Musings on the Motoring World

Tesla’s future has begun, but can Tesla survive it?

Ten years ago if you had told anybody that the 2018 performance bar in everybody’s mind is an all-electric five (or seven) seat sedan, they would be in the right mind to call you delusional, or Al Gore.

Ten years ago the financial markets had just imploded and nobody knew if the entire concept of money would exist tomorrow, much less had some for an electric car. Not that it mattered since none of the mainstream brands had an all-electric car to sell you in the first place.

Even if you were Al Gore, the only electric car you could get was from this cashed-up Silicon Valley entrepreneur who started hashing electric sports cars out of Lotus Elises. That company was Tesla Motors, and many thought it had all the prospects of the untimely fate of its namesake.

Nowadays not only is Tesla still around, the internet just cannot shut up about praising its Model S’ combination of fun-for-all-the-family supercar haste and amazing self-driving techno-wizardry. Doesn’t matter if it is facing off a V8 or V12 supercar Goliath, Tesla would humble it, or so the collective perspective of the internet would have you believe.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole venture is that despite having never turned a profit, Tesla had spurred other companies to stop meandering around with whimsical concepts and leased experiments and have a serious go at producing all-electric models with nearly the entire directory of manufacturers – from Audi to Volvo – hastily boarding the all-electric bandwagon.

In fact, their collective about-face has already started to show its first results with Jaguar stepping up to the plate with a production version of their all-electric i-Pace SUV.

Unsurprisingly the snooty multiple Le Mans-winning old guard put its new i-Pace to its paces with a good old drag race with the upstart’s Model X SUV. Oh, how times have changed for the ole boy.

That’s not all. The all-electric brigade is only going to grow considerably as Audi’s e-tron all-electric SUV is slated to be released at the end of this year with 2019 looking to be another watershed moment as Mercedes-Benz will roll out the first of their new all-electric EQ range and Porsche’s all-electric Mission e sedan is set to debut a year ahead of schedule. Even Honda, champions of sensibility, announced their plan to bring the affable EV Urban concept to production reality by 2019.

These are just a sampling of the many more interesting EVs that will start buzzing their way out of the woodwork from 2020 onwards and, by the way things are going down in Fremont, well ahead of a proper series-production Tesla Model 3.

The Model 3, the company’s entrant into the affordable segment has proven to be their Achilles heel, only serving to expose the company’s chief failings that many Tesla adherents aren’t entirely aware of.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, building low-volume models like the Model S and Model X is a walk in the park as compared to churning out a high-volume budget model like the Model 3. For all the glitzy tech and shocking acceleration Tesla models have been able to boast, the company still can’t quite deliver on the nitty-gritty details such as achieving panel gap consistency and quality.

As pointless of a nitpick these are to the throng of Tesla believers, these are aspects which neither money nor bold entrepreneurial spirit can deliver on. And it also happens to be two qualities car makers are very adept and experienced at doing. Getting the fit and finish on hundreds and thousands of models rolling out in quick succession is a feat of coordination and quality control only experience and established industry relations can achieve, something Tesla has yet to pull off with adequate competence.

Whereas for the bits that make Tesla devotees excited over, its technology and performance, those can be easily acquired and is inherent to electric powertrains respectively. To that point, as we are now seeing, manufacturers are quickly catching onto the technology aspect with the i-Pace having over-the-air updates. While the i-Pace won’t have the level of autonomous drive features the Model S and X has, other manufacturers are quickly bringing better and more thoroughly developed autonomous technology to the market.

Even Tesla’s upcoming sub-2sec 0-60mph Roadster, due in 2020, has been upstaged by an even quicker all-electric supercar from Croatian car manufacturer Rimac, which made its public debut last week at Geneva. Tesla’s only unique advantage in the all-electric vehicle market is the Semi that will be released next year, though there are concerns regarding its carrying capacity being limited by its hefty batteries and government regulations on weight-restrictions for trucks.

All things considered, the surge of better built, better-developed models from experienced mainstream brands, coupled by its founder being continually distracted by so many varying projects, Tesla’s future prospects aren’t looking too sunny. Even so, at the end of the day, this all plays into Elon Musk’s hands.

One way of seeing it is in its current name, Tesla, rather than its original name, Tesla Motors. It might be minor semantics but it highlights Elon’s brilliant move to shift the company’s focus from being just a car maker to becoming an energy company, selling batteries, recharging systems, and solar panels for homes.

Elon hadn’t just created a market for all-electric cars, his brilliantly executed strategy had shown the world that cutting-edge electric cars can be desirable despite its price and limited range, drum up customer demand, support those cars with a supercharger network to further encourage the use of electric vehicles, and then package it all with renewable energy solar production and battery storage.

Whether or not Elon always had this bigger picture scenario in mind from the start, his place as a game changer in world history is well and truly deserved. Best of all, if the clean energy revolution manages to alter human civilisation for the better, future historians will say the story began with an all-electric Lotus Elise.

Even if Model 3 continues to slog through production hell for the rest of its days and rising competition pushes Tesla the car brand out of its own future, the fact that there is competition from all quarters who were spurred by the same desire and demand Elon had incited is perhaps the greatest achievement and lasting legacy of Tesla Motors, even if it wouldn’t be part of that future.

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