The history of automotive production is littered with the fallen badges of car companies that shone brightly but fell by the wayside in the face of competition from the industry’s giants. Whether you pine for an AMC, a Studebaker, or a Saab, it’s a Ford or a Honda you’ll be driving in 2019.
In the world of electric cars it has been a slightly different story. Though the big names have dipped a toe in the water they have been usurped by a genuinely disruptive contender. If you drive an electric car in 2019 it won’t be that Ford or Honda, it could be a Nissan, but by far the dominant name in EV right now is Tesla.
Motor vehicles are standing at the brink of a generational shift from internal combustion to electric drive. Will Tesla become the giant it hopes, or will history repeat itself?
How Far Have Electric Vehicles Come?
To watch the development of electric vehicles over the last couple of decades has been to witness a quiet revolution from low-production oddities to serious contenders. In 1999 a French van, Citroën’s Berlingo électrique, would have represented the pinnacle of commercially available electric transport. It had nickel metal hydride batteries that gave it a range of about 60 miles, and a DC motor that gave it a top speed of about 50 miles per hour. It was a practical small local delivery van that was produced in small numbers to large customers, but your plumber or your local shop would not have considered it as a viable or affordable alternative to its fossil-fueled stablemates.
Around a decade after the Berlingo the electric vehicle was still an extremely niche product, but its technology had changed significantly. Lithium ion batteries and a brushless motor gave the 2008 Tesla Roadster sports car a range of 244 miles and a top speed of 125 miles per hour. In 2010 the mass-market first-generation Nissan Leaf came out with a 73 mile range and a top speed of 93 miles per hour.
In the decade since, a procession of models have appeared from multiple manufacturers, and typical models now approach the range and speed figures of their more traditionally-powered equivalents. Tesla has become the big fish in a small pond, and their prestige models are status symbols across the world. Their future seems assured, the automotive dinosaurs are left wallowing in an oil-rich swamp as the asteroid of global warming appears in the sky above them, and we’ll all be driving Model 3s and their successors in years to come. Right?
An Eventful Month In Electric Car Manufacture
Harking back to the fate of those Saabs and Studebakers at the top of the page, an observer might ask why the global giants have so far failed to take Tesla on by releasing more than just a token effort or a small car with a limited range. This summer it’s possible we’ve seen some early salvos in that battle, with a slew of announcements from those big manufacturers that herald a time in which their electric offerings become more serious contenders. BMW’s announcement of the long-awaited electric Mini is hardly seismic, Jaguar Land Rover’s conversion of their Castle Bromwich plant to electric production should make you sit up and take notice, while if Ford and VW’s signing of a global deal to share electric car technology doesn’t catch your attention, nothing will.
The Minis are something of a boutique offering and Jaguar may take some of Tesla’s market with their electric executive saloon cars, but the deal between Ford and VW has the potential to be a game changer. Between them the two manufacturers reach into almost every market across multiple brands, and though the current electric Golf has failed to make a significant impact the prospect of its technology, finding its way into cars such as the Ford Focus as well as the VW marques can not fail to change your daily driving.
There Will Be No Tesla Gremlin
Given the prospect of those electric Fords and Volkswagens, with no doubt a rush of similar mass market machines from other manufacturers, was this the moment at which someone ate Tesla’s lunch?
Producing the innovative and glamorous car the customer wants to buy is no longer enough when there are plenty of good-enough cars that they can afford to buy, if this were not the case we’d still be able to walk onto a lot and buy a new Saab or a Studebaker (Neither the post-1963 Avanti nor the promise of a future Saab-derived NEVS car count in this context). Will the customer want a Tesla, but walk instead into the Jaguar dealer or worse still for Tesla, the Ford dealer for an electric Mondeo?
Perhaps they will, but even then would that spell the end for Tesla? The key lies in their diversification, for instead of taking the battle onto Ford or VW’s home turf with a competitor to the Focus and Golf they have instead become as much an alternative energy company as a car company. The famous Gigafactories do not produce cars, instead they churn out batteries, Powerwalls, and solar products. Meanwhile Tesla’s mark can be found on the road outside their own cars, like VW they have licensed their technology. Mercedes-Benz and Smart electric vehicles produced by Daimler carry Tesla-designed parts, as do the electric Toyota Rav4s. There will be no Tesla equivalent of the AMC Pacer or Gremlin to be the butt of jokes in future decades, instead there will be a drivetrain technology and energy company that also produces some cars. Maybe someone hasn’t eaten Tesla’s lunch, but it’s certain that their helping has just become a little smaller.
Every step we take towards an electric Golf or an electric Focus becoming ubiquitous on our roads is also a step towards their parts becoming as common as those of internal combustion engines. Imagine a world in which a large lithium-ion battery is as easy to find and as easy to recycle as a 12V lead-acid car battery, or in which a car-size induction motor is as common as a washing machine motor. The prospects for hacking with these parts seem limitless but in the near term we’re strapped by a lack of stock. Perhaps Tesla’s lunch may be being eaten, but if a few crumbs end up on our tables that can’t be bad!