Tesla approaches a moment of truth

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.

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Is this golf cart more ‘disruptive’ than Teslas?

In the May issue of the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen and Tom Bartman tackle the question, “Is the Tesla a truly disruptive innovation?” The answer they come up with is “no,” but they have some interesting things to say in the process.

Christensen is the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, one of the most highly regarded business books in recent memory. It originated as an article in the HBR exactly twenty years ago, and was published as a book in 1997. Christensen pointed out that established companies were often beaten at their own game by cheaper imitations that performed the same service at a much better price. He cited steel mini-mills and personal computers as examples of innovations that created whole new markets and ended up displacing previous technologies. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that established companies cannot compete at first without undercutting their own products. By the time they make the shift, however, they might be left behind.

An investor challenged Christensen as to whether Tesla was truly disruptive. (“Game-changer” is another popular term for the electric-car company.) Christensen has been feeling defensive about his work recently after a critical 2014 article in The New Yorker, and so he decided to take up the challenge. He assigned the task to Bartman, one of his assistants.

Bartman posed five questions: 1) Does the product target overserved customers by offering lower service at a lower price? 2) Does it create “asymmetric motivation” in that existing competitors aren’t motivated to initiate change? 3) Can it improve performance fast enough to keep pace with customers’ expectations? 4) Does it create new value networks, including sale channels? And 5) Does it disrupt all incumbents, or can an existing player exploit the opportunity?

“As Bartman worked through the questions,” says the article on HBR’s website, “it became clear that Tesla is not a disrupter. It’s a classic ‘sustaining innovation’—a product that, according to Christensen’s definition, offers incrementally better performance at a higher price. There’s nothing rudimentary about Teslas, which compete on price against cars by BMW and Mercedes.”

Truly disruptive technologies, so Christensen’s theory goes, start from the bottom up. They offer a cheap substitute, then grab a market and gradually improve until they have become a full competitor to the existing players. At that point, it might be too late for established companies to adopt the innovations.

Tesla is doing the opposite: It is starting at the high end of the market, competing only with luxury cars, and working its way down. The Model X, a family SUV scheduled to sell for $60,000, is due out this year; and the Model 3, which has a target price of $35,000 is scheduled to be showcased next year for 2018 sale.

It makes a big difference. “If Tesla is following a disruptive innovation strategy, theory predicts that it will continue to see no strong competitive response,” Bartman told HBR. “However, because it’s a sustaining innovation, theory predicts that competitors will emerge. Our analysis concludes that a competitive response won’t happen until Tesla expands outside its current niche of people who prefer electric vehicles to gas-powered cars—but if it expands by creating more variety (such as SUVs) and more-affordable vehicles, competition will be fierce.”

This seems like a pretty good assessment. Right now, Tesla is welcoming competitors. Musk even invited Apple to join him in the automobile business last week. There have been persistent rumors of Apple and Tesla joining forces in automobile manufacture, although Apple seems content to stick with personal electronic devices. But if Tesla succeeds in selling a $35,000 electric vehicle, it is certain it will face competition from GM, Nissan, BMW Volkswagen and the entire established industry.

So is there a vehicle out there that would be truly disruptive to the auto industry? In fact, there is. Bateman and Christensen identify it as the “neighborhood electric vehicle” – the NEV – and say there are already signs of it bubbling up from the bottom.

“In 2011, Polaris, the Minnesota-based manufacturer of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, bought Global Electric Motorcars, a small division of Chrysler that makes battery-powered neighborhood electric vehicles,” writes the HBR. “Although NEVs cannot exceed 35 miles per hour and lack many features of cars, they could eventually steal enough market share to disrupt the automobile industry.”

Polaris CEO Scott Wine told HBR that his company has tightened up the braking system and added heaters and stereos in an attempt to upgrade toward regular automobiles. But the modified golf carts remain extraordinarily cheap –$2,000 to $12,000 — and are now being used in retirement communities. Bateman also points out that 200,000 of these vehicles are being sold in China each year. “When we launch our new model, in the not-too-distant future, it will be an opportunity to do exactly what Clay Christensen’s work says,” Wine says. “It’s going to be a significant disruption.”

So will the modified electric golf cart turn out to be the truly disruptive innovation that upends the internal combustion engine? We’ll soon see.

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