Tesla 3 proves popular, but will electric cars go mainstream?

The Tesla 3 electric car has gathered $13 billion worth of pre-orders for the sedan two years before the car will be ready. Does this signal a turning point in the love affair between Americans and their gas-guzzling cars?

Tesla Motors/AP
This undated photo provided by Tesla Motors shows a silver Model 3 car.

Tesla's latest offering, which opened its books for preorders at the end of last month, has garnered enormous interest, with 325,000 people signing up to buy $13.7 billion worth of technology.

The new Model 3, which boasts a range of 215 miles before recharging and a relatively modest price tag of $35,000, was intended to appeal to a wider audience than the tech company's earlier renditions, but there is some skepticism as to whether that has been achieved.

Of those hundreds of thousands of people who each put down a $1,000 deposit for the latest car, research suggests the vast majority are still within the tech-savvy, environmentally-aware cohort of early adopters who have ever been Tesla's trusted clientele.

"We're tech people. I want integration with my phone," Charles Butler, the manager of a cloud computing firm in Austin, Texas who was among the first to order a Model 3, told the Associated Press. "Musk and Tesla, that's what they do with their customer experience."

Surveys carried out by the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and by Carnegie Mellon University show Mr. Butler to be typical of Tesla's buyers: someone who is drawn to the company by its founder's other achievements, in rockets and solar panels, as well as its overarching tech image.

To such consumers, cutting-edge features – inherent in Tesla's latest models – are critical.

More traditional car manufacturers who are trying to muscle in on the field have the benefit of long-standing reliability and reputation, and they are scrambling to keep up in terms of mileage and features.

The closest rival soon to be gracing the markets will be General Motors' Chevrolet Bolt, but it seems likely that the company's reliability and reputation may hamper its prospects more than it helps: those interested in buying electric vehicles are often more concerned with the cutting edge, embodied by Tesla.

Yet if that's the case, and Tesla represents the most enticing elements electric cars have to offer, what hope of bringing them to the core of consumer society?

Observers say that revolutionary automobiles always face something of a "chasm" to be bridged between early adopters and the mainstream, and that if the electric car is to breach that abyss, it may simply be a question of time.

Either way, the company's chief executive officer Elon Musk has a master plan. And if his other endeavors are anything to go by, he will pursue that vision relentlessly.

"The goal of Tesla has always been to have a three-step process where version one was an expensive car and low volume, version two is medium prices, medium volume, and version three would be low priced, high volume," Mr. Musk said during a TED Talk in 2013. "Whenever you've got really new technology, it generally takes about three major versions in order to make it a compelling mass market product."

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