We love Tesla — we’re huge fans of the way the company has made electric cars cool.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company’s Model 3 is probably the most appetizing lower-cost electric vehicle (EV) on the market today, and is well on its way to becoming a massive success.
rapid escalation in battery production has forced down prices of lithium-ion batteries. Yet we’re rejoicing in the news from Schmidt Automotive Research that Tesla has lost market share in the world’s largest EV market, the European Union.
We’re rejoicing because this is a clear sign of global interest in EVs. In the European Union, Tesla’s loss in market share derived partly from large incumbent automakers’ increasing vigor in making their own EVs more attractive, through both pricing and design diversity.
Good for the planet
A broader, deeper market for these fuel-efficient, pollution-free vehicles is good for the planet and will further reduce prices. EVs’ path to further improvement also makes complete sense. In reality, internal combustion engines (ICEs) are today’s horse-and-buggy: well understood, reliable, and with a great infrastructure, but ultimately unable to compete.
At the rate at which battery prices (and, by extension, EV prices) are falling and adoption is increasing, all car makers will have commenced publicly phasing out ICEs. General Motors
has already taken the plunge and will phase out combustion engines by 2035.
We won’t be surprised if GM revises this schedule in about three years from now and declares that it will go all electric by 2028, and all of the other carmakers follow.
The history of technology foretells the future of electric cars. The accelerometer, a system that measure how fast an object is accelerating or decelerating, exemplifies the process. In the 1950s, early accelerometers allowed ballistic missiles to maintain their trajectories. They cost many thousands of dollars. Today, accelerometer chips more sensitive than those that rode in missile cones cost a few dollars or less and are available on Alibaba.
Android operating system and Linux-based systems-on-chips helped increase economies of scale, and the prices of all smartphone components fell dramatically, with broad ripple effects on many technologies.
More importantly, entirely new categories piggybacked on smartphone technology. Drones are basically active mobile phones. They use much of the same computational technology, and their prices are similarly falling.
And EVs are essentially mobile phones on wheels. They have many more moving parts and need additional features, such as lasers, rangefinders and airbags; nonetheless, they resemble mobile phones or drones more than they do ICE cars.
Tesla has approached EVs as software products and upgradeable devices: more like iPhones than like traditional cars. And that makes sense. An EV is little more than a software-controlled engine with a battery in a box, and the batteries will soon become commodities.
Eventually car bodies of all shapes and sizes will be 3D printed. EV entrants are already tackling all parts of the EV market, from tiny delivery robots and cargo drones to e-bikes and customized vans. All are flavors of battery-powered locomotion. And the cheapest will be widely affordable, which will democratize services as the $20 Jio smartphones in India have democratized online access. Already, e-bikes that manage 20 miles an hour in speed cost less than $500, and they suit many basic commuting tasks in urban areas.
So Tesla, the EV leader, has nothing to worry about: Increasing awareness and fomenting innovation, it has made the addressable market much larger for itself. Like Apple’s, Tesla’s brand is powerful. Unlike Apple, Tesla faces some pretty cool competition, even now. Porsche has just announced an EV version of its Macan with pricing similar to the Tesla Model S sedans.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk clearly recognizes and embraces a strategy of growing a much bigger pie. The market for EVs is far larger than a market for cars: precisely why he open-sourced Tesla’s patents and made it easier for rivals to scale up and build better cars and expand the market.
Tesla will probably remain a small player in the global vehicle market by sales volume but stay on its cutting edge, just as Apple did in mobile phones. Steve Jobs positioned Apple firmly up market, and it has remained there, capturing the lion’s share of smartphone profits.
So the best thing for Tesla — and the planet’s future — is a slow and steady loss of market share. The EV’s time has come, and that means it’s time for Tesla to face much stiffer competition.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School. Alex Salkever is a product expert focused on exponential technologies. Their most recent book, “From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation,” was published in September.