seater with trunk and 200 miles range. Some might say 'those cars are too common, found on every corner'. But, that's basically what 'we' want for electric cars, right?

· · 5 years ago

@ Neil,

"The Cd needs to be <0.20 and then the range can be 200 miles on a 32-36kWh pack. That, and solving the heat and A/C issue as efficiently as possible; so the range won't drop as much in less than ideal conditions."

I agree to a point. Lighter weight will always make the range longer and more efficent. However, smaller battery pack with less energy content won't help the Heat issue. If you think about it, the resistive heat generation in the winter condition is already efficient at 100%. Heat pump can make that better than 100%. Maybe 1.1-1.5. But once you get to extreme cold, that number will be hovering around 1.1 to 1.2 at best. Even at that rate, the amount of energy you need to keep the cabin warm (~ 68 degree) is huge. That can easily drain the 32KWh battery.

I think the early concept from Volvo make sense. Having a liquid fuel heater for extreme weather will make a huge difference. Make it flexible fuel. It can be powered by alchohol, natural gas, propane. Those things are far more efficient than any ICE based heat and it can be very small and compact. Make it optional so only buyers in the extreme cold climate would need something like that....

· · 5 years ago

I think the folks at Tesla are plenty smart, but, if i were going to suggest anything, it would be to take the next step, and minimize the dashboard and either go for a clear "Frunk" or one with windows in it.
By having better visibility, it becomes safer and you can lower the profile.

· · 5 years ago

People are projecting a lot of hopes & dreams onto this mythical $30K car. Tesla will certainly keep working down the food chain . . . but this $30K car will never exist, IMHO. There will be incremental cost reductions for batteries . . . but nothing that will let them build a 200 mile range car for $30K. Tesla made a great car with the Model S. But they are not magicians. They don't have any magic tricks that are not also available to Nissan, GM, Ford, etc.

· · 5 years ago

@ModernMarvelFan: I must agree regarding fuel-based heaters, and I hope Tesla will lead the way in resurrecting this "oldie but goodie" idea. I love my EV, but I now live in a mild climate, and would never have considered an EV when I lived in the Northeast. It's ridiculous to squander expensive battery capacity on running a glorified space heater. Burning fuel to generate heat is highly efficient, since heat's exactly what burning generates - the entire Rube Goldberg edifice of ICEV technology is all about converting a small fraction of that heat into motive power. For cold-weather markets, implementing this one idea would transform EV tech from also-ran to superstar in a single stroke.

· · 5 years ago


GM is planning the same thing as Tesla. They have already hinted toward an affordable 200 mile EV in a couple of years and they have invested a lot of money with Envia Systems in order to make it happen. If Ford, Nissan and other car companies aren't planning on matching this price and range, they are going to lose the EV market.

The key in making this happen is increasing the energy density of batteries. Doubling or tripling the energy density makes it a piece of cake. A 24 KWh battery of today could store 40-60 KWh in the same sized package and roughly the same cost. While most people are expecting incremental improvements in battery technology, I believe we will see big leaps in a few years, based on nano-materials.

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