Imitation or Flattery: Tesla gets kudos and copycats
With major automakers finally making overtures about investing in electric vehicle programs, Tesla Motors [NASDAQ: TSLA] will likely serve as an industry example of how to best approach an effective electric vehicle strategy. Early on, Tesla Motors actually helped build the electric drivetrains for Mercedes (A-Class, B-Class and Smart for Two) and Toyota (RAV-4) electric vehicles. Those programs have since been discontinued. At present, competitive automakers seem intrigued (but hesitant) to jump into the electric vehicle market. Case in point: we're seeing examples of both flattering words and copycat designs from many of the auto companies eyeing Tesla.
Above: Early days - Tesla CEO Elon Musk (in the middle) and Mercedes executives with Tesla Roadster and Smart electric vehicles (Source: Ecomento)
Already, we've seen BMW pay tribute to Tesla stores in order to promote their plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the BMW i8, in high-end shopping malls. Are there other German automakers also looking to Tesla for cues on electric vehicle market strategy? With Tesla's massive success in the large luxury vehicle segment in 2015, it's likely the competition has finally begun to take Tesla seriously. Tesla's lead in this U.S. market segment (see below) is evidence that electric vehicles are a real opportunity.
Above: Tesla Model S dominates 2015 U.S. Sales of Large Luxury Vehicles (Source: Capital Market Laboratories)
It was reported this week that Stefan Niemand who oversees Audi’s electromobility strategy, criticized the electric vehicles that currently prevail across wide parts of the industry: “These [electric] cars are slower than those with conventional drive and they have a much lower range – and in compensation they are more expensive,” he said. “We need awesome cars and a seamless infrastructure,” he said. In contrast, Tesla has single-handedly established a high-performance electric vehicle and charging infrastructure. Niemand conceded he is impressed by the American manufacturer. “I hate to admit it, but Tesla did everything right,” he said.
Above: Tesla supercharger stations (Source: Zap Map)
In the same article, Porsche R&D director Michael Steiner admitted that, "“The next logical step is electrification." And, let's not forget that last year Porsche chief Matthias Mueller said, “Tesla has built an exceptional car. They have a very pragmatic approach and set the standard, where we have to follow up now.” Soon after, Porsche announced the Mission E sedan, an all-electric concept car, scheduled to launch in 2020 (see image below). Even more telling, after the diesel-gate scandal, Mueller was then promoted to CEO of all of Volkswagen Group and noted that, "The automotive future should not be left to Silicon Valley,” as he announced plans to introduce 20 new electric vehicles through the group’s brands by the end of the decade.
Above: The Porsche Mission E concept car due out in 2020 (Source: Porsche)
Also in the news this week, in an indisputable nod to the Tesla, Ford Motor Company's Lincoln Navigator concept vehicle sports gull wing doors giving it a "look" suspiciously similar to the Model X falcon wing doors. However, according to Electrek, "gull wing doors have only one set of hinges, which is located on the chassis of the vehicle... [Tesla's] design has two set of hinges which allows the second half of the door to stay closer to the vehicle while opening... [this] actually makes all the difference in term of functionality. Forget about parking it in a garage, you’d need a hangar to park that Lincoln concept." In addition, Ford also recently announced: "plans to roll out a more capable electric version of the Focus... the first of 13 new electrified vehicles it committed to develop in the next four years under a $4.5 billion investment."
Above: Lincoln Navigator concept car appears heavily influenced by the Tesla Model X (Source: Electrek)
And, although Toyota has placed a bet on hydrogen fuel cells, they are simultaneously pushing forward an electric vehicle strategy as well. This week, Toyota announced the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, Toyota Prius Prime, where, "Toyota has doubled the all-electric range versus the old plug-in Prius. Don't go expecting some vast, Tesla-like figure, mind: we're [only] talking 22 miles from the batteries." And check out this obvious nod to Tesla's design (see below): "Most noticeable is the 11.6-inch portrait-aspect touchscreen in the dash, taking a (green) leaf out of Tesla's book."
Above: Toyota Prius Prime's center stack touchscreen shamelessly borrows its look from the Tesla interior (Source: Slash Gear)
It's no surprise that Toyota is adapting its Prius design to mirror elements from Tesla -- according to an earlier study from IHS Automotive analyst Tom Libby: "The Toyota conquests by the Model S are being driven by the Prius, which is the No. 1 model conquested by the Model S." The article goes on to explain: "About 15.5% of Tesla Model S buyers owned a Toyota-brand vehicle at the time of the purchase, Libby said... Toss in Toyota’s Lexus luxury division, and the data is even more startling. More than a quarter -- 25.3% -- of Tesla buyers in the United States owned a Toyota-manufactured vehicle at the time of their Model S purchase."
Above: Tesla is proliferating on today's roads (Source: San Francisco Citizen)
With the much-anticipated Tesla Model 3 reveal happening later this week, I'm sure competitive automakers will be watching closely. Don't be surprised to see the likes of Honda, Nissan, Infiniti and many others start copying some of Tesla's design and strategy. Already, GM's all-electric Chevy Bolt is trying to steal the thunder from the Tesla Model 3 launch. But if the "Large Luxury Vehicle" leaderboard (as shown above) is any indicator, it's likely the Tesla Model 3, with a starting price of $35,000 -- without incentives -- will be hard to catch in this lower price bracket as well.