Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled Thursday the latest step in the company's "secret master plan" — the Model 3 electric car, which costs $35,000 and can travel 215 miles on a single charge. That's far cheaper and more technologically advanced than previous Tesla electric vehicles.
"This is really important for the future of the world," Musk declared at Thursday's launch in Hawthorne, California, where a graph showing rising global carbon dioxide emissions served as a backdrop.
While curbing planet-warming automobile emissions is of global importance, the Model 3 is seen as the best chance for the Palo Alto-based company to achieve its goal of selling 500,000 cars a year by 2020.
Though production and delivery of the cars is still more than a year away, more than 135,000 people have already put down the $1,000 deposit to secure their Model 3.
Thomas Turrentine of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis said the Model 3 would likely see higher sales than older, more costly, Tesla models like the Model S and Model X. The strongest growth for the Model 3 is expected to be in California, where EV sales make up 3 percent of vehicle purchases.
The launch comes as growth in the EV sector has hit a bump because of low gasoline prices. EV manufacturers are also grappling with persistent problems like the high cost of relatively inefficient batteries and difficulties in building out recharging infrastructure that drivers can depend on for keeping their vehicles humming.
Overall, EVs account for less than 1 percent of total vehicle sales in the United States, according to Autodata. In 2015, only 115,000 electric vehicles were sold, about 5 percent less than the year before.
But Turrentine contends the Model 3 launch marks a significant moment, not just for Tesla, but for the EV market generally. He predicts California's market, particularly, will see a doubling of sales by 2018.
GM is set to introduce the Chevrolet Bolt later this year and Nissan's latest iteration of the Leaf will appear by 2017, expanding the market for affordable, longer-range electric cars.
And the Model 3, Turrentine said, might send a signal to other automakers. Companies usually develop automobiles over 15- to 20-year timescales. But if buyers line up to get their Tesla Model 3 in droves, which appears to be the case, other carmakers might jump into the EV market.
"Growth in the market will be slower than many people hope," Turrentine said, "but it will happen."
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