Roadshow

With the Model 3, Tesla just became the new Apple

Commentary: I know that sounds hyperbolic, but bear with me.

Tesla Motors, screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

I've been playing in the journalism trade in some form or another for the better part of two decades, and in that time I've been lucky enough to go to some pretty major events. The most notable? The Apple ones, of course.

Yeah, I was in Hong Kong when Google historically partnered with Samsung to launch the Galaxy Nexus, and I was in Las Vegas at CES when Ford unveiled the Focus Electric, the first production car to debut at a consumer electronics show. None of those events came close to matching the glory days of Apple throwing a coming-out party.

Now, I say that despite the fact that I use an Android phone and do my home computing on a Windows PC -- which is my way of assuring you, dear reader, that I'm far from an Apple fanboy. I sadly wasn't there when Steve Jobs pulled the first iPhone from his pocket and waved it about before an audience of enthusiastic but bemused attendees, but I did attend plenty of other Jobs unveils, live-blogging at 130 words-per-minute (or more) to try and keep up with the hyperbole.

I didn't live-blog last night's Model 3 event at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, mostly because there wasn't anywhere to sit and type. I did my best to do the same effect via Twitter and the reaction was...well, it was pretty amazing. It was unlike anything I've experienced this side of an iPhone launch. (A real iPhone launch, that is, not down-sized rehash.)

I don't need to iterate the parallels between an iPhone launch and the Model 3 launch, but I will anyway.

First there was the endless speculation and anticipation, the frantic forum debates arguing the veracity of various dubious sources. Then came the supposed leak which, of course, proved completely bogus. There were the lines, the self-perpetuating wave of preorder hysteria and, finally, the exclusive event with throngs of cheering attendees -- plus a gaggle of mostly bitter journalists eyeing each other suspiciously in fear of a missed exclusive.

To call it deja vu would be an overstatement, but Thursday night's Model 3 unveiling was unlike anything I've felt since the last time I heard the phrase "one more thing" uttered on the stage at a certain campus in Cupertino, California. Actually, I found last night's Model 3 unveiling far more engaging.

The cadence of an Apple product introduction is the practice of repeating words like "amazing" and "beautiful" until they become a superlative mantra. Musk is completely different. Okay, he too has his moments of hyperbole, but last night he started off with a message that had nothing to do with business. He didn't talk profit margins, volume plays, technological innovations or beautiful design. He launched a tirade against carbon emissions and global warming.

I suppose a cynic could say that's an attempt to shift the discussion away from the merit of EVs in a world with cheap gasoline. Typically I'm happy to lead the cynic charge, but anybody who heard Musk speak last night could tell this wasn't practiced rhetoric.

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In fact, none of it felt very practiced at all. Musk stuttered and stumbled at multiple points. For me, that just added more credence to the whole thing -- though I could be somewhat biased given I'm a stammerer myself and can appreciate the incredible difficulty in merely talking in such situations.

The presentation was blissfully short, well less than 30 minutes. It told the environmental, business and technological reasoning for the Model 3 and, best of all, delivered an actual working car that each and every person in attendance got to sample for themselves -- much like Apple's demo rooms at major product unveilings.

When Apple launched the iPhone, the smartphone category felt mature. Only in retrospect do we realize just how nascent it really was. If Tesla can continue with this kind of momentum, can turn every future vehicle unveiling into a nexus of consumer fanfare and market expectation, it, too, will reshape the industry. The global transportation industry, that is.

Mind you, there's the minor detail of actually building the car and getting it into the driveways of all those eager consumers. Many theorists believe that Tesla as a company is destined to fail before that happens, but with about 200,000 votes of faith logged, the shouts of those doomsayers have, for the moment at least, been comprehensively silenced.