It’s a Thursday afternoon at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, California, and the robots are humming. Humans in T-shirts and San Francisco Giants caps trade jokes as they help a massive robotic arm guide a touchscreen dashboard assembly past the B-pillar of a partially built Model S. Farther down the assembly line, finished cars rest in sleek rows according to their export destinations: Frankfurt, Oslo, Hong Kong.
Heading into its second decade as a company, Tesla might look like it’s on cruise control. After proving electric-car doubters wrong in 2008 by building a screaming-fast sports car, the Roadster, it proved them even wronger in 2012 by building the wildly popular—and surprisingly practical—Model S sedan. A hit with critics and rich techies alike, the Model S has rapidly become one of the world’s most coveted—and, in some markets, best-selling—luxury cars. Demand is building in Europe and Asia. A second high-end model, the Model X SUV, will hit the market next year.
If Tesla’s goal were simply to become a world-beating luxury automaker, crafting pricey toys for the environmentally conscious elite, it would already have succeeded. But Elon Musk’s aim all along has been to build an electric car for the masses. Specifically, the company’s plan is a $35,000 “third-generation” electric sedan with competitive performance and a 200-mile-plus range—all by the year 2017. (This third-generation sedan has been popularly dubbed Model E, though that’s unlikely to end up as its real name.) By 2020, Tesla hopes to be shipping 500,000 cars a year. That’s more than 10 times its current output. And it will probably have to do it without the federal subsidies that have helped make its cars more affordable so far.