You have Tesla, and you have everyone else either playing catch-up, or not playing at all.
Since the Model S began defying odds in the marketplace from mid-2012 onward, Tesla has stood as a goad to large automakers and start-ups alike, and sure enough some are following it.
A few of the majors are building electric cars because they practically have to.
Tesla’s quiet-running, large, fast luxury performance sedan – and all the potential Tesla represents – has captured customers away from some of the proudest luxury brands.
Still working toward ambitious goals, and with yet-more to prove, Tesla has aggressively pushed its sink-or-swim agenda of selling electric cars, and nothing but electric cars.
To date, no major automaker has come close to its all-or-nothing ethos, while a few have named Tesla as a factor in deciding to build electric vehicles.
But even so, wheels of progress are turning more slowly than some would like. For those wanting to see electric cars priced for average budgets, to date the stimulation by Tesla has been more in the upscale direction.
If the goal is affordable mass-market EVs, such as Tesla wants with its Model 3 in due time, while the shortest path to a destination is a straight line, the market is following a roundabout route by machines catering to the upper crust.
This is not to say average-priced EVs are utterly stalled; Nissan has been waving that banner, and other automakers including Kia, Ford, and even Honda and others are working in that direction, but whether these are as much in direct response to Tesla is another question.
The general shift toward all-electric cars is inching forward at the behest of global regulations and against a push-pull interplay of public awareness (or lack thereof), newly sourced and cheaper petroleum in the U.S., high production costs, and perceived technology limitations, as Toyota has especially said.
Governments around the world are forcing things forward however, and then there’s the Tesla factor. It’s a maverick far out in front, serving as a provocateur in its own right, though how much some automakers will admit it is also up for discussion.
And, while Tesla offered its patents for free, we have yet to hear of a major automaker declaring it is basing a new car on Tesla’s specific patents. It may be that doing so would make type-A, ego-driven auto executives bristle, and it might even present challenges for their marketers seeking pure brand identity, so carmakers are figuring things out along parallel but independent paths.
Following are a few which have otherwise taken the bait, and are giving chase with all-electric cars they intend in time to compete with that moving target that is Tesla.
The humble Bowtie brand may be most famous for running after Tesla and this is the one odd case of following and leading Tesla all in one stroke.
In July 2013, then General Motors CEO Dan Akerson said he’d assigned a team to keep close tabs on Tesla. In September of that same year, he said Cadillac will eventually compete – though to date it hasn’t announced an EV– and meanwhile Chevrolet would match the specs of Tesla’s pending Model 3.
This January in Detroit, alongside the revelation of the 2016 Chevy Volt, the automaker rolled out the Chevy Bolt EV Concept. It was designed secretly in Australia as a precursor to a production version though not immediately announced as such. Within a month, however, gee whiz, Chevrolet announced it would build it for market.
As such, the Bolt has actually gotten here before Tesla’s Model 3 it is to counter, and matches at least on paper its projected “200 mile” range and mid-30s price before incentives.
Nor is Chevrolet kidding around now. It has since said it has 55 test mules and 1,000 engineers doing what only a resource-heavy major automaker can do – fast-track the car to showrooms.
It is a hatchback design, and no one has seen an image of what the actual Model 3 will look like, but it’s believed it will be a sedan, with other variants possible.
The main point here is Tesla pushed General Motors, as it did once before with the Chevy Volt as former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz once said, and we suspect GM is not done reacting to Tesla’s provocations.
A member of the Volkswagen Group, Audi has developed an exotic limited-production R8 e-tron sports car and is working toward a Q6 SUV, if not other vehicles yet to be disclosed.
These cars are aiming at Model S/Roadster/Model X performance levels, and the German luxury car maker is touting 280 miles range for the R8 e-tron and 310 miles for the pending SUV.
These are European cycle estimates, though a report in August 2014 had estimated up to 435 miles range might be possible for the Q6 EV.
As for the R8, it was actually in the works before the Model S was released. It was canceled in October 2012 due to insufficient range, then in 2013 Audi found better batteries and revived the project.
The e-tron Quattro Concept will first debut next month at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and a production SUV may be here by 2017 or 2018.
The high-performance brand also under the VW Group umbrella has had loosely competitive plug-in hybrids in the form of the Panamera S E-Hybrid and Cayenne S E-Hybrid, but an EV is reportedly in the works for by 2019 or 2020.
Provisionally being called the 717, the four-door sedan will reportedly have 911 design cues, and be more appealing than a present day Panamera.
According to Car, 108 battery pouches will be stashed around the vehicle, rather than having one large slab of a battery down low like Tesla does.
Goodies like all-wheel-drive with torque vectoring and four-wheel steering will enable highly regarded Porsche to play its hand at one-upmanship.
Five months ago, Porsche CEO Matthias Muller said Tesla is indeed pushing Porsche’s buttons.
“Tesla has built an exceptional car,” said Muller.”They have a very pragmatic approach and set the standard, where we have to follow up now.”
Less willing to concede Tesla had anything to do with its business decision is Aston Martin – but it CEO tipped its hand anyway by referring to Tesla proving, once again, nothing happens in a vacuum.
CEO Andy Palmer said Aston is not really following Tesla, but rather aims for something more – at double the price, thank you very much.
“What Tesla clearly shows you is we haven’t hit the ceiling in terms of price,” said Palmer of an electric version of its Rapide planned to fetch $200,000-$250,000 asking price. “But I think it’s hard, though not impossible, for them as a relatively new brand to keep pushing up and to go into that super premier area.”
Since Aston is already in that super premier area, that’s exactly what it aims to do.
Aston Martin will give discriminating buyers ”legacy” along with technology, and premium everything. Nor, said Palmer, will the Rapide offer modes like Tesla’s P85D’s “Insane” or P90D’s “Ludicrous.”
Palmer said Aston does not need to resort to gimmicks like that.
“We don’t do Ludicrous because Ludicrous speed is stupid,” said Palmer. “I think that the fact that you could drive a few laps of a decent race course or race it around the Nordschleife [racetrack] is much more interesting than doing 500 meters in Ludicrous mode.”
Rather, the electric all-wheel drive Rapide will deliver around 800 horsepower and 200-miles range. The release date is targeted for 2017.
Two Startups Among Others
A couple of Silicon Valley mystery companies, both hiring, saying they’re on aggressive agendas, are Faraday Future and Atieva.
Faraday Future, called FF for short, said it is building an all-electric car unlike anything else on the road today to be released by 2017.
Nor is this a prototype show car. Rather, this is when the public will be able to drive its car, said a representative of the company of 200 employees to Motor Trend.
“We’re not Tesla. But we’re not Fisker, either. We’re not [messing] around,” said a representative actually using a stronger expletive.
Faraday Future is named for 18th-century English scientist Michael Faraday – kind of like how Tesla is named after one Nikola Tesla.
Richard Kim, FF’s founder, was one of Tesla’s leading engineers, and several other notable employees with experience with cars like the BMW i-Series and Chevy Volt are now working to make the wonder EV a reality.
Atieva likewise represents a brain drain from Tesla of sorts, and is led by former Tesla board member Bernard Tse.
It too has recruited top talent to build some form of advanced EV, and one rumor is it may be collaborating with Aston Martin on a 1,000 horsepower EV that also may make Tesla look kind of plain, all of a sudden.
“Atieva is designing and creating a breakthrough electric car in the heart of Silicon Valley,” says Atieva. “We’re redefining what a car can be, by building an iconic new vehicle from the ground up. We’re a car company, not a design house. And we’re definitely not a traditional automaker.”
Also in the shadows are whatever Google and Apple are doing, Range Rover may also be working toward competing with Tesla, and undoubtedly others have their eyes on the Silicon Valley upstart as well.
We are not counting BMW as one of the goaded because its i-Series is more of an independent move and less of a direct provocation from Tesla, though certainly Tesla does have influence on BMW and other makers not mentioned.
Another effort we will mention is one that predates Faraday and Atieva, Detroit Electric, which copies Tesla’s Roadster more than most with its SP:01 based on a Lotus like the Tesla Roadster was.
As we said, most of these vehicles will cost far above the low-$30,000 average new car price, but reality is what it is.
For those of you who won’t be in the market for a high-tech showpiece to profile around your various trendy haunts, perhaps you can wish Tesla well in building the Model 3.
For its next act, Tesla aims to undergo a metamorphosis from being mainly for the well-heeled, and by 2020 has the aspirational goal of 500,000 total vehicles annually with the Model 3’s price starting somewhere in the 30s.
Beyond having already pulled Chevrolet’s strings, which in turn pushed Nissan to say it will compete, the Model 3 could prove as provocative in the mainstream-to-mid-priced space as Teslas before it have in inspiring sophisticated toymakers for the well-to-do.
Those wanting to see widespread electric car adoption can only hope.