Tesla: On A Purer Path Than Most?

It’s been said that a few years ago Tesla gave thought to a plug-in hybrid, but then left that perceptibly lesser task to makers like Chevrolet with its “extended-range electric” Volt, and now-collapsed Fisker with its ill-fated Karma series hybrid.

This week, Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk actually took critical jabs at the Volt lumping it in with all hybrids which he calls “amphibian,” and he panned the Nissan Leaf as not especially “useful” in its mission as a pure electric car.

This week also, PC Magazine quoted Tesla board member Steve Jurvetson saying the company will never build a hybrid. And, it was noted, he and Musk poked at yet another potential competitors’ approach, finding BMW’s pending 2014 i3 to be laughable next to Tesla’s Model S.

A Zero-Sum Game?

Tesla is all about EVs, that is pretty plain, and it is yet striving to prove its vision as it barely conceals its view that others are compromised.

The term Musk used to pick apart the Volt’s dual powertrain approach was repeated by Jurvetson as a descriptor Tesla uses for hybrids in general.

Jurvetson said Musk compared hybrids to “an amphibian in a transition from dinosaurs to mammals.”

Biology 101 says amphibians are existing species uniquely adapted to land and water, but Tesla likens them to evolving species not well suited to either environment, although capable of surviving in both.

Jurvetson said this slant on metaphorical amphibians is why hybrids lag behind EVs.

“It’s an interesting transition species,” said Jurvetson. “The reason people ask for it is that until you’ve driven an electric car, your perception is — and mine was as well — that I must need that ability to refuel, that I have to have that comfort of going to a gas station.”

But once you have driven all-electric, Jurvetson essentially said, there is no desire to go back.

Chevy Volt.

Chevy Volt.

Actually many would agree that the most gratifying time of driving the Volt is in all-electric mode.

As for BMW’s pending i3, Jurvetson told Fox network’s Melissa Francis that Musk and he “burst into laughter” over BMW’s plans for its i3 which will be to be offered as both a pure EV or with optional range extender.

“BMW itself said — and I’ve never heard any product release say this a year before its release — we’re not trying to make the best electric car, we’re building this vehicle because we have to for regulatory reasons,” Jurvetson said.

The subcompact i3 starts at $42,275 and comes from a premium maker. Others have imagined it positioned against the full-size Model S, but BMW has not said this.

The subcompact i3 starts at $42,275 and comes from a premium maker. Others have imagined it positioned against the full-size Model S, but BMW has not said this.

“They’re basically saying don’t judge us by this car and whether it’s any good or not a year before it’s released. It’s totally a different kind of product. It doesn’t have very good range and they’re putting in a gasoline lawnmower engine in there as a backup. It’s kind of an odd duck.”

Unfortunately there is some truth to Jurvetson’s observation of an electric car intended to meet rules by the California Air Resources Board.

Inside the Tesla factory.

Inside the Tesla factory.

But Jurvetson does stretch the truth on BMW’s range extender which is actually an aluminum two-cylinder sourced from a BMW scooter and no “lawnmower engine.”

This said, Tesla’s points do have some basis, and it might have a stronger case, if not for one inconvenient truth.

While Tesla’s people mock what they perceive as impure and over-complicated technology, they tend to avoid the fact that Tesla’s one car, the Model S, costs as much as a decent down payment on a house.

The average new car price is hovering just shy of $31,000. A Model S costs $71,000 to $133,000 depending on specifications. While it’s eligible for subsidies and saves on fuel costs, its barrier to entry is at least double if not triple or quadruple that of a Volt or Leaf.

Cost for the Volt and other mainstream hybrids, and for the Leaf as well as other EVs – with or without subsidies as the case may be – is in the mid-30s and less for the most part.

The first Model S leaves new  European Tesla assembly plant in Tilburg, Netherlands.

The first Model S leaves Tesla’s new European assembly plant in Tilburg, Netherlands.

So while Tesla can argue that the Model S is a superior approach, one might as well say a Mercedes S-Class is so much better than a Ford Fusion.

Without doubt Tesla’s car is superlative in many respects, but its price does temper reality for many would-be buyers, and Tesla’s disdain is over an apple-to-oranges comparison.

No Hybrids For Tesla

By now you might have gathered Tesla is pushing for a purer way than to ever design what it calls an “amphibian.”

“Hybrid cars are not Tesla’s future,” Jurvetson said to Francis.

He further elaborated on Fox Business Network on Wednesday this week.

“The reason is, a hybrid car is not an electric car. It’s a common misperception,” Jurvetson said. “You have the worst of both worlds in many cases, a gas engine and a battery, all the complexity, all the maintenance, all of the tradeoffs that occur in a hybrid car.”

Maximum Promise

Tesla has grabbed the microphone on the world stage, cultivating lots of press time, proclaiming its paradigm-changing mission, and it has done a great job in many ways.

Fans are hoping it will deliver its promised $35,000 mass-market car featuring plenty of trickle-down technology.

Musk has said this is a priority. In June this year, Automotive News said Musk was looking to 2016 as the date for this 200-mile range EV that could threaten to send Nissan back to its CAD-CAM programs.

With only 84 miles range with full battery charge, if Tesla pulls off a 200-mile range EV priced similarly, Nissan better hope it's made progress by then.

With only 84 miles range with full battery charge, if Tesla pulls off a 200-mile range EV priced similarly, Nissan better hope its Leaf (pictured) has made progress by then.

However Tesla’s plans could appear to be as in transition as any evolutionary species.

This week Musk said “certainly, within five years we’ll have our mass-market electric car available.”

This sounds like the commitment is now for somewhere around 2018, not necessarily 2016.

Undoubtedly Tesla is working hard, and would probably rather under promise and over deliver, but it is promising big. This year it aims to sell 21,000 Model S sedans and in the next several years it intends to expand to a half million vehicles per year.

Meanwhile, Tesla is riding on a wave of support, hints at aces up its sleeve yet to be revealed, and continues to improve its present car’s competitiveness with a guaranteed resale value plan and free Supercharger network access.

Feeling Its Oats

As we write this, Tesla’s stock is trading for four times what it was last year, cresting past $161 per share. Tesla’s market cap was observed last month by the Detroit Free Press to exceed that of Fiat and PSA Peugeot combined.

This is for a company that has maybe sold 17,000 cars since its inception, but as they say, perception is more than half the battle.

On that note, Tesla reported its first quarterly profit this year, gave a surprise positive earnings report its second quarter, and the Model S is the new darling and upset of the industry all at the same time.

The car has been given top honors by mainstream auto reviewers, Consumer Reports said it was basically the best it’s ever tested, and the Model S just aced its federal crash tests.

Tesla has unequivocally said the Model S is the world’s “best” car, “achieves the best safety rating of any car ever tested,” and comes with the “world’s best service and warranty program.” The video above shows how innovative its manufacturing is as well.

Despite occasional dips and skeptics predicting it can’t surf this wave forever, things keep looking up for Tesla, and its optimism has even bubbled over into public derision for approaches less pure than its own.

Maybe this audaciousness is what it takes to make a run against the tide.