Searching for the next Tesla

Article By : George Leopold

Regardless of whether Tesla manages to thrive, much less survive, the company has put the electric car on a sustainable path. And there is no shortage of competitors ready to take electric vehicles to a mass market.

Despite nonstop drama, a cult of personality around its founder, expensive and damaging legal settlements with U.S. financial regulators, and an as-yet unproven ability to scale its manufacturing operations, the electric car maker Tesla and its iconoclastic leader, Elon Musk, have nevertheless transformed the global auto industry. Regardless of whether Tesla manages to thrive, much less survive, the company has put the electric car on a sustainable path.

As EE Times reported during the summer, one satisfied Tesla customer plunked down more than $50,000 for a Tesla Model 3 after a two-year wait because, in his estimation, the third-generation Tesla vehicle had made electric cars “real.”

So who are the electric vehicle wannabes and which will emerge as the next Tesla? Will it be an established car maker or a startup? Who among the growing list of e-car makers will succeed in developing a blueprint that combines key technologies like long-endurance batteries, agile manufacturing, autonomous driving capabilities, safety, styling, and affordable price?

Tesla has, so far, succeeded in some areas like battery technology and swanky styling, but its goal of a $35,000 sticker price on its Model 3 remains unfulfilled. If nothing else, Tesla has forced other major car makers like General Motors, Nissan, BMW, and Porsche to play catch-up in the nascent e-car sweepstakes. Most are targeting the high-end, boutique market in which volumes are low but profit margins are high. Then there are the questions of scale and how many vehicles they can actually produce each quarter.

Among Tesla’s biggest advantages, note analysts, is the sheer amount of data that it collects on the estimated 300,000+ Model Ses, Xes, and 3s delivered so far. That data haul sets the bar very high for potential “Tesla killers” looking to develop next-generation autonomous vehicles. Tesla’s customer data “is great market research, not to mention all the usage data gives them more data to train their algorithms,” said Phil Magney, founder and principal analyst with VSI Labs.

China: your best bet for scaling
Analysts agree that the best chance for manufacturing scale is in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles — with about 1 million on the road today and an estimated 5 million electric vehicles forecast to be sold by 2020. Global electric vehicle tracker Allied Market Research estimates that Chinese manufacturers turned out more than 200,000 all-electric commercial vehicles in 2017, or about 5% of total global output.

Pent-up demand, government incentives, and heavy investment in EV manufacturing is bound to that total. Indeed, China is now the world’s largest auto manufacturer. The Asia-Pacific region has “witnessed high adoption of electric vehicles in the past years and [are] expected to dominate the electric vehicle market in the upcoming years,” said Rahul Kumar, automotive research analyst with Allied Market Research.

Among the hottest Asian e-car makers is Nio, which, in June, introduced its first production model for the Chinese market, the ES8. Founded in 2014, Nio emerged in 2016 when its Electric Performance 9, or EP9, broke a record for the fastest electric car lap on a German test track. It also shattered an American record for the fastest lap time by a production electric car. The car maker’s Chinese name, Weilai, translates to “blue sky coming.”

Nio EP9 (Photo: Nio)

“Increasingly sophisticated technologies such as autonomous driving, electric car technology, artificial intelligence, and cloud services are reshaping the automotive industry,” Bin Li, Nio’s founder, chairman, and CEO, told investors in August. “We believe that these innovative technologies will not only relieve drivers from the monotony of their daily commutes but will also make cars safer and more environmentally friendly and transform the car into a mobile living space, ultimately becoming a broader part of a user’s lifestyle.”

Li added that Nio has developed its own advanced driver-assistance system, dubbed Pilot, along with its NOMI driver assistant, “showcasing our application of the latest automated assisted driving and artificial intelligence technologies in mass-production cars.”

[Continue reading on EE TimesNio’s risk factors]

— George Leopold is the former executive editor of EE Times and the author of “Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom” (Purdue University Press, Updated 2018).

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