Source of inspiration, competitive catalyst, or rival... the complicated history of GM and Tesla.

Posted on January 12, 2015 by Matt Pressman

Today at the Detroit Auto Show the Chevy Bolt concept car was announced, GM's forthcoming 200-mile electric vehicle with a $30,000 price point. This is purported to be direct competition for the Model 3, Tesla's forthcoming 200-mile electric vehicle with a $35,000 price point. There will be plenty of analysis about these two vehicles and how they may (or may not) compete with one another.


GM's concept car, the all-electric Chevy Bolt

However, regardless of how we analyze these two specific vehicles... it's important to understand the complicated history revolving around these two companies, GM and Tesla, and how each has pushed the other forward in unexpected ways. First it's key to go back in time to GM's EV1 vehicle, launched in 1996, and understand it's "unusual" demise. In many ways, this unfortunate incident served to inspire Elon Musk to move forward with his vision for Tesla. To better understand how this all transpired, it's revealing to hear Musk explain (quite emotionally) how this came to pass...


Tesla, under Elon Musk's visionary leadership, went on to create the Tesla Roadster a 200-mile range electric supercar with a price tag over $100,000 launched in 2008. The Roadster, in turn, was the catalyst for GM's legendary executive, Bob Lutz, to "green light" the Chevy Volt. As Newsweek reported, "GM engineers didn't want to switch gears to a plug-in electric, which they insisted couldn't be run on lithium-ion batteries. The turning point came when tiny Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley start-up, announced in 2006 that it would produce a speedy electric sports car powered by those same laptop batteries. 'That tore it for me,' says Lutz. 'If some Silicon Valley start-up can solve this equation, no one is going to tell me anymore that it's unfeasible.'"

Later, discussing the Volt, Musk went on to say he thought that GM, "sort of created something that's a bit of amphibian," adding that GM "essentially split the baby between gasoline and electric, so it's OK but not great." Nevertheless, the Chevy Volt went on to win the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year (COTY) award in 2011. Which car launched in 2012 won the COTY award in 2013? The Tesla Model S was winner in a first-ever unanimous decision by the judges. Based on the Volt's somewhat mediocre sales and the unexpected sales and critical success of the Model S, GM announced that they had assigned a team to study Tesla. Later, GM actually supported a bill in Michigan to outlaw Tesla from selling in the state.  

However, looking back at Tesla, former GM CEO Dan Akerson recently admitted“No other car manufacturer has achieved a global brand so quickly, it’s a huge accomplishment for this hard-charging executive [Elon Musk],” said Akerson. “Teslas are beautifully designed with great pick up and first class engineering. Musk has challenged the industry and it has to respond. He’s running between the legs of elephants and has a temporal advantage. Competitors are behind technologically, but have advantages in scale and scope. By 2018, you’ll see game-changing competitive responses globally. The auto industry is notoriously Darwinian and may consolidate into a few worldwide giants from a hundred small car makers,” and that will set the stage for a new world order, according to Akerson.

And, that brings us full circle to the Detroit Auto Show this week -- Tesla's success with the Model S has spurred GM to both improve the Volt and introduce it's new all-electric, long range concept car, the Chevy Bolt. Will this push Tesla to reveal the Model 3 sooner? It will be very interesting to see how these two American car companies continue to push each other, duke it out, and accelerate the race for vehicle electrification in the coming years.


Posted in Model S, tesla news



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