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The Wheel Thing: Will Tesla's affordable Model 3 be a tipping point like Ford's Model T?

Henry Ford, with his Model T. From the collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company.
Henry Ford, with his Model T. From the collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company.

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Since he became CEO of a fledgling auto company in 2008, Elon Musk has had a single-minded goal — build an electric automobile for the masses.

Tonight in Hawthorne, Musk's company, Tesla Motors, will reveal Musk's dream.

Priced at somewhere around $35,000 and with a range of 200 miles, the Model 3 is expected to go on sale next year, and Tesla hopes to sell a lot of them.

There have been a lot of comparisons to Henry Ford's Model T. It was the first truly affordable automobile. Between 1908 and 1927 Ford built and sold 15 million of them and established the internal combustion engine as a standard for vehicles.

Before the Model T, cars were out of reach for all but the wealthy. The T wasn't cheap. The first model cost $950, more than twice the average worker's annual earnings. But within a few years the price came down (and earnings went up), and very quickly automobile manufacturing became an important part of the U.S. and global economies.

Can the Model 3 be equally revolutionary? Will Tesla sell them at the level of volume that will erase all doubt that electric cars are here to stay?

None of those questions will be answered tonight at the company's design center in Hawthorne. It's not clear if Tesla will show a working model of the car that attendees might be able to drive or just a prototype that reveals the new car's design and functionality. Also unclear — when the car will actually be available. Right now, it's a rather vague "2017."  But that hasn't stopped throngs of fans from plunking down $1,000 deposits.

And Tesla's success so far has almost certainly been a factor in pushing traditional automakers toward developing pure electric vehicles. Chevy's Bolt, due next year as well, promises the same 200-mile range as the Model 3. Virtually every car company is working on one or more electric model, including Volkswagen, which for years rejected electrics in favor of its "Clean Diesel" platform. We know how that turned out.

The investment community seems to think that Elon Musk and his team can meet their goals, deliver Model 3's in quantity, and hold onto some decent margins doing it. And while it's doubtful that anyone will ever eclipse Ford's Model T for raw sales and impact, this new Tesla could give it an electrified run for its money.

Our motor critic Susan Carpenter will have a preview of the car and a look at competing electric models coming from other automakers.