It’s been hard to miss the scooter startup wars opening fresh, techno-fueled rifts in Valley society in recent months. Another flavor of ride-sharing steed which sprouted seemingly overnight to clutter up sidewalks — drawing rapid-fire ire from city regulators apparently far more forgiving of traffic congestion if it’s delivered in the traditional, car-shaped capsule.
Even in their best, most-groomed PR shots, the dockless carelessness of these slimline electrified scooters hums with an air of insouciance and privilege. As if to say: Why yes, we turned a kids’ toy into a battery-powered kidult transporter — what u gonna do about it?
An earlier batch of electric scooter sharing startups — offering full-fat, on-road mopeds that most definitely do need a license to ride (and, unless you’re crazy, a helmet for your head) — just can’t compete with that. Last mile does not haul.
But a short-walk replacement tool that’s so seamlessly manhandled is also of course easily vandalized. Or misappropriated. Or both. And there have been a plethora of scooter dismemberment/kidnap horror stories coming out of California, judging by reports from the scooter wars front line. Hanging scooters in trees is presumably a protest thing.
Scooter brand Lime struck an especially tone-deaf tech note trying to fix this problem after an update added a security alarm that bellowed robotic threats to call the cops on anyone who fumbled to unlock them. Safe to say, littering abusive scooters in public spaces isn’t a way to win friends and influence people.
Even when functioning ‘correctly’, i.e. as intended, scooter rides can ooze a kind of brash entitlement. The sweatless convenience looks like it might be mostly enabling another advance in tech-fueled douche behavior as a t-shirt wearing alpha nerd zips past barking into AirPods and inhaling a takeaway latte while cutting up the patience of pedestrians.
None of this fast-seeded societal friction has put the brakes on e-scooter startup momentum, though. Au contraire. They’ve been raising massive amounts of investment on rapidly inflating valuations ($2BN is the latest valuation for Bird).
But buying lots of e-scooters and leaving them at the mercy of human whim is an expensive business to try scaling. Hence big funding rounds are necessary if you’re going to replace all the canal-dunked duds and keep scooting fast enough for the competition.
At the same time, there isn’t a great deal to differentiate one e-scooter experience over another — beyond price and proximity. Branding might do it but then you have to scramble even harder and faster to create a slick experience and inflate a brand that sticks. (And it goes without saying that a scooter sticky with fecal-matter is absolutely not that.)
The still fledgling startups are certainly scrambling to scale, with some also already pushing into international markets. Lime just scattered ~200 e-scooters in Paris, for example. It’s also been testing the waters more quietly in Zurich. While Bird has its beady eye on European territory too.
The idea underpinning some very obese valuations for these fledgling startups is that scooters will be a key piece of a reworked, multi-modal transport mix for urban mobility, fueled by app-based convenience and city buy-in to greener transport options with emissions-free benefits. (Albeit scooters’ greenness depends on what they’re displacing; Great if it’s gas-guzzling cars, less compelling if it’s people walking or peddling.)
And while investors are buying in to the vision that lots of city dwellers are going to be scooting the last mile in future, and betting big on sizable value being captured by a few plucky scooter startups — more than half a billion dollars has been funneled into just two of these slimline scooter brands, Bird and Lime, since February — there are skeptical notes being sounded too.
Asking whether the scooter model really justifies such huge raises and heady valuations. Wondering if it isn’t a bit crazy for a fledgling Bird to be 2x a unicorn already.
The bear case for these slimline e-scooters says they’re really only fixing a pretty limited urban mobility problem. Too spindly and unsafe to go the distance, too sedate of pace (and challenged for sidewalk space) to feel worthwhile if you don’t have far to go anyway. And of course you’re not going to be able to cart your kids and/or much baggage on a stand-up two wheeler. So they’re useless for families.
Meanwhile scooter invasions are illegal in some places and, where they are possible, are fast inviting public and regulatory frisson and friction — by contributing to congestion and peril on already crowded pavements.
After taking one of Lime’s just-landed e-scooters for a spin in Paris this week, Willy Braun, VC at early stage European fund Daphni, came away unimpressed. “I didn’t feel I was really saving time in a short distance, since there is always many people in our narrow sidewalks,” he tells us. “And it isn’t comfortable enough for me to imagine a longer distance. Also it’s quite expensive ($1 per use and $.15/min).
“Lastly: Before renting it I read two news media that told me I had to use it only on the sidewalks and they tell us that we should only use it on the road during the onboarding — and that wearing an helmet is mandatory without providing it). As a comparison, I’d rather use e-bikes (or emoto-bikes) for longer journey without hesitation.”
“Give us Jump instead of Lime!” he adds, namechecking the electric bike startup that’s been lodged under Uber’s umbrella since April, adding a greener string to its urban mobility bow — and which is also heading over to Europe as part of the ride-hailing giant’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its regionally battered brand.
“Uber stands ready to help address some of the biggest challenges facing German cities: tackling air pollution, reducing congestion and increasing access to cleaner transportation solutions,” said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wheeling a bright red Jump bike on stage at the Noah conference in Berlin earlier this month. Uber’s Jump e-bikes will launch in Germany this summer.
E-bikes do seem to offer more urban mobility versatility than e-scooters. Though a scooter is arguably a more accessible type of wheeled steed vs a bike, given you can just stand on it and be moved.
But in Europe’s dense and dynamic urban environments — which, unlike the US, tend to be replete with public transit options (typically at a spectrum of price-points) — individual transport choices tend to be based firstly on economics. After which it’s essentially a matter of personal taste and/or the weather.
Urban transport horses for courses — depending on your risk, convenience and comfort thresholds, thanks to a publicly funded luxury of choice. So scooters have loads of already embedded competition.
TechCrunch’s resident Parisien, Romain Dillet — a regular user of on-demand bike services in the city (of which there are many), and prior to that the city’s own dock-based bike rental scheme — also went for a test spin on a Lime scooter this week. And also came away feeling underwhelmed.
“This is bad,” he said after his ride. “It’s slow and you need to brake constantly. BUT the worst part is that it feels waaaaaay more dangerous than a bike. Basically you can’t brake abruptly because you’re just standing there.”
Index Venture’s Martin Mignot was also in Paris this week and he took the chance to take a Lime scooter for a spin too — checking out the competition in his case, given the European VC firm is a Bird backer. So what did he think?
“The experience is pretty cool. It’s slightly faster than a bike, there’s no sweating. The weather was just amazing and very hot in Paris so it was pretty amazing in terms of speed and lack of effort,” he says, rolling out the positively spun, vested view on scooter sharing. “Especially going up hill to go to Gare du Nord.
“And the lack of friction — just to get on board and get started. So in general I think it’s a great experience and I think it feels a really interesting niche between walking and on-demand bikes… In Paris you’ve also got the mopeds. So that kind of ‘in between offering’. I think there’s a big market there. I think it’s going to work pretty well in Paris.”
Mignot is a tad disparaging about the quality of Lime’s scooters vs the model being deployed by Bird — a scooter model he also personally owns. But again, as you’d expect given his vested interests.
“Obviously I’m biased but I would say that the Xiaomi scooter/Ninebot scooter is higher quality than the one that Lime are using,” he tells us. “I thought that the Lime one, the handlebar is a little bit too high. The braking is a little bit too soft. Maybe it was the one I used, I don’t know.”
Talking generally about scooter startups, he says investors’ excitement boils down to trip frequency — thanks exactly to journeys being these itty-bitty last mile links.
But it’s also then about the potential for all that last mile hopping to be a shortcut for winning a prized slot on smartphone users’ homescreens — and thus the underlying game being played looks like a jockeying for prime position in the urban mobility race.
Lime, for example, started out with bike rentals before jumping into scooters and going multi-modal. So scooter sharing starts to look like a strategy for mobility startups to scoot to the top of the attention foodchain — where they’re then positioned to offer a full mix and capture more value.
So really scooters might mostly be a tool for catching people’s app attention. Think of that next time you see one lying on a sidewalk.
“What’s very interesting if you look at the trip distribution, most of the trips are short. So the vast majority of trips if you’re walking, obviously, are less than three miles. So that’s actually where the bulk of the mobility happens. And scooters play really well in that field. So in terms of sheer number of trips I think it’s going to dwarf any other type of transportation. And especially ride-hailing,” says Mignot.
“If you look at how often do people use Uber or Lyft or Taxify… it’s going to be much less frequent than the scooter users. And I think that’s what makes it such an interesting asset… The frequency will be much higher — and so the apps that power the scooters will tend to be on the homescreen. And kind of on top of the foodchain, so to speak. So I think that’s what makes it super interesting.”
Scooters also get a big investor tick on merit of the lack of friction standing in the way of riding vs other available urban options such as bikes (or, well, non-electric scooters, skateboards, roller blades, public transport, and so on and on) — in both onboarding (getting going) and propulsion (i.e. the lack of sweat required to ride) terms.
“That’s what’s so brilliant with these devices, you just snap the QR code and off you go,” he says. “The difference with bikes is that you don’t have to produce any effort. I think there are cases where obviously bikes are better. But I think there are a lot of cases where people will want something where you don’t sweat.
“Where you don’t wrinkle your clothes. Which goes a little bit faster. Without going all the way to the moped experience where you need to put the helmet, which is a bit more dangerous, which a lot of people, especially women, are not super familiar with. So I think what’s exciting with scooters as a form factor is it’s actually very mainstream.
“Anyone can ride them. It’s very simple to manoeuvre. It’s not super fast, it’s not too dangerous. It doesn’t require any muscular effort — so for older people or for people who just don’t want to sweat because they’re going to a meeting or something. It’s just a fantastic option.”
Index has also invested in an e-bike startup (Cowboy) and the firm is fully signed up to the notion that urban mobility will be multimodal. So if e-scooters valuations are a bit overcooked Index is not going to be too concerned. People in cities are clearly going to be riding something. And backing a mix is a smart way to hedge the risk of any one option ending up more passing fad than staple urban steed.
Mostly Index is betting that people will keep on riding robotic horses for urban courses. And whatever they ride it’s a fairly safe bet that an app is going to be involved in the process of finding (docklessness is therefore another attention play) or unlocking (scan that QR code!) the mobility device — opening up the possibility that a single app could house multiple mobility options and thus capture more overall value.
“It’s not a one-size fits all. They’re all complementing each other,” says Mignot of the urban mobility options in play. “I would say e-bikes are probably a little bit more great for little bit longer trips because you’re sitting down. But again it takes a little bit longer, because you have to adjust the saddle, you need to start peddling. There’s a bit more friction both on the onboading and on the riding. But they’re a bit better for slightly longer distances. I would say for shorter distances there’s nothing better than the scooter.”
He also points out that scooters are both cheaper and less bulky than e-bikes. And because they take up less street space they can — at least in theory — be more densely stacked, thereby generating the claimed convenience by having them sitting near enough to convince someone not to bother walking 10 minutes to the café or gym — and just scoot instead. So scooters’ slimline physique is also especially exciting to investors. (Even if, ironically, it’s being deployed to urge people to walk less.)
“I think we will end up with more density of scooters. Which is super important,” he continues. “People will, in the end, tend to take the vehicle that they can find where they are. And I think it’s more likely, eventually, that they will get a scooter than an e-bike. Just simply because they take less space and they are less expensive.”
But why wouldn’t people who do get won over to the sweatless perks of last mile scooting just buy and own their own ride — rather than shelling out on an ongoing basis to share?
Unlike bikes, scooters are mobile enough to be picked up and moved around fairly easily. Which means they can go with you into your home, office, even a restaurant — disruptively reducing theft risk. Whereas talk to any bike owner and they’ll almost invariably have at least one tale of theft woe, which is a key part of what makes bike sharing so attractive: It erases theft worry.
Add to that, you can find e-scooters on sale in European electronics shops for as little as €140. So if you’re going to be a regular scooterer, the purely economic argument to just own your own looks pretty compelling.
And people zipping around on e-scooters is a pretty common sight in another dense European city, Barcelona, which has very scooter-friendly weather but no scooter startups (yet). But unless it’s a tourist weaving along the seafront most of these riders are not shared: People just popped into their local electronics shop and walked out with a scooter in a box.
So the rides aren’t generating repeat revenue for anyone except the electricity companies.
Asked why people who do want to scoot won’t just buy, rather than rent Mignot talks up the hassle of ownership — undermined slightly by the fact he is also a scooter owner (despite the claimed faff from problems such as frequent flat tires and the chore of the nightly charge).
“The thing you notice very rapidly: There are two things, one is the maintenance,” he says. “The models that exist today are not super robust. Maybe in a very flat, very smooth roads, maybe Santa Monica, maybe it’s a little bit less true but I would say in Europe the maintenance that is required is fairly high… I have to do something on mine every week.
“The other thing is it takes a little bit of space. If you have to bring it to a restaurant or whatever type of crowded place, a movie theatre or wherever you’re going, to an office, to a meeting room, it’s a little bit on the heavy side, and it’s a little bit inconvenient. So certainly some people will buy them… But I also think that there are a lot of cases where you’d rather have it just on-demand.”
Unlike Mignot and Index, Tom Bradley, of UK focused VC firm Oxford Capital, is not so convinced by the on-demand scooter craze.
The firm has not made any e-scooter investments itself, though mobility is a “core theme”, with the portfolio including an on-demand coach travel startup (Sn-ap), and technology plays such as Morpheus Labs (machine learning for driverless cars) and UltraSoc (complex circuits for automotive parts, which sells to the likes of Tesla).
But it’s just not been sold on scooter startups. Bradley describes it as an “open question” whether scooters end up being “an important part of how people move around the cities of the future”. He also points to theft problems with dockless bike share schemes that have not played out well in the UK.
“We’re not convinced that this is a fundamental part of the picture,” he says of scooter sharing. “It may be a part of the picture but I personally am not yet convinced that it’s as big a part of the picture that people seem to be prepared to pay for.”
“I keep thinking of the Segway example,” he adds. “It’s an absolutely delightful product. It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant. In a way that these electric scooters are not. But obviously it was much more expensive. And it made people feel a bit weird. But it was supposed to be the answer — and it’s not the answer. Before its time, perhaps.”
Of course he also accepts that capital is “being used as a weapon”, as he puts it, to scoot full-pelt towards a future where shared electric scooters are the norm on city streets by waging a “marketing war” to get there.
“Venture capital valuations are what someone is prepared to pay. And in this case people are valuing potential rather than valuing the business… so the valuations [of Bird and Lime] are being driven more than anything by the amount of money being raised,” he says. “So you decide a rule of thumb about what is acceptable dilution, and if you’re going to raise $400M or whatever then the valuation’s got to be somewhere between $1.6BN and $2BN to make that sort of raise make sense — and leave enough equity for the previous investors and founders. So there’s an element of this where the valuations are being driven by the amount of capital being raised.”
Oxford Capital’s bearish view on scooter sharing is also bounded by the fund only investing in UK-based startups. And while Bradley says it sees lots of local mobility strengths — especially in the automotive market — he admits it’s more of a mental leap to imagine a world leading scooter startup sprouting from the country’s green and pleasant lands. Not least because it’s not legal to use them on UK public roads or pavements.
“If you look at places like Amsterdam, Berlin, they’re sort of built for bikes. London’s getting towards being built for bikes… Cycling’s been one of the big success stories in London. Is [scooter sharing] going to replace cycling? I don’t know. Not so convinced… It’s obviously easy for anyone to get on and off these things, young and old. So that’s good, it’s inclusive. But it feels a little bit like a solution looking for a problem, the sorts of journeys people talk about for these things — on campus, short urban journeys. A lot of these are walkable or cycle journeys in a lot of cities. So is there a mass need?
“Is this Segway 2 or is this bike hire 2… it’s hard to tell. And we’re coming down on the former. We’re not convinced this is going to be a fundamental part of the transport space. It will be a feature but not a huge part.”
But for Mignot the early days of the urban mobility attention wars mean there’s much to play for — and much that can be favorably reshaped to fit scooters into the mix.
“The whole thing, even on-demand bikes, it’s a two year old phenomenon really,” he says. “So I think everyone is just trying to learn and figure out and adapt to this new reality, whether it’s users or companies or cities. I think it’s very similar to when cars were first introduced. There were no parking spaces at the time and there were no rules on the road. And fast forward 100 years and it looks very different.
“If you look at the amount of infrastructure and effort and spend that has been put into making — and I would argue way more than should have — into making a city car-friendly, if you only do a 100th of the same amount of effort and spend into making some space for bicycles and light two-wheel vehicles I think we’ll be fine.
“That’s the beauty of this model. If you compare the space of the tech and if you look at the efficiency of moving people around vs the space, the scooters are simply the most efficient because their footprint on the ground is just so small.”
He even makes the case for scooters working well in London — arguing the sprawl of the city amps up the utility because there are so many tedious last mile trips that people have to make.
Even more so than in denser European cities like Paris, where he admits that hopping on a scooter might just be more of a “nice to have”, given shorter distances and all the other available options. So, really, where urban mobility is concerned, it can actually be courses for horses.
Yet, the reality is London is off-limits to the likes of Bird and Lime for now — thanks to UK laws barring this type of unlicensed personal electric vehicle from public roads and spaces.
You can buy e-scooters for use on private land in the UK but any scooter startups that tried their usual playbook in London would be scooting straight for legal hot water.
It’s not just the British weather that’s inclement.
“I’m really hoping that TfL [Transport for London] and the Department for Transport are going to make it possible,” says Mignot on that. “I think any city should welcome this with open arms. Some cities are, by the way. And I think over time once they see the success stories in other parts of the world I think they all will. But I wish London was one of those cutting edge cities that would welcome new innovation with open arms. I think right now, unfortunately, it’s not there.
“There’s a lot of talk about air quality, and so on, but actually, when push comes to shove… you have a lot of resistance and a lot of pushback… So it’s a little bit disappointing. But, you know, we’ll get there eventually.”
Logistics may not be the most exciting application of autonomous vehicles, but it’s definitely one of the most important. And the marine shipping industry — one of the oldest industries in the world, you can imagine — is ready for it. Or at least two major Norwegian shipping companies are: they’re building an autonomous shipping venture called Massterly from the ground up.
“Massterly” isn’t just a pun on mass; “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship” is the term Wilhelmson and Kongsberg coined to describe the self-captaining boats that will ply the seas of tomorrow.
These companies, with “a combined 360 years of experience” as their video put it, are trying to get the jump on the next phase of shipping, starting with creating the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. It’s a modest vessel by shipping terms — 250 feet long and capable of carrying 120 containers according to the concept — but will be capable of loading, navigating and unloading without a crew
(One assumes there will be some people on board or nearby to intervene if anything goes wrong, of course. Why else would there be railings up front?)
Each has major radar and lidar units, visible light and IR cameras, satellite connectivity and so on.
Control centers will be on land, where the ships will be administered much like air traffic, and ships can be taken over for manual intervention if necessary.
At first there will be limited trials, naturally: the Yara Birkeland will stay within 12 nautical miles of the Norwegian coast, shuttling between Larvik, Brevik and Herøya. It’ll only be going 6 knots — so don’t expect it to make any overnight deliveries.
“As a world-leading maritime nation, Norway has taken a position at the forefront in developing autonomous ships,” said Wilhelmson group CEO Thomas Wilhelmson in a press release. “We take the next step on this journey by establishing infrastructure and services to design and operate vessels, as well as advanced logistics solutions associated with maritime autonomous operations. Massterly will reduce costs at all levels and be applicable to all companies that have a transport need.”
The Yara Birkeland is expected to be seaworthy by 2020, though Massterly should be operating as a company by the end of the year.
Geely’s Lynk & Co is one of the more interesting young automotive brands, with an approach to sales and marketing that more closely resembles modern gadget and lifestyle brand go-to-market strategy than traditional automaker sales. The Lynk & Co 01 SUV, designed to sit somewhere between Geely’s line on one end and Volvo’s vehicles on the other, debuted last year; now the company is revealing its 02, a more compact crossover SUV, again designed with mobility, connectivity, and the potential for shared use in mind.
The 02 was designed and engineered in Sweden, Lynk & Co says, by a team of international talent. It has a sportier look and feel when compared to the 01, but also clearly shares design traits with the original Lynk & CO. vehicle. The car is intended to capitalize on the rapidly growing crossover SUV model, which is particularly strong in Europe, where Lynk & Co is also finally revealing its market rollout plans after initially kicking off sales in China in 2017.
Lynk & Co will aim to start European sales of its vehicles in 2020, and will skip the traditional dealer model to launch what it’s calling “Offline Stores,” which sound in practice a lot like Tesla’s global showrooms: “Small, sociable brand boutiques in urban districts.” The automaker will also sell online via its Lynkco.com site, which is a trademark of its conception (again something seemingly derived from the Tesla playbook) and it’ll also have a rolling pop-up shop that can make visits to spots that won’t have a permanent Offline Store boutique.
Another bit of news from Lynk & Co this morning: They’re creating a design collaboration with online commerce platform Tictail. This will be a line of both clothing and home good that will be designed by Tictail’s designer community and sold via its platform, and it’s going to be called “The City Dweller Series.” It’s a bit heavyhanded, but it fits overall with Lynk & Co’s strategy of positioning itself as the brand of connected young professionals.
Nissan is hoping to achieve a target of selling 1 million electrified vehicles across its portfolio by its fiscal 2022, the automaker announced today. The target is part of its overarching strategic mid-term plan leading up to 2022. To be included in the sales total, models sold by Nissan need to either be pure electric or e-POWER vehicles (Nissan’s hybrid system that delivers the performance benefits of a fully electric powertrain with the range and refuelling benefits of an internal combustion engine).
The overall strategy to help get Nissan to that milestone also includes the release of eight new purely electric vehicle, to follow the LEAF, and a multi brand launch of EVs specific to China. There’s also a new electric mini-car coming to Japan, and a plan to electrify all new Infiniti vehicles by 2021.
Alongside its EV targets, Nissan is also looking to build out its autonomous driving portfolio, with specific goals to ramp up its ProPILOT advanced driver assistance system sales by 2022. Nissan says it’s also aiming to sell 1 million models per year equipped with ProPILOT (which is similar to Tesla’s Autopilot) by that time. ProPILOT should grow more capable, too, with automated multilane driving and destination picking hopefully rolling out in the next couple of years.
Ford detailed a bunch of its roadmap for the next few years at a special media event today, and one of the key takeaways is that it’s going all-in on hybrids with its SUV lineup. Ford estimates that SUVs could make up as much as half the entire U.S. industry retail market by 2020, and that’s why it’s shifting $7 billion in investment capital from its cars business over to the SUV segment. By 2020, Ford also aims to have high-performance SUVs in market, including five with hybrid powertrains and one fully battery electric model.
These will include brand new versions of the Ford Escape and Ford Explorer that are coming next year, and two entirely new off-road SUVs, including a new Bronco, and a small SUV that has yet to be named. There’s also that “performance battery electric utility” that will make up part of its overall SUV lineup, which is set for a 2020 release and will spearhead a plan to release six electric vehicle models by 2022.
With this big hybrid push on the SUV side, Ford expects to go from second to first-place in the U.S. hybrid vehicles market by sales, surpassing current leader Toyota by 2021, thanks also to the forthcoming hybrid Mustang and F-150.
Automaker Volkswagen’s ramping up for its big EV push, with $25 billion in committed battery supplies and plans to outfit 16 factories to build electric cars by the end of 2022, up from three with that capacity in the VW stable right now. Thus far, Volkswagen’s focus is on battery suppliers in Europe and China, its two largest markets, and likely the two that will be most important… Read More
Tesla’s Model 3 is making progress heading out to customers (though not as much as either Tesla or those on the waiting list would like) and as a result, we got a chance to spend some time in one of the new production models that just rolled off the line. The Model 3 is a much more affordable car from Tesla than either its Model S or Model X, and it hopes to one day achieve true mass market success.
Tesla managed to amass somewhere around 500,000 pre-orders for the car, so it’s definitely a hotly anticipated item. This is the kind of enthusiasm generally reserved not for vehicles, but for high demand consumer electronics. Make no mistake, however: The Model 3 is a car first, and a gadget second, and probably the most fun you can buy on four wheels on real roads at this price point.
As equipped, the Model 3 we test drove had a retail price of around $57,500, which includes all the upgrade options, Autopilot and longer driving range thanks to an enhanced battery pack. It also includes a panorama-style all glass roof and leather-appointed seating. For the time being, the extended range option is the only choice for new Model 3 buyers (the basic model will be available once there’s more production volume), so at the very least your starting price is going to be $44,000 for now.
That puts the car in a class with other entry level luxury vehicles like the BMW 530e hybrid, for instance, so it’s not exactly an ‘affordable’ car in the traditional sense. But it’s still potentially going to be able to net you some tax incentives, and it’s about half the price of a similarly appointed Model S or Model X.
And while driving the Model S and Model X is definitely a different experience, there’s a lot more similarity between driving one of those and driving the Model 3 than you might expect.
The all-electric rear-wheel drive powertrain, which provides instant acceleration that feels like more power than you have any right to expect from this kind of car. To me, its acceleration felt more manageable than the truly awesome amount of power present on the Tesla Model X P100D I tested out last month – but still truly thrilling measured on any scale.
In fact, the most fun I had with the Model 3 while testing the car was in driving it up and down a windy road with a few clear straightaways in a sleepy Northern California rural town. The roadway was empty save for me and the Model 3, and I got the chance to see how it did getting up to 60 from a stop start, and how it handles those curves. Bottom line: It’s quick to achieve speed, and it hugs the road like it’s glued to the thing (the bottom-heavy design thanks to the battery pack helps), so you can really take the corners in stride.
On the highway, the quick acceleration helps when you’re dealing with tricky merges, and of course the Model 3 has Autopilot on board, which works just as it does in other vehicles in Tesla’s lineup. It’s a godsend in California traffic, and likely just as effective anywhere you’re stuck with stop-and-go freeway or highway driving.
Driving is where the Tesla Model 3 excels the most, which is why I wanted to lead with that in this review – this is a driver’s car, built not just for people who know they love to drive, but also for people who might not be aware of how much fun it can be, especially if you’ve never had the pleasure of using a vehicle with an electric powertrain before. Cars including the BMW i3, the Chevrolet Bolt, the Tesla Model S and Model X, and now the Model 3 have all ruined me for internal combustion engine cars: One you’ve gone electric, you can’t really go back.
The Model 3 also does as much as possible to draw focus to the driving experience. In large part, this is due to the spare cockpit design, which moves all instrumentation and information display to the single, 16-inch touchscreen panel mounted in the center of the dash. This screen is occupied on the left third by key information relevant to the driver (and indeed sits just in your peripheral view while looking straight out the windshield) and the remaining two-thirds is taken up by information display about routing, media, car settings and more.
It’s a bit of a mixed blessing in terms of a vehicle interface: On the one hand, it’s terrific to have an unobstructed view of the road – it’s as pure as driving experience as rolling down the track in the soapbox derby car of your youth, and it really leaves you feeling connected to the road itself. The effect is aided by the lack of any obvious vents, since the dash has one full-length break that handles all of the air circulation by pitting two air foils against one another to direct air very precisely where you want it to go.
The steering wheel is still there, of course, and it features a stock-mounted lever for putting the car into drive, reverse and park, and for controlling Autopilot if enabled. The wheel also has two multipurpose, multidirectional controllers both right and left of center. The left controls volume and track skipping, as well as play/pause for media by default. The right doesn’t do anything by default right now, but Tesla is considering using it for managing speed when Autopilot is engaged (currently handled via touchscreen).
Those two controls are contextually variable, so they can control the angle of your rear view mirrors when you’re adjusting those via the center screen, for instance. Tesla left them unlabeled by design because they wanted them to be flexible, and in general it seems like a good idea, if it still needs a bit of working out in terms of how it works in practice.
The Model 3’s biggest weakness, overall, is the touchscreen interface. It’s actually an excellent touchscreen, with very responsive scrolling and touch detection, smooth animations and zero missed taps during my usage. The problem is that there’s a lot to wade through to find just what you’re looking for, and it doesn’t do enough to simplify and declutter the experience for use specifically while driving.
I actually got used to a lot of the system’s quirks quicker than I thought I would, but it’s still definitely something where I would’ve appreciated a few physical controls for specific functions, including windshield wipers, even if it spoiled the cockpit’s otherwise excellent minimalist design.
That’s actually the only real issue I had with the Model 3 during testing, and it was not negative enough that it would prevent me from buying one of these, were I in the market for a new car, with available funds and availability of stock on Tesla’s end. This is easily the most fun car I’ve driven in this price range that I can recall, and while occasionally clunky, the touchscreen didn’t impede my enjoyment or my ability to drive the vehicle safely at any time during testing.
Other reviewers have noted some problems with body panel fit and finish on their review cars; Tesla said mine was freshly entered into the press fleet, so that might be why I didn’t notice any of said problems, but I genuinely didn’t see any of those flaws even if they existed. Tesla’s biggest issue with this vehicle is that it can’t make enough to come anywhere close to satisfying demand. The Model 3 is finally in more showrooms across the country, but it’s still going to take a while to satisfy existing orders, let alone to begin filling new ones.
The bottom line is that if you need a car in the next few years or so but you’re happy to wait (potentially) that long, it might be worth putting up a down payment to save your spot in line. The Model 3 is a solid piece of eccentric joy in a market filled with staid and boring choices.
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