Launch of new Tesla Model 3 eagerly awaited in Sonoma County

Santa Rosa businessman Wayne O’Connor owns a 1966 Corvette Stingray, an American classic, and his everyday wheels are a Mini Cooper, also considered a pretty sweet ride.

But O’Connor can’t wait to wrap his hands around the wheel of a Tesla Model 3, the latest iteration of battery-powered transportation from Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor-entrepreneur.

“It’s exciting. It’s the future,” O’Connor said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Model 3, a sleek sedan that begins production today at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, is widely hailed as the breakthrough machine that brings electric automobiles within the budget of ordinary folks, absent the “range anxiety” often associated with cars that stop when the battery is spent.

With a $35,000 base price and 215-mile range, Model 3 hits the so-called “sweet spot” that brings electric cars to the general public, said Doron Amiran, electric vehicle program manager for Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection.

“Every time a new and exciting electric model comes on the market we get closer to the goal,” he said, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s target of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025.

It’s an imposing order, considering there are 284,000 ZEVs rolling now. Buyers purchased 13,804 electric cars in California during the first quarter of this year, accounting for just 2.7 percent of the new vehicles sold in the state during the period, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.

Still, the rate is up from 1.9 percent of new car sales in 2016, when a total of 40,347 electric cars were sold during the year, nearly double the number sold in 2013.

In Sonoma County, there are about 4,500 registered electric vehicles, accounting for about 1 percent of all vehicles, according to the climate center’s count.

Bloomberg Businessweek on Thursday offered a striking forecast for the world’s transportation future, reporting that electric cars will outsell fossil-fuel powered vehicles within two decades as battery prices plunge.

The “seismic shift,” Bloomberg said, will see electric cars account for a third of the global auto fleet by 2040, displacing about 8 million barrels a day of oil production, which is more than Saudi Arabia currently exports.

That shift is picking up speed. On Wednesday, Volvo announced that every new model starting in 2019 would have an electric motor as it phases out cars powered solely by gasoline and diesel.

At a formal unveiling of the Model 3 in March 2016 before an adoring crowd in Hawthorne, Musk said it was “very important to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport in this country.”

It’s important “for the future of the world,” he said, citing an MIT study that found 53,000 premature deaths a year in the United States attributed to emissions from road transportation.

The California Air Resources Board reported last year that transportation accounts for 36 percent - the largest portion - of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, which totaled more than 440 million metric tons in 2014.

Tesla’s Model 3 “completely transforms the entire electric vehicle landscape,” Amiran said, owing to its price and range, enough to drive from Santa Rosa to San Jose and back.

Some say Chevrolet beat Tesla to the smog-free punch with the Bolt EV, first sold in California in December 2016. The Bolt, which now sells for about $37,000 and has a 238-mile range, was Motor Trend’s 2017 car of the year and is the only non-Tesla electric car currently for sale with a range of more than 200 miles.

Platinum Chevrolet in Santa Rosa is selling about two dozen Bolts a month, along with an equal number of Chevrolet Volts, a plug-in hybrid powered by an electric motor with a gasoline engine acting as a generator, said Todd Barnes, who owns the Corby Avenue dealership. Tesla’s cachet, however, gives it a boost over the Bolt, Amiran said.

“They are seen as the car company of the future,” he said, noting that Tesla’s current stock price of $310 a share dwarfs General Motors at about $35 a share.

O’Connor said he’s just one of about 373,000 people who have paid $1,000 for a reservation to buy a Model 3. It’s a “blind leap,” he said, acknowledging he has only seen photos and never sat in one.

It’s also big break from Tesla’s current offerings, the Model S luxury sedan starting at $68,000 and Model X crossover SUV starting at $82,000, both beyond his “price point,” O’Connor said.

As a native of Detroit, O’Connor said he’s big on Tesla because it is American-made. But he’s also under no illusion about the Model 3’s price, estimating that he and others will pay $45,000 to $50,000 for the options they prefer.

Buyers may get a $7,500 federal tax credit for buying a Tesla, assuming it is not canceled in a tax code rewrite, along with the California rebate of $2,500, which also depends on political action.

A bill that would provide $3 billion in subsidies over 12 years for electric car buyers is currently before the state Legislature.

O’Connor knows his dream car will not arrive soon. His turn to actually buy a Model 3 will come late this year or early in 2018, he estimated.

And if he doesn’t care for the colors or options available, his $1,000 deposit is “totally refundable,” he said.

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