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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