When Tesla officially launched the Model 3 last week to much fanfare, there was one detail about the ostensibly affordable electric car that transcended all others: the dashboard. The Model 3, which Tesla fans have waited over 10 years for and is aimed at widening the company’s appeal, is conspicuously missing the traditional set of dials, knobs, and switches in a normal car. They are instead replaced by a solitary 15-inch screen that dominates the interior. Tech blogs oohed and aahed. Twitter was full of people ready to compare it to a BMW’s busy interior, likening the stark contrast to a side-by-side look at the first iPhone and the then-dominant BlackBerry. Tesla’s Model 3 is here, the line went, and now the future can begin.
There’s just one problem: The Model 3 is just a car.
True, it’s a pretty one. To say that automotive design has lagged the digital revolution would be an understatement. Most interior systems in modern cars are bafflingly complex and bloated, seemingly designed to stymie anyone over the age of 50. The Model 3, with its function as seamless as the surface of its flat screen, aims to change that, and the press lauded it for that very reason.
But lost in the fawning over the Model 3 is that Tesla is not disrupting the automobile as much as evolving it. And in skipping over that basic fact, instead focusing on how this is the car perfected, we risk repeating a mistake we made with both the internet and the smartphone: That in welcoming something new and shiny, we become blind to its detriments.
Consider: Much of the reaction to the car came with a heavy dose of techno-utopianism, that line of thinking that tech itself will neatly lead us to a brighter, shinier world. Angel investor Jason Calcanis keeps praising the vehicle as something that will save us from climate change. Wired tells us it is “much more than an electric car,” and that “the Model 3 will be the iPhone of the car world.”
Such praise is meant to foster hype, and describing the Model 3 as the herald of a new, futuristic age is meant to position it as an object of desire. It’s a common pattern. We idealize certain objects or technologies — the web, Facebook, the iPhone — as totemic or emblematic of not just our present age, but the future too, and imbue those things with an almost mystical power to pull us forward into what’s next.
But in doing so we miss the profound ambivalence that new technology brings. After all, for the myriad, incredible things the internet, social networking, and the smartphone have done, they have also brought endless trouble: fake news, polarization, the burgeoning alt-right, surveillance, addiction, a persistent fear of missing out, the dominance of visual culture of platforms like Instagram, and so on ad nauseum. There were and are very real downsides to the digital age, and we only came to realize them after the fact.
This is so because new technology is not merely “good” or “bad.” It’s more accurately a new set of conditions out of which things emerge, some positive, some negative, and many that do not fit neatly into either category. What makes this normal transition troubling, however, is when one dives in head-first without thinking about the downsides.
And for all its glitzy appeal, the Model 3 does little to actually address the ills of 20th-century car culture. In what way might an electric car combat urban sprawl, poor city planning that prioritizes the car, congestion, or the overemphasis on individualism that come with the automobile? If anything, the Model 3 encourages them. The strides made in some cities toward denser, walkable communities, that have demonstrable effects on people’s happiness, will perhaps be challenged by a vehicle that makes driving and car culture seem cool again. Because it is just a car, the Model 3 is as much about the mistakes of the past as it is the promise of the future.
Tesla fans will point to the fact that the Model 3 is ready for autonomous driving when such technology becomes both feasible and legal, and thus it will eventually be both novel and important. Self-driving cars will change things because, when a car can operate on its own, it does not need to sit in a parking spot for most of the day, or even be owned by a single person or family. But what will be truly disruptive in regards to self-driving cars are systems much bigger than individual vehicles. It will be the software and network layer between roads, cities, and both individual cars and fleets of vehicles that will cause us to potentially rethink notions of car ownership, parking, or how the car fits into urban space. In those systems the cars themselves will be mostly unimportant, just mere commodities. What’s more, cars themselves will likely cease to be markers of identity or goals for aspiration, that significance perhaps passing on to the car services or something else entirely.
So the Model 3 itself is only a minor, if admittedly interesting upgrade to the car. But when it is described as something much more than that, it is easy to become blind to the ways in which new technology can harm as well as help, or can surreptitiously usher in a whole new set of problems that were obscured by hype and a fetish for novelty.
It is this fetish, however, that also helps explain why this particular car is garnering so much attention. At $35,000 for the entry level model, the Model 3 is Tesla’s first attempt at a mainstream car, and thus represents a kind of test case for the company to see whether it has the manufacturing and logistical capacity to make something truly big. The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not Telsa founder Elon Musk can therefore deliver on even bigger promises: his futuristic Hyperloop high-speed travel system, his tunnels under L.A. to alleviate traffic, or his solar tiles.
What underlies this fascination is a naïve desire for tech to upend and supersede our problems: that a Hyperloop can jump over the question of why various levels of government won’t invest in high-speed rail; or that tunnels under cities can get around the incredibly complex issues of traffic management, transit investment, and mobility that plague modern cities; or that a new car will revolutionize transportation despite only simply being a marginally better car. Just as Mark Zuckerberg sought to bring the world together in harmony — only to find that reality is vastly more complicated than he imagined — the desire to find salvation in tech or its creators obscures the difficulty of life, often with serious consequences.
Disruption is not evolutionary. It is a thing that cuts perpendicularly across what exists now. But in celebrating that vaunted business concept, it can be easy to forget that it is people and cultural practices that are upended, not just economic arrangements. The Model 3 occupies a strange position in this discourse — not so much disruptive, as evolving both the best and worst of what came before. But in rushing headlong into Tesla’s ideas as if they represented an ideal future, we are distracted from something — staring at a glossy new screen while things to the side pass by unnoticed.