In January, there was a lot of chatter at the Detroit Auto Show about how General Motors had unveiled a “Tesla killer” in its new Bolt, a compact electric car with a range of 200 miles and a price tag of $US30,000.
Tesla is aiming to introduce it own mass-market car, the Model 3, in 2017. It’s expected to cost around $US35,000, serve up 200-plus-mile range, and of course feature all the tech-y Tesla goodies that we know so well from the Model S sedan (over-the-air software updates, great performance, a massive touchscreen infotainment system).
I didn’t take the “Tesla killer” talk seriously in January, arguing that if GM wanted to, it could put Elon Musk’s company out of business tomorrow. But why do such a thing? For the traditional auto industry, Tesla functions as a glorious laboratory for innovation and magnet for risk.
The situation, however, may be changing.
GM looks to be pushing hard to beat Tesla’s Model 3 to market — by at least a year! The Bolt is currently being manufactured and is going through preliminary testing, prior to moving to full production.
The overall electric car market has been pretty iffy for the past five years. Most startups have failed. The EVs created by the traditional automakers have met with generally weak demand. Tesla has been steadily increasing its deliveries and is expected to sell 55,000 cars this year, but that needs to be placed in context: GM sold nearly 260,000 cars and trucks in June alone.
Tesla is essentially a market of one. The company could have assumed that it would have the runway to mass-market adoption all to itself through 2018, but GM doesn’t appear to want that to happen.
Why? Because GM has become much more strategic since its 2009 bailout and bankruptcy. Before the financial crisis, GM was a truck-and-SUV company. It had left small cars to its Asian and European partners and divisions, and chose to ignore this market, with its negligible profit margins, in the US.
Then gas prices spiked and the bottom fell out for SUVs. GM decided that it needed to crack the code on small cars in order to remain competitive in a market with high gas prices and rising government fuel-economy standards.
The automaking giant appears to have concluded that it’s not strategically sensible for Tesla to be the only real mass-market EV producer. It’s one thing to watch as Tesla innovates but sells primarily an exotic luxury vehicle for $US100,000. It’s quite another to see a compact EV market with several hundred thousand in potential vehicle sales and … just … let … somebody else gobble it up.
This should be worrying for Tesla. The company has to have a big hit with the Model 3, selling a massive number, relative to previous Tesla vehicles, within a few years of rollout.
GM, meanwhile, could gradually ramp up Bolt sales for years. And it wouldn’t have to worry about competing against Tesla’s “Tesla-ness” because at a $US30,000-ish price point, Tesla isn’t going to be able to maintain the same high-tech luxury aura is does with its current lineup.
The auto industry is mightily impressed by Tesla, but it also knows that the car maker has an Achilles’ heel.
Last year, I asked Bob Lutz, GM’s former product czar, about Tesla’s business prospects. He was fairly direct about the reality of Tesla’s market position.
“There’s nothing about [Tesla’s] battery technology that can’t be copied by another car company,” he said. “Or it could simply buy batteries.”
Lutz argued that Tesla’s success is due in part to design, and I tend to agree with him. Prior to Tesla, electric cars were boring and virtuous. After Tesla, they became hot, fast, and sexy.
The Bolt is not going to be hot, fast, or sexy — but that’s the mass market for you. The Model 3 could be sexy, but we won’t know until early 2016, when Tesla is scheduled to reveal some designs. Until then, for pretty much the first time in its existence and assuming the Bolt hits the market as planned, Tesla will be playing catch-up with a major automaker.