Not a week goes by without Elon Musk hitting the headlines these days. One minute he’s successfully landed a rocket that’s just been for a jaunt to the international space station, the next he’s unveiling a new electric car that flies in the face of all Electric Vehicle received wisdom. His cars have range, they’re fast, spacious, practical and cool.
He is like something from a James Bond film: a ruthless serial entrepreneur equally feared and admired for his blue-sky thinking, even in the rarefied atmosphere of Silicon Valley America. In the vacuum left by the gradual downgrading of NASA he’s sewing up private space travel. When he read a rude open letter from a customer he cancelled their order. And he wants to build a high-speed vacuum tube for people to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Luckily for us Musk is using his powers for good. Where once the world had Steve Jobs to look to when it needed answers, it now looks to Musk. And he has delivered. Tesla has sold over 100,000 units and the Model S was the best-selling plug-in EV in 2015.
Tesla’s boss doesn’t believe cars will need mirrors much longer as they will be replaced by cameras and robots (who don’t need mirrors); newer models have gullwing doors so we don’t need a yard of clearance either side to get in and out. His electric cars can manage double the range of their notional rivals, drive themselves and offer onboard internet. And Tesla is barely a decade old.
Tesla’s assault on the car industry looks a lot like Apple’s iMac paradigm when it launched a computer that people wanted as a lifestyle choice as much as for its ability. Where once they had been whirring grey boxes, computers were now sexy. Its cars look a lot like those late-90s Macs in terms of their effect on buyers and the rest of the industry.
The Model S – a stylish luxury saloon with a range of 330 miles – has quietly been colonising British motorways over the last year and it’s no longer startling to be passed by one, especially on the more EV-friendly corridors that orbit London. Where Volkswagen, Nissan and BMW can only point to qualified successes with their electric programmes, Tesla has surged ahead. This is a car with the X-factor and the goods to back it up.
In the shared luggage space and bonnet and boot – the car’s batteries lie under the cabin floor – there are almost 1800 litres of space. You can comfortably fit five people inside – or seven with two rear seats folded out. Fleet-orientated models include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a permanent 3G data connection – and the car’s controls are routed through a huge 17-inch touchscreen.
It is virtually autonomous and, if Tesla allowed, it could drive itself courtesy of cameras, radars and sonar. Left to its own devices the car can steer within a lane, change lane with a signal from the driver and park itself. In much the same way as your laptop or phone, it downloads patches and software upgrades. Musk says that, within two years, you will be able to summon your Tesla Model S to pick you up from three miles away.
Next there’s the Model X crossover SUV and then the car that might turn everything on its head. The Model 3 will be priced to compete directly with combustion-engined rivals such as the BMW 1-Series, Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class. In a few short years Tesla has made electric cars viable in a way no-one has really got close to.
That Tesla has managed to engineer this car in a decade is a staggering achievement. Everything I know about making cars suggests it shouldn’t be possible. Not only have they done it, they’ve created a new paradigm in cars. A desirable, practical, fast, cool, cutting-edge, economical, versatile and utterly different car.
But Musk has a foot in mobility too – he isn’t simply reinventing cars, but the way we use them. As well as that Futurama-style 700mph Hyperloop system for moving people in pods, he’s talked about portable batteries for EVs, spun off a company that sells battery storage for houses and talks about Tesla’s mission as “to accelerate the presence of sustainable transport”. Musk’s success suggests that it may not be the traditional car companies that determine the future of mobility or car ownership.
These car manufacturers, understandably, have focussed on making their cars good. Musk gives the impression he’s further down the road on autonomy and recognises that the possibilities offered by cars are part of an overall mobility solution. It’s reminiscent of how Jobs foresaw the desktop and laptop as a lifestyle choice or Bill Gates perceived the potential of a home computer.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that – in an age of disruption where AirBnb and Uber terrorise the hotel and private-hire businesses – there’s a new upstart showing the General Motors, BMWs and Toyotas how to do it. For all their undoubted clout it’s only very recently that anyone but Tesla has attempted to make an electric car that could be described as desirable – something that Musk clearly identified a long time before anyone else. Perhaps the industry actually needed it.
Tesla, it has been said, is not in the business of making cars – its raison d’etre is “inspiring competition”. Whether the auto manufacturers wants it or not, Tesla is clearly determined to bring it. And with the established car-makers struggling to keep up, the Model S looks a lot like the car industry’s iMac moment right now.
• Originally published in Professional Manager Magazine