Elon Musk recently told Motor Trend in an interview that the auto industry is slow to evolve. Boy, howdy. Let’s say you’re a car company and raking in record profits year after year by selling cars that are pretty much the same today as they were 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. Oh, maybe you add a crease here or tweak a tail light design there, but underneath the sheet metal, it’s same old, same old. And people are still piling into dealer showrooms begging you to take their money. Where is your incentive to change?
When the Tesla Model S was first introduced, almost everyone in the car business yawned and went back to doing what they had been doing for decades. And yet (or because of that), 7 years later, the Tesla Model S is still the quickest production sedan Motor Trend has ever tested. The magazine asked Musk during an interview at the company’s southern California design studio why that’s the case.
“‘Well I don’t know,’ Musk answered. ‘It’s surprising to us. I thought the industry would have had cars that are competitive to the Model S well before now because as we were talking about—the Model S debuted in 2009, and even if people thought, “Well, that’s an impossible car to build,” which conventional wisdom said that the Model S was an impossible car to build, and there were many articles written to that effect.
“‘But once we started delivering them to customers and they were approved by the regulators and met all of the safety requirements, it’s like, the Model S has got the best safety rating that NHTSA had ever tested of any car. I really expected that there would be within maybe three years or something, we’d have something that was better than the original Model S. But I guess the car industry is just fairly slow to evolve, and it didn’t take electric vehicles really seriously until 2015, maybe 2014 you could say.'”
Motor Trend has just named the Tesla Model S its Ultimate Car Of The Year (COY). Of all the 70 COY awards the magazine has provided, it is the ne plus ultra of the lot. What is it about the Model S — and all Tesla automobiles — that stirs such passion in people?
“‘[T]he overarching goal is, what can we do to make you fall in love with this car? And I think the biggest thing about Tesla and the cars that we make is that this is not designed by a soulless corporation. There’s not like some finance spreadsheet or something like that with some market analysis. There’s none of that.
“‘Obviously we need to bring in more money than we spend, but at the end of the day, we want to make a car that we love, that hits us in the heart, that makes you feel. And how many of these cars, they have no soul. They make all these cars that have no soul or no heart, and they wonder why nobody feels anything for them. Why should they?'”
Looking back at the original Model S design, which was created in a tent inside SpaceX headquarters in 2008 and revealed to the public in 2009, Motor Trend asked Musk what emotional reaction he has to seeing that original car again? “Heartache,” he says. “We gave our heart to this car for sure. Everything, just like, all in.”
Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen took that statement a little further. “It kind of felt like we jumped out of the airplane and then decided we need to figure out how to get a team of people to design the parachute. So we were trying to find the people and design and create the product all kind of mid-flight, which is somewhat perilous. We put everything into it.” Perilous seems a little too mild for what was going on at the time.
What about that enormous touchscreen inside the Model S, an industry first?
“‘The basic principle was, it’s a computer on wheels. So if you had a laptop on wheels you want to have a big screen, you want to have a touch interface, and you want to have over-the-air [updating] capability. Then that gives you a lot of freedom to keep improving the car with software. The over-the-air stuff, we started doing that even on Roadster.
“‘It’s just kind of like being normal in that, what is normal for a consumer trying to buy this would be that you can get an over-the-air update. PCs have been doing over-the-air or connected software updates for 30 years or whatever. So if you are going to make a computer on wheels, then you should obviously be able to connect to the internet, you should be able to update it, it needs to have at least the computer capability of an advanced laptop, and then you’ve got your laptop on wheels. … If you live in Silicon Valley, you definitely want a software-upgradable, always-connected [car]. Seems crazy not to.'”
The conversation then turned to Tesla’s role in the future. Here Musk reiterated the litany of upcoming products — Tesla Semi, Model Y, Tesla Pickup, more factories, and so forth. But what really fires his imagination is autonomy.
“‘I think the autonomy is really going to transform automotive. … I mean since the major innovations in production that Henry Ford and others came up with, the next two massive disruptions for cars are electrification and autonomy, and electrification and autonomy are happening at the same time very basically. So the future will be all electric, all autonomous. I don’t mean some electric, some autonomous, I mean all electric, all autonomous. And in fact, I would really caution someone against buying a gasoline or diesel car or truck because it will have poor resale value in the future.
“‘Let’s say it is 100 years ago, 1919, and a lot of people were still buying horses, and there was like this new radical thing called cars. Essentially you have this Model T or whatever, and people are like, “That’s weird automobile technology that will never catch on,” and they bought a horse, so that was a mistake. So trust me when I say the future is electric autonomy. So you want to buy a car that is electric, and you want to buy a car that is capable of autonomy, which a Tesla is. This will, I think, become very obvious within a few years.
“‘It will change things quite a lot. If things were autonomous and cars are in use a lot, the fundamental utility of a car is right now is maybe 10 or 12 hours a week. Let’s estimate an hour and a half, two hours a day. With a shared autonomous fleet, that goes up to like 50 or 60 hours on average, maybe more. So then the cars will be used a lot more. You’ll want probably dynamic personalization, so it’s like you step into the car, it knows who you are, it knows everything you want, and the car reconfigures itself automatically to all your preferences. So you could step into any car, and that’s how it would be.'”
Von Holzhausen put a punctuation mark on Musk’s prediction. “I also think Model S proved that an electric vehicle can be beautiful and fun to drive and something you desire to own. And I think Tesla will do that with autonomy, as well. So it’s not going to be a scary, ugly, dystopian future. It’s going to be a fun, beautiful experience. And I think all of our products will have that.”
Lots of industry executives saw the original Model S and did not realize what their eyes were telling them. It has taken nearly a decade for car companies to fully embrace electric cars and some — mostly in the US — are still determined to ignore the new reality. The EV revolution is just getting started in earnest and already another transportation revolution — autonomous cars — is gathering momentum.
Traditional car companies are far more willing to embrace self-driving cars because transportation as a service is seen as a major new source of profits. In theory, autonomy could apply to conventional cars with gasoline or diesel engines, but in reality electric and autonomous go together like baseball and hot dogs. It’s possible that autonomy will accelerate the EV revolution in a way that no one could have predicted at decade ago.
A brave new world of transportation is upon us, fostered by the vision of Elon Musk and brought to life by the people of Tesla. When the Model S was revealed in 2009, I think nobody could have predicted how that car would upend the auto industry. Now autonomy is poised to disrupt conventional wisdom even more. Some of those traditional companies are going to fall by the wayside over the next 5 to 10 years largely because one man refused to be dissuaded from following his dream.