Even though Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) delivered only 222 Model 3 units during its third quarter, a sum that represents just a fraction of its total 25,915 vehicles delivered during the quarter, the importance of the new vehicle to Tesla's business -- and its stock -- couldn't be overstated. Tesla hopes Model 3 will help its vehicle production climb from an annual run-rate of about 100,000 units to about 500,000 units.

Of course, Tesla will have to make it through "production hell" first. As Tesla has repeatedly emphasized, the production curve of the Model 3 is exponential, making deliveries difficult to forecast. But here's what we know.

Tesla's Model 3 interior and 15-inch center touchscreen console

Model 3. Image source: Tesla.

What to expect in Q4

Tesla management initially guided to achieve a production rate of 5,000 Model 3 units per week by the end of 2017 -- a milestone that would have likely meant a significant number of Model 3 deliveries before the end of the year.

However, with Tesla's battery module assembly line at its Gigafactory, where it packages cells into modules, taking longer than expected to ramp up, Tesla pushed this target weekly production rate to "late Q1" of next year. Tesla's new target for the end of 2017 is a weekly production rate for Model 3 of "a few thousand units," CEO Elon Musk said in the company's third-quarter conference call. 

Despite Tesla expecting to achieve a production rate of a few thousand Model 3 units per week by the end of the year, it's still unlikely that it will deliver many Model 3s during the quarter. During the earnings call, Musk also noted that he expects production to be rising "very, very sharply" around the time the fourth quarter is coming to an end. So, this means the production rate could be significantly lower even just a few weeks before the initial target rate is achieved. And given that it takes a few weeks for Tesla to deliver a produced vehicle to U.S. customers, many of the Model 3 units produced at the end of the quarter may be delivered in Q1.

A blue Model 3 driving

Model 3. Image source: Tesla.

Further, even Tesla admits there's lots of uncertainty surrounding how initial Model 3 production will play out. "While we continue to make significant progress each week in fixing Model 3 bottlenecks," Tesla explained in its third-quarter shareholder letter, "the nature of manufacturing challenges during a ramp such as this makes it difficult to predict exactly how long it will take for all bottlenecks to be cleared or when new ones will appear."

With all of this in mind, investors should expect a wide range of outcomes for Model 3 deliveries during the quarter. I'll be expecting anywhere between 700 and 5,000 Model 3 deliveries in Q4.

Looking ahead

Though Tesla has said initial production will be very small as it fine-tunes production processes and addresses bottlenecks, investors shouldn't bet against significant Model 3 production levels in 2018. Given how Model 3 production is "vastly more automated" than the production processes of its other vehicles, Tesla believes that, once it addresses initial challenges, production will ramp up extremely rapidly.

Tesla's first and second quarter of 2018 will be the quarters to watch, as they will ultimately prove whether Tesla can deliver the sort of exponential jumps in production it says it's capable of. Achieving its target weekly production rate of 5,000 units per week by the end of Tesla's first quarter could position the electric-car maker to deliver over 50,000 Model 3 units in Tesla's second quarter alone.

Tesla reports its quarterly deliveries at some point during the first three calendar days after each quarter's end, so investors can look for an update on quarterly deliveries by Jan. 3.

Daniel Sparks owns shares of Tesla. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.