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Tesla's Model 3 'production hell' is testing Elon Musk's fix-as-you-go carmaking model

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Yet the Model S and Model X production has yet to exceed 100,000 automobiles a year, combined -- a speck in a global market where 88 million passenger cars and trucks are sold.

"Automobile manufacturing is very hard," said Uday Karmarkar, a specialist in operations and technology at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. "It's amazing that Tesla has been able to build cars at all." He meant it as a compliment.

Tesla was founded in 2003. Its first product was an electric roadster, based on a platform from British sports car maker Lotus. It was a hit.

Then came the Model S sedan in 2013, which made Tesla a household name. The full-sized sedan was sleek and powerful. It won high praise from Consumer Reports and other publications. Auto reviewers gushed.

MIT's Keith owns a Model S and loves it. "It's quiet, it's fast, it's smooth, it's such a delight to drive," he said.

Tesla took the Model S from design to full production faster than traditional manufacturers would consider. Tesla's breakthrough over-the-air technology made software fixes a snap. Code to fix battery management issues, add self-drive features, or simply tweak the music system can be downloaded via the car's Wi-Fi system.

Still, many owners complained that there were more quality problems than they expected in a $90,000 car. Outside a private school in Oakland earlier this month, a parent waited for his child beside a spotless gray Model S. When asked how he liked the car, he shook his head. "It's mainly my wife's car. She loves it. I love the way it drives, it drives better than anything I've ever driven. But there are all these rattles and noises." To cover them up, he plays the music at high volume, said the driver, who declined to give his name.

The Model X sport utility vehicle, launched in 2015, was also considered great fun to drive, with astonishing 2.9-second acceleration from zero to 60 mph. It, too, was fast-tracked to production -- and was riddled with quality problems, especially with its exotic gull-wing doors. "They're still trying to work out the bugs in that vehicle," said Mike Ramsey, auto industry analyst at Gartner.

Musk copped to the problems and said lessons were learned that would make the Model 3 process better. He told designers to put ease of manufacturing at the top of the requirements list. The company's assembly plant, built in 1961 for General Motors and later shared with Toyota in a joint venture, has room for two assembly lines. The Model S and Model X are being built on one line. A separate line was built from scratch for the Model 3.

Using Silicon Valley nomenclature, Musk calls the line as it exists now Alien Dreadnought Version 0.5. By the end of next year, enough automation will be added to deem it Version 1.0, Musk has said.

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