I don't know much about cars, but I do know something about interior design.
The Tesla Model 3 had a soft launch last week, with the first 30 cars viewed and driven by the automotive press, and the reviews are beyond gushing. Matthew DeBord of Business Insider says it will “blow many, many minds. This is easily the most attractive entry-level luxury, all-electric car on the market…. The Model 3 stokes immediate desire, and the lust lingers. That truly changes everything.” Motor Trend calls it “the most important vehicle of the century.” Tamara Warren of the Verge writes that “I was surprised that my first reaction was a profound sense of delight. It wasn’t bland, nor sterile, nor cheap feeling. Here was something different. Here was an exercise in minimalism.”
Being a good TreeHugger I did not fly to California to test drive the car, And do not drive enough that I could be a judge of it in any case. But there are a few things that excite me a lot about this car. I may not know much about cars, but I do know something about design, and there are a lot of things to get excited about from a design point of view.
It’s relatively small.
Matthew DeBord notes that “Even though it's a small four-door and the market is moving away from this type of vehicle to embrace crossover and SUVs, there isn't anybody who's going to sit in the driver's seat of this car and not want it.” This is a very good thing, since those bigger cars take up more space and are significantly more dangerous to pedestrians. Heavier cars need bigger batteries and more of everything, so smaller is definitely better and greener. This car is also designed for the international market, so it will probably meet European NCAP criteria for reducing pedestrian injuries, although the Model S had different technology under the hood for European cars than it did for American ones to meet the standard.
The interior is simple and minimalist.
The interior is the most radically different from other cars. It’s definitely minimal, but in a stylish, Scandinavian kind of way. “Everything that we do at Tesla has to be beautiful,” says Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer. “We worked to take away things that aren’t necessary, to make a clean, minimalistic interior.”Scandinavian perhaps, but there is a lot of Dieter Rams influence here, with is principle that “Good design is as little design as possible.”
Outside of two click wheels on the steering wheel, everything is done on the big touchscreen in the middle, from adjusting the temperature to the headlights. One could complain that this is dangerous because you cannot adjust it by touch as you could in the days of a knob for everything, but in fact for most modern cars, the headlights come on automatically and the temperature is thermostatically controlled so you rarely adjust it anyway. If the car is smart enough, you shouldn’t have to touch the screen much.
There are also some real advantages in getting the instrumentation into the middle onto the big screen. It’s easier to build the car for both left and right hand drive, and it is a lot cheaper than all those silly gauges trying to look like an airplane cockpit, most of which are superfluous anyway. (Who needs a tachometer on an automatic transmission car?)
But there are other good ergonomic reasons for it. My 4’-10” tall mom bought her 2000 Toyota Echo specifically because the instrument cluster was in the middle; the dashboard was now lower and she had much better visibility. One doesn’t have to worry about adjusting the steering wheel so that you can see the instruments through it.
Also, as we age our eyes lose the ability to move between the long focus needed for driving and the close focus needed to read the instruments. The diagonal distance to the Echo instrumentation was about 50 percent further than the distance to instruments in the dash right in front, meaning it is much easier for eyes to adjust and focus.
When it comes to car controls, change is difficult because we are trained to do things in a certain way. So when Jeep changed the way a gear shift works because they are now electronic, it caused serious problems. Since it’s all electric in the Tesla, they have put the shifter back where it was forever before stick shifts became fashionable, on the steering column, which makes total sense. (They could have got rid of it altogether and just made it buttons on the touchscreen, but ever since Chrysler introduced its Powerflite pushbutton transmission in the 50s and people kept hitting the wrong buttons, this has been regulated by the government.)
I have long been a skeptic about Teslas, but I like this car. It’s not too big yet has lots of cargo capacity. But I really like how they have dealt with the interior, how they have simplified it so much. Fundamentally an electric car is much simpler than a gasoline powered one, and they really have stripped out every unnecessary feature. It might even encourage drivers to keep their eyes on the road because there are so few distractions. I live in hope.