Building cars is hard. Building an affordable electric car is exceedingly hard.
Two years before the release of Tesla’s long-awaited $35,000 Model 3, Tesla finds itself at another crossroads that may threaten the company’s welfare.
Things are not looking too good for Tesla these days. One of the most painful developments was Consumer Reports’ decision to remove its “recommended” rating and downgrade it to “worse than expected.” The magazine had once rated Tesla the best ever tested.
The month of September will mark a turning point as to whether Tesla Motors will be just another overhyped technology stock or whether it is truly about to lead a revolution in the auto industry.
The month will mark the introduction of Tesla’s Model X, a $90,000 crossover SUV that will test the company’s ability to compete against the other automobile giants. If it passes this test, Tesla will be in a great position to mass-market the $35,000 Model 3 sedan when it goes on sale in late 2017. If the Model X turns out to be a dud, however, Tesla will face a much tougher climb in trying to break into the mainstream with the Model 3 two years from now. At stake will be Tesla’s market capitalization of $31 billion – higher than Chrysler’s – plus that $1 billion “gigafactory” the company is building in the Nevada desert to supply batteries for the anticipated sales of the mid-range Model 3. Plus the home -energy storage market.
The possible success of Models X and 3 is so unprecedented that it has caused economists to revise one of the most cherished theories of economic change, the idea of “disruptive technology.”
The idea of disruptive technology comes from the 1997 book by Harvard Business School economist Clayton Christensen and has made the phrase one of the most popular buzzwords in the field of economic progress. The title of Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” described how well-established companies often miss important transitions when newcomers break into the market with simplified products targeted at the bottom end. Christensen used the success of personal computers and steel mini-mills to illustrate how newcomers entered the field with cheaper and more convenient products targeted well below those segments claimed by leaders such as IBM or U.S. Steel. Eventually the upstarts toppled the giant.
There’s just one problem in positing Tesla as a disruptive technology: It has been overwhelmingly aimed at the richest auto customers, rather than the poorest. This prompted another Harvard B-School professor, Thomas Bartman, to write an article in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review arguing that Tesla is not disruptive but just another high-priced item aimed at biting off a luxury end of the market. Bartman argued that Tesla is too expensive to be disruptive, but that golf carts and those minimalist electric vehicles being produced in China were the true disrupters of automobile technology. They would catch on as courtesy vehicles for motoring around senior citizens’ centers and eventually upgrade to an urban vehicle convenient for making short shopping trips and finding a place to park.
This challenge has prompted other economists to revise the theory of disruptive technology and to create a new category into which Tesla easily fits. This is known as “high-end disruptors.” Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen make the elaborate case, in Forbes, that Tesla is only one of many new high-end disruptors whose chances for success are just as likely as those disruptors coming in from the low end of the market:
Unlike classic disruptive innovations such as steel mini-mills, personal computers and, in the car business, cheap Japanese imports, Tesla never pursued the classic route of going after low-end, price-sensitive customers first with cheaper, inferior technology. It doesn’t pursue nonconsumption, or customers who don’t currently drive cars. Tesla automobiles look and drive much like other cars, use established infrastructure like roads and confine much of their product innovation to only one aspect: the power system.
… Tesla has instead proved to be a different kind of disruptor, a high-end version that can be just as troublesome for the incumbents …
High-end disruptors produce innovations that are leapfrog in nature, making them difficult to imitate rapidly. They outperform existing products on critical attributes on their debut; they sell for a premium price rather than a discount; and they target incumbents’ most profitable customers, going after the most discriminating and least price-sensitive buyers before spreading to the mainstream. If you look within some large companies, you can flesh out previous examples: Apple’s iPod outplayed the Sony Walkman; Starbucks’ high-end coffee drinks and atmosphere drowned out local coffee shops; Dyson’s vacuum cleaners now have solid market share; Garmin’s GPS golf watches have taken much of the business from range finders. The incumbents didn’t react fast enough, and the high-end disruptors took over their market.
So it may be with Tesla. The company may not just disrupt the auto market but may force a revision of one of the most cherished new economic theories — that disruptions must always come from the bottom. Once again, Elon Musk may have outfoxed the experts. But it will all depend on how automobile consumers start responding to the new models targeting the mainstream.
By next month we should start to find out.
- Tesla continues to walk the tightrope
- Is this golf cart more disruptive than Teslas?
- Is Elon Musk a welfare king?
- Tesla hits some speed bumps
- Tesla going at full speed, but it has competition
One simple slide in a PowerPoint presentation by a Tesla official at an auto convention in Washington this month did almost as much damage as Elon Musk’s rocket blowing up soon after liftoff.
JB Straubel, chief technological officer and co-founder of Tesla Motors, put up a slide on June 15 indicating that Tesla’s Model 3 would not “begin production until 2018.” This apparent delay set the new vehicle back from the previously announced deadline of 2017 and almost knocked the company for a loop. The website Inside EVs broke the story, as it were, and word of the PPT slide was repeated in countless news stories. The interpretation was clear: Once again, Tesla had been forced to postpone key product rollout.
Within hours, Tesla had assured investors and analysts that it was not changing its schedule. The $35,000 Model 3 will be available in 2017, as previously planned. “Contrary to speculative blogger reports, we still plan to show Model 3 in 2016 and begin production in 2017,” Ricardo Reyes, vice president of communications, tweeted. The statement about production in 2018 was said to refer to “full production,” an attempt at back-filling that many analysts viewed with a grain of salt.
Whether the reference to 2018 was just a typographical error or an inadvertent peek under the kimono, the controversy showed how delicately balanced Tesla’s position is, both in terms of meeting customer expectations and in raising money to continue its projects.
Missing deadlines would certainly be nothing new for Tesla. In February 2012 the company said its crossover Model X would be available by the end of 2013. In February 2013, it said it would be late 2014. In November 2013 the company announced that a small number would be available by the end of 2014, but actual deliveries would not begin until the third quarter of 2015. Everyone is waiting to see if this deadline will be kept. Meanwhile, speculation has increased that any delay in the debut of the Model 3 may be due to the resources that have been spent trying to get the Model X out the door.
The Model 3 is Tesla’s bid for the big time. The car is projected to have a range of 500 miles and would be priced at the aforementioned $35K, less than half of the $79,570 MSRP of the 2015 Tesla Model S. The Model 3 is intended to be a mass-market sedan that’s well within the reach of the average car buyer. Musk, Tesla’s flamboyant co-founder and CEO, hopes to sell 500,000 versions of the Model 3 by 2020, a feat that could put Tesla on a firm financial footing.
But there are pending obstacles. One is the Chevrolet Bolt, a plug-in all-electric that is the successor to the Volt, a plug-in hybrid. GM demonstrated the Bolt in a sample model this month and will also be priced in the $35,000 range. GM promised to have the Bolt on the market by early 2017, which would beat Tesla’s Model 3 out of the gate.
Whether electric-car buyers will be attracted to the Bolt – or whether they will wait for what will almost certainly be a superior product from Tesla – is a hotly debated question. “GM is ramping up to make 20,000 Bolts. Tesla is ramping up to make 500,000,” said one commenter to a Wall Street Journal story. “When a company names its new car the ‘Bolt,’ Tesla has little to worry about,” said another. But other readers cited GM’s superior service network, and the company’s long history of making money, while Tesla has only lost money.
One thing is certain: Tesla is building brand loyalty. A survey of 145 Tesla owners by automotive analyst Dan Dolev of Jeffries found that 85 percent said their next car would also be a Tesla, and 25 percent wouldn’t even consider another brand. Eighty-three percent said they would recommend Tesla to their friends, and a remarkable 89 percent said they would still buy a Tesla without the $7,500 federal government tax break. The owners also turned out to be not nearly as rich as expected. Almost 70 percent had previously owned cars that cost less than $60,000, including ones as modest as a $15,000 Toyota Highlander. They paid an average premium of 80 percent over their previous car when they bought a Tesla. As a result of the survey, Jeffries raised its target price for Tesla stock to $350 from its current $265.
The battery-producing Gigafactory outside Reno is moving ahead on schedule, with the first phase of the structure near completion and machinery is about to be moved in. The current phase represents only 14 percent of the planned layout. Once completed, the Gigafactory will be the largest building in the world, with a footprint of 5.8 million square feet and two stories of manufacturing totaling 10 million square feet. Panasonic, Tesla’s battery partner, is expected to send hundreds of workers to the site this fall to prepare for full-scale production. The factory will also employ hundreds of local workers.
Wall Street Journal columnist Charley Grant threw a wrench into the works recently when he wrote that Tesla is still burning through cash and probably will run out of money if the Model X does not sell as expected. He says the company should sell another issue of stock while the price is still high. He suggested that a price of $200, 25 percent below the current market rate, could raise $750 million and carry the company over to the introduction of the Model 3.
Whether the company will dilute ownership or take a chance that Model X sales will reverse its cash flow is just one of the many decisions Musk will be facing in the near future. One thing is certain: He will be balancing atop that high wire for several years to come.
Elon Musk’s bet that he can sell 50,000 versions of the Model 3, the $35,000 version of the Tesla, due out in 2017, still seems like a long shot, given the somewhat limited market for electric cars.
But he might have one more card up his sleeve. The development of solar energy for home use offers an alternative market for his batteries that could be enough to save Tesla from a market collapse.
Musk is unveiling a new home storage unit that will allow homeowners to move their electrical consumption from expensive peak rates to the rock-bottom rates of overnight power. If nothing else, this will create a secondary market for the millions of lithium-ion batteries that Tesla will be cranking out from its $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada, which is scheduled to be operational in 2017.
Early indications are that the demand for batteries to power the mid-priced roadster might be thinner than anticipated. Musk was counting on big demand from China, and already there are indications that it’s a much tougher market than he realized. As reported here last week, China already has 100 manufacturers turning out 400,000 undersized vehicles a year that can reach 48 miles an hour. They certainly wouldn’t sell in the United States, but for a million Chinese, it’s just what they need to putter around their small villages and cities. China also has 90 million electric scooters on the road and 120 million electric bicycles — an entire electric-vehicle market that doesn’t exist in this country. Making a dent in this market with a $35,000 scaled-down version of a luxury vehicle is not going to be easy, which is why Musk cut his China effort in half only a few weeks ago.
But there’s an out here in the burgeoning market for home electric storage that is taking shape in the United States, particularly in California. The Golden State has established a goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, and 50 percent by 2030. Now powering with renewables isn’t just a matter of putting up solar collectors and windmills. You have to store that electricity for a time when it’s needed. Otherwise, most of it is wasted. And that’s where Musk’s plan to power electric vehicles with large complements of relatively small lithium-ion batteries enters in, because such a system also will be ideal for storing electricity in household-sized units.
Without any fanfare, Tesla already has installed such a system in more than 100 homes in California. It also has a deal with Walmart to install it on a commercial scale. “Tesla has been able to install more than 100 projects, really without anyone noticing,” Andrea James, a Dougherty & Co. analyst, told Bloomberg. She also estimated that the home-storage business could add $70 to Tesla’s stock, about one-third of its current value.
The effort already has paid off for Tesla in that it has collected $65 million in state incentives under the advanced storage technology portion of California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP), which rewards users for coming up with ways of generating their own power. With household units running anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, they’re going to need plenty of help from the government.
Tesla is not the only company working on battery storage. Bosch, General Electric and Samsung all have experimental systems going. There are also research projects being conducted at Harvard, MIT and other universities.
In Notrees, Texas, Duke Energy Renewables, with the help of the Department of Energy, has built a project that is using thousands of lead-acid batteries to store the electricity from a large wind farm. The lead-acid batteries are more expensive, however, and require frequent repair. Also, Duke has found that there is not as much of a market for their product as it had anticipated, mainly due to the costs. “There was little interest from customers willing to pay for that,” said Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, according to The New York Times. “That has not evolved as much as some folks, including ourselves, thought.”
But there are other opportunities that could enhance Tesla’s overall business model. One is that when lithium-ion batteries begin to lose their power so that they are no longer capable of driving a car, they still remain strong enough to power a home storage system. That could mean there will be a secondary market for Tesla’s car batteries.
Another dream that has always been in the back of people’s minds is that the electric vehicles themselves could serve as storage for utility power, drawing on cheap nighttime power and then reselling it to utilities during the day. This would involve an elaborate infrastructure, however, and this would mean the cars would not be available for a good part of the day if their stored power was being fed to the grid.
Altogether, however, the storage potential of the batteries means that Tesla will have an alternative means of income in addition to the electric cars. This means the company could diversify enough so that it will not depend entirely on the success of the Model 3. In the long run, this might mean that the company can survive long enough to make the electric vehicle a standard item for the American consumer.