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Tonight could be the biggest moment in Tesla’s history

Tesla Model 3 event: price

Normally, the third (!!) launch event for a mass-market sedan is not a huge deal for a car company. A couple grizzled execs show up, the West California Dealership Employee of the Month gets drunk at the open bar, and analysts say nice things about anticipated Q2 growth. Not the kind of thing hundreds of thousands of people are expected to livestream, in other words.

But tonight’s Model 3 launch Part 3 is a far bigger deal, and not just because Elon Musk is slightly more entertaining on stage. Tonight’s where we find out if the Model 3 is a realistic car that will sell to the masses — and if Tesla can be the automotive behemoth it’s claiming to be.

To date, Tesla has made and sold three cars. The cheapest one, the base level Model S, costs nearly $70,000.

Sure, they’re great cars. But they exist in a niche of a bubble where people can spend upwards of $70,000 on (in most cases) a second car. The Model S only revolutionized mass transit for the top 2%.

But Elon Musk and Tesla want to be far more than that. Tesla’s long-term plan (and massive stock price) are predicated on the idea that an electric car can be cheap and practical for anyone, and all the cars sold to date have been made to fund that dream. Tonight, we’re going to get the details that will decide if the dream can become the reality.

So far, we know a couple things. We’ve seen the styling and the color options, which show a very Tesla-y outside and a minimalist interior. We’ve heard that the 0-60 is 5.6 seconds, slower than the Model S but right on par with other “sporty” sedans. Most importantly, we know that the price is a very achievable $35,000 (after subsidies).

But styling, price, and 0-60 time isn’t enough to sell a car. We need to know about the boring practical stuff: trunk space, range (rumored to be as high as 300 miles), access to recharging, and production availability. Pictures of an assembly line aren’t going to get most car buyers hot and bothered, but if it’s over two years until you can walk into a Tesla dealership off the street and buy a Model 3, that’s going to be a problem. Details about how Tesla plans to handle the massive surge in users on its Supercharger network will also be relevant.

That’s all the boring car stuff, and hopefully we should get that all cleared up tonight, one way or another. But there’s potential this evening for another, equally huge announcement.

Back in January, Elon Musk mentioned that improvements above and beyond the existing Autopilot features would be here in six months, “definitely”:

The launch of the Model 3 — which will come with all the hardware for “Full Self-Driving Capability” would be a particularly logical time to show off a fancy new Autopilot system. No-one is expecting Musk to debut an actual self-driving car tonight, but it’s possible that the Model 3 might ship out to customers with more autonomous features than we’ve seen on Teslas to date.

The Model S and X already have self-driving features like the famous highway Autopilot, automatic parallel parking, and the emergency braking we’re already used to in modern cars. But parking assist and a fancy cruise control don’t make for a self-driving car; for that, we’d expect to see a system that actually lets you take your hands off the wheel for a short period of time, or perhaps something that drives for you in low-speed highway traffic.

Tesla’s entire product roadmap — and quite possibly the success of the Model 3 — will rely heavily on Tesla’s self-driving tech. At $35,000 for a car with a 250-mile range, the Model 3 is a hard sell to the masses. Add a self-driving capability that isn’t just a novelty on top of that, and the package becomes much more appealing.

There’s a lot more that Tesla has still to do to make the Model 3 a success, and actually bring a new kind of car to the general public. But a lot of the questions will be answered, one way or another, during tonight’s event.