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Tesla Model 3: What to watch for at the launch party

A sales representative helps a customer pre-order the yet unseen Tesla Model 3 in Santa Monica, Calif.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Sixteen months ago, Elon Musk shook the auto industry by unveiling the Tesla Model 3, a $35,000 electric sedan designed to take on the best-selling luxury cars. Customers stood in lines the world over to plunk down hundreds of thousands of $1,000 deposits – an unprecedented show of enthusiasm for a new vehicle from a relatively young automaker.

On Friday, Tesla will hand over keys to the first 30 customers and begin high-volume production that will determine whether Tesla is worth its $56-billion stock valuation – the biggest for a U.S. carmaker. Here's what we'll be watching for at the July 28 launch party, including four wild-card surprises.

Surprise 1: Autopilot?

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One of the biggest questions hanging over Tesla right now is the future of the Autopilot program. Last year, Tesla split with partner Mobileye and took its own path toward autonomous driving. The company installed a new suite of hardware but told customers they'd have to wait for new software to enable it.

For the past nine months, Tesla has been charging customers an extra $3,000 for an option called "Full Self-Driving Capability," though, to date, that $3,000 gets you no additional functionality. Even Tesla's basic Autopilot option, renamed "Enhanced Autopilot," still hasn't reach functional parity with the original Autopilot software that still runs on older Teslas.

Musk has dropped a number of hints that those features will start rolling out around the launch of the Model 3. In January, I asked him at what point "Full Self-Driving Capability" will depart from the "Enhanced Autopilot" features. His response, via a post on Twitter: "3 months maybe, 6 months definitely." Six months would coincide with this week's launch. If there's no hint of Autopilot advances, it would be fair to assume that the split with Mobileye was more damaging than Tesla initially let on, setting the company back by six months or more. Meanwhile, Tesla's competitors have had a chance to catch up. Audi says its 2018 A8 will launch with Level 3 autonomy, which means that under certain limited conditions, drivers will be able to safely stop paying attention to the road altogether.

Range trophies

One thing we'll be watching for is whether Tesla's $35,000 base model will have more or less range than the $37,500 Chevy Bolt. Last year Tesla said the car would run more than 215 miles per charge – but how much more? The Bolt gets 239 miles of range. That's a high bar for a base model, but it's rare that Musk would let a PR trophy like "longest range for the money" go to a competitor, even if the Bolt is otherwise outclassed by the Model 3.

Then there's the question of how much range the more expensive versions will eke out. The Model 3 is rumored to come in two battery sizes: 55 to 60 kilowatt hours for the smaller pack and 70 to 75 kWh for the bigger one. Could the bigger pack break the 300-mile barrier? It's possible, but it would be a huge stretch for a car in this price range. The only electric cars on the road capable of 300 miles are the most expensive versions of Tesla's Model S and Model X, which cost $100,000 or more.

HUD confirmed

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While spy shots have captured both the interior and exterior of Model 3s out for testing, there hasn't been much detail about the car's unique control systems. There are no gauges or dials anywhere on the minimalist dash save for one 15-inch monitor. At one point speculation about the possibility of readouts projected onto the windshield, known as a Head-Up Display (HUD), became so rampant that Musk had to shoot it down on Twitter. Not everyone was convinced, and it became a running joke on Tesla internet forums to say "HUD Confirmed" in response to any sort of speculation about the Model 3.

We do know the screen can be controlled by touch and by two scrolling wheels on the steering wheel. The Model 3 will likely respond to voice commands as well, which Tesla has been steadily improving.

Surprise 2: Super-duper chargers?

Tesla's network of Superchargers could also receive an upgrade. While Teslas are currently capable of charging more than twice as quickly as any competitor on the road, the company doesn't plan to sit on its lead. In December, Musk was asked on Twitter about plans to install solar panels at charging stations. His response:

Tesla has begun to pull permits to install massive solar-powered charging stations as part of its network expansion underway for the Model 3. Could this be the moment we learn about V3, the Super-Duper Chargers?

The slope of the ramp

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Earlier this month, Musk said production would ramp up slowly. After building 30 cars in July, he envisions building 100 cars in August – less than three a day. In September, that number increases to 1,500. By December, Musk plans to be building 20,000 cars a month. It's an aggressive schedule that will more than double Tesla's total production rate in six months, and then quintuple it by the end of next year. That being said, 130 cars in two months is a very cautious start that can hardly be described as mass production. Will Musk give any indication of how production has been going thus far and whether the early ramp might be accelerated? Tesla's roughly half-million reservation holders will want to know when they might expect their cars.

Surprise 3: An updated Model S and X?

It will be important for Musk to distinguish his more profitable ultra-luxury cars from the comparatively sparse Model 3, and he seems to be doing it by adding features.

Tesla recently increased the zero-to-60 mph acceleration time of the Model S sedan and Model X SUV base models by more than a second, a remarkable boost for already-fast cars. There was no fanfare and no explanation of how they were able to do it. The company also shuffled its lineup of battery options, slimmed down its options packages and began offering a widely-requested three-row configuration of the Model X with fold-flat seats. There could be more announcements in store.

Surprise 4: Gigafactories?

Tesla is preparing to announce locations for two to four massive new factories by the end of 2017. The announcement may not come until the deals are set. But given this is likely the final vehicle to launch production at Tesla's flagship Fremont car factory, the setting would be right for a nod to the future.

A few more things we'll be looking out for:

  • Speed: What’s the zero to 60 miles per hour time for the performance version of the Model 3 set to be released next year? Tesla’s promotional materials have already shown the base model to clock in at 5.6 seconds.
  • Safety: Musk says the Model 3 should be one of the safest cars ever tested. Will U.S. regulators agree?
  • Configurations and pricing: Musk has said the average selling price will be about $42,000 – what will that get you? What options will be available? When, and at what cost? We’re still awaiting details on wheel and color options, Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving modes, dual-motor all-wheel drive, a glass roof, sunroof, and “ludicrous” speed.
  • Accessibility: How functional will the car’s storage be? How big is the opening to the rear trunk? Do the seats fold completely flat?
  • Warranty details
  • Supercharger pricing

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