Game Changer

How Tesla reinvented the automobile
by Alexander Batke-Lachmann

For some, he is a celebrated messiah, a real-life Tony Stark, for others a hyperactive mess. The truth is, no one since Gottlieb Daimler has changed the world of mobility as sustainably as Elon Musk with Tesla. Musk plays by his own rules, and the rest of the industry has not understood that the game has changed.

According to the market research firm Jato Dynamics, the Tesla Model S was the best-selling luxury sedan last year, coming up higher than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series. The message must have hit like a bomb in Stuttgart and Munich. The newcomer from California has shown the middle finger to the biggest companies beating up their most profitable and highly developed products. How did that happen? One might think that Tesla invented electro-mobility, but in fact, electro-mobility is as old as the automobile itself. In the US alone, in 1900, around one third of all vehicles were battery-powered, with a range of up to 100 kilometers which is frighteningly close to the sad reality of the 2018. Low oil prices meant the electric car battery technology could not keep up with its gasoline guzzling competitors and fell off most of our radars.

However, the idea of an electric automobile was not completely dead – again and again manufacturers have tested prototypes worldwide. Volkswagen developed the electric Golf in 1976 under the impact of the oil crises of the 1970s. At the end of the 90s, General Motors made a half-hearted experiment with the EV1 with a pure electric drive. Before Tesla, the vast majority of electric cars on the market were more or less passionless eco-models: small, light and economical. With no better speed ranges than that a hundred years ago, low power and no comfort – at prices that were a third higher than those of mass-market gas vehicles.

After joining the electric car manufacturer Tesla, Musk presented the Tesla Roadster to the public as a spectacular anti-thesis to the contemporary automobile industry in regards to electro-mobility. A nippy sports car, with a range of around 350km. While all other manufacturers failed to sell their customers a compact car with a $ 20,000 price tag, Tesla positioned the Roadster from the beginning as a vehicle that was ready for the status and coolness of a high-end sports-car. The electric mobility revolution had begun and it had started at the top.

But the industry just sat and smiled. The fact that a newcomer without experience in the automotive industry could create a vehicle with revolutionary electric drive on the road in record time seemed unthinkable to the established automotive companies. That was the biggest mistake from the concrete gray corporate headquarters. There are managers, mostly engineers, who have spent their entire lives perfecting the combustion engine, who stand with real pride in front of their in-line five-cylinder engines, their rear-wheel drive and turbochargers and have not noticed that most of their customers no longer care about any of this. These people did not realize that, for years, they have been selling an increasingly expensive and complex product with features that most customers no longer understand. And worst of all: these companies despise the electric car with all their heart because it is so simple, so banal. Instead of hundreds of moving parts, it only needs a few dozen. It’s so simple that virtually anyone can build it.

Over one hundred years of development have led to this point. The courage to admit this is still little today. Tesla’s avalanche of e-mobility start-ups is starting to spread to the automotive industry, with new manufacturers from China suddenly seeing eye-to-eye with European auto mobility. Certainly, Telsa has raised excessive expectations in many places, missed production and quality targets, and kept customers waiting several months to deliver their ordered vehicles. However, Tesla has also returned the magic and sexiness to cars. Door handles that flow like silk, gigantic touch-screen displays and a SUV with gullwing doors – expensive, fault-prone games for the old corporations, but marvels for the customer.

This is probably the real secret of Tesla’s success: while the established competition invests millions in a slow development process, trying to maintain the status quo, Tesla has thought of the automotive product from scratch. Customers and investors have proved that, in the 21st century, decades old initiatives have the half-life of a charge cycle.

What Tesla has to do now is preserve that drive and radicalness, because the competition is starting to learn.

Full article in PLASMA 4 (print edition)

credit Nora Heinisch

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