The question of whether, and to what extent, cars are like phones has been gently bubbling along over the past few years as we’ve watched the nexus of innovation shifting from the technology we carry in our pocket to that which carries us along the roads. It’s obvious now that cars will experience transformative change like phones did before them, but how many parallels between the two are really there?
If you want to see a company doing its utmost to reduce the complexities of a car down to a familiar phone-like interface, you need look no further than Tesla and its new Model 3. This is the most affordable electric car in Tesla’s stable and it has the most aggressively stripped-down interior — from any manufacturer. There’s a 15-inch touchscreen in the middle of the dash and a couple of buttons on the steering wheel and that’s it. Given how Apple’s iPhone was the phone that made this “one touchscreen to rule them all” interface paradigm familiar in the first place, I thought it’d be fitting to look at the similarities between the iPhone and this new Model 3, as a proxy for answering how similar cars and phones have become.
Buttons be damned
Before the iPhone, phones had as strong an affinity to physical keyboards as laptops still do. The first Android prototypes basically looked like BlackBerrys, and the most advanced smartphones from Nokia (like the 9500 Communicator above) were awkward attempts at marrying the familiar with the new. That stage of evolution is where we find ourselves with car interfaces today: embracing new technology and touch interaction, but only partially. Audi’s latest A8 luxury sedan is a good example of the trepidatious transition away from the traditional button interfaces. Like Nokia before it, Audi is obviously struggling to abandon buttons entirely.
Tesla’s Model 3 is as clean a departure from buttons as the original iPhone was. One touchscreen, all your information and interactions on it. You’ll be adjusting everything, right down to the wing mirrors, via that display, though Tesla retains a couple of basic physical controls on the steering wheel just as Apple did with the iPhone’s home button. In essence, the Model 3 turns the car’s entire human interface into software. It’s alien to us as a car interior, just as it was once alien as a phone interface — how do you speed-dial anyone without buttons — but Tesla is betting that we’ll adapt to it over time just as we did with phones.
Making technology more affordable
It may seem perverse to allege that the iPhone, which has always been presented and perceived as a luxe phone purchase, has been a democratizing device. But if you think of it as lowering the price of an Apple computer from the MacBook’s four figures down to three, then it has indeed widened access to the latest technology. Still an expensive purchase for many, but much less so than previously.
That’s the position of the Tesla Model 3 today: it’s not the cheapest or most practical car you can purchase, but it brings Tesla’s advanced technologies like Autopilot down to their lowest price. Another similarity: both the iPhone and the Model 3 started rolling out slowly and with very limited initial quantities. That might seem coincidental, but it may also be read as evidence of how aggressive each company has been in pushing its technology to the masses.
Over-the air software updates
This isn’t solely a Model 3 feature, but Tesla has pioneered over-the-air (OTA) updates to its cars much in the same way that Apple made OTAs a feature of iPhone ownership. Phone and car software both used to be static, unchanging things, but with faster innovation, fast updates are required. What is novel about the Model 3 is that it streamlines the software even further by limiting itself to the one screen. Outside of fantastical concepts, this is the closest that a car’s interface has gotten to the single-screen software environment we know from PCs and their mobile counterparts. Imagine how much easier iterating on the Model 3’s user interface will be: software designers will only have to code for one screen instead of the usual multiplicity of screens and physical controls inside cars.
Simplification isn’t easy, and Tesla is setting itself a non-trivial challenge in trying to create software equivalents for all the various buttons and dials scattered across a typical car’s interior. But in standardizing around this one display and a consistent hardware platform, the company can refine and improve its offering as fast as any mobile operating system can. This is the truest application of smartphone software development to cars that we’ve yet seen.
Charismatic salesman CEO
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a sometimes-goofy presentation style that’s a million miles from Steve Jobs’ polished sales pitch, but it’s undeniable that both have been massively influential ambassadors for their brands. Musk has made Tesla cool, he’s made it a talking point in general conversation. Even with its so far limited sales, Tesla has grown to be a byword for electric vehicles as a whole, much in the same way as the iPhone has been for the smartphone category. BMW, Nissan, and many others are also making EVs, but it’s only with Tesla that you can say “I’m getting a Tesla” and need to explain nothing more beyond that.
The Model 3, and Tesla as a company, finds itself in a very decisive, precarious moment. The company needs to have the faith of its customers as it works to fulfill orders (and overcome any unforeseen stumbles that may arise) and that’s where a charismatic leader can be very helpful. Before Tesla is able to deliver actual cars to people, all it can sell them is a vision, and the 325,000 initial preorders for the Model 3 have shown that Musk is as capable of doing that as Apple’s Jobs was.
Potential to change the world
Silicon Valley businesses can often seem smug and self-aggrandizing, however they do have a record of producing things that have been culturally and socially transformative on a global scale. Take your pick from the iPhone, Google search, Facebook, or the original silicon chips that gave the area its nickname. It’s no overstatement, then, to say that the Model 3 “could be Tesla’s iPhone moment,” as Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan argues. It could be the new mass-market product that overhauls the entire category it’s entering and resets expectations.
At first, exactly as with the iPhone, the Model 3 is only resetting the interface paradigm by dispatching the buttons in favor of a streamlined touch UI. What we see today is the foundation for what Musk and his team at Tesla want to achieve: the future they envision is one where you wouldn’t worry about being distracted from driving because you wouldn’t have to drive. And when you do choose to put your hands on the wheel, voice controls and automated settings would keep the need for visual distractions to a minimum. All those are things that Tesla would look to develop over the longer history of the Model 3, much as Apple’s most transformative changes — the App Store and the iSight camera — came in the years after the initial iPhone launch.
It’s certainly too early to know if Tesla will succeed, but if it does, it will be because of the Model 3. Like the iPhone before it, this car breaks with most of the conventions of its category and opts for a distinctly technological approach to a product that has until now been mostly defined by its mechanical qualities.