Some of you may not have experience running an automotive production facility. If you did, you would know that new models start out as “alpha” cars. Those are usually prototypes and design exercises and are often used to help design the assembly line that will make the finished cars. The Tesla Model 3 alpha version was on display at the launch party a year ago and on rare occasions since then.
After that come “beta” cars. They are built on a special pre-production assembly line. In addition to helping engineers figure out how to actually build the cars in a factory setting they are often used for real world test driving — going to Death Valley to see how they handle intense heat, driving to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to test cold weather operation, driving over dusty back roads and on long stretches of interstate highways.
Last week, during a conference call with investment bankers involved with the sale of more Tesla stock, Elon Musk made a surprising announcement. He said the analytic tools Tesla has developed will allow the company to skip the beta phase entirely for the Model 3. He said his people will be driving early release Tesla Model 3 cars within “one to two weeks.”
That off hand remarks reveals several things about the upcoming Model 3. First, early release cars are built on the actual assembly line that will be used for normal production. So the Model 3 assembly line is complete and ready to go. Second, there will be no beta test fleet plying the highways and byways of America looking for glitches, parts that don’t fit right, or other issues that would affect the initial build quality of the cars.
In fact, Musk hinted that because of those sophisticated analytics, the build quality of the Model 3 will be excellent starting with the very first cars. He says it will be much better than it was at the start of Model S or Model X production. (In the case of the Model X, that’s not saying much. The quality of the early cars was flat out awful.)
Once again, Musk is pushing the envelope and expecting results unheard of in the automotive industry. One potential drawback of such aggressive goals is that if any production issues are revealed by the early release cars, the company will have precious little time available to identify the issues and correct them in time to meet Musk’s expectations of full production for the Model 3 by the third quarter of this year.
Musk has one other interesting comment during the conference call. He mentioned almost as an aside that the company will switch over to the new format 2170 battery cells for the Model S and Model X by the end of the year. The 18650 battery cells for those cars are currently made by Panasonic in Japan and shipped to the United States. The 2170 cells are manufactured at the Gigafactory in Nevada.