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The real Tesla killer might be inside the factory

The real Tesla killer might be inside the factory

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“Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.” - Elon Musk, 2014

It has been an unseasonably quiet Week in Elon, so I’m going to take the chance to talk about a phrase that’s been widely used and abused (even by us): the infamous “Tesla killer.”

Elon Musk typed out the above quote in a 2014 blog post in which Tesla announced it was open-sourcing its patents related to electric cars. And it falls in line with his long standing overarching goal for Tesla, which is to pressure the car industry into switching off internal combustion engines in favor of battery-powered electric motors.

Musk’s sentiment may be true on a certain level — hell, Ford has sold more F-150s to date this year than the top 20 all-electric vehicles combined. But if anything, 2018 is showing that Tesla’s real competition — the things that really challenge the company — is more broad, more multifaceted, and maybe even more internal than Musk thought four years ago.

First, we’re witnessing direct competition in the form of luxury electric vehicles. This week, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its first serious electric car, a nice-looking SUV called the EQC. It won’t be out until 2020(!), but Mercedes-Benz has loaded its first flagship EV with an attractive new infotainment system and many of the luxury accoutrements that its customers are used to. It might wind up the most well-appointed electric car to hit the market in the next few years.

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If it doesn’t, that crown might go to Porsche, which has two versions (a sedan and crossover) of its Mission E electric performance car on the way over the next two years. Announced earlier this year, the Jaguar I-Pace matches or beats the base level Model X on range and performance, and it does all that for about $10,000 less.

The list goes on. Audi is days away from debuting the E-Tron Quattro SUV. Ford teased its first big all-electric release, due in 2020. Startups are in on the game, too. Lucid Motors might finally have the funding it needs to produce its speedy all-electric sedan — potentially coming, curiously enough, from Saudi Arabia, which Musk had said was a potential Tesla suitor — and China’s NIO is days away from filing for an IPO in the US after starting its first deliveries this summer. Even Faraday Future, back from the brink of bankruptcy, has finished the first production prototype of its FF91.

Now, are any of these going to be “Tesla killers”? If you’re willing to accept that the phrase is just an exaggerated, alternative way of saying “product that could dethrone Tesla’s grip on the EV market,” then maybe the answer is yes. Goldman Sachs essentially said as much this week in its first research note since it paused coverage of Tesla to help the company with the privatization effort.

“There are so many other threats to Tesla’s immediate state of being.”

If we’re talking about concrete threats to Tesla’s business, though, it’s a much larger stretch to believe that one really great car, or even a bunch of cars, will damage Tesla’s business so badly that the company actually dies.

In fact, there are so many other threats to Tesla’s immediate state of being that there’s a non-zero chance the company suffers a serious blow before some of these cars make it to market. In no particular order:

  • Tesla is just barely eking out a profit on the Model 3 at the moment, and we learned this week that it’s probably still having trouble keeping up with its targeted production rate of making 5,000 per week. (Which also means the company also likely missed Musk’s goal of making 6,000 per week by the end of August.) Tesla needs to reach higher production rates in order to make the whole company profitable — especially because Musk says he doesn’t want to raise more money to keep the company afloat.
  • The company faces at least nine lawsuits over Musk’s now-abandoned attempt to take Tesla private — which he announced on Twitter — including two new suits filed Thursday.
  • The SEC reportedly has two open investigations into Tesla, with one focused on the privatization plan tweet. This week, Musk hired two big shot white collar lawyers — including a former SEC commissioner. (Word is the two sides are discussing a settlement.)
  • Thanks to the way Musk helped grow the company, Tesla has more than $10 billion in debt, with more than $1 billion due early next year.

See the pattern here? Musk — not other automakers or cars — is at the center of some of Tesla’s most daunting and pressing challenges.

Perhaps that’s why it feels so strange that he keeps picking unnecessary fights, like how this week he tripled down on suggesting that a member of the rescue team that helped save a Thai youth soccer team trapped in a cave is a pedophile. The newest accusation came late last week in an email to BuzzFeed News’ Ryan Mac that Musk had tried to claim was off the record, a condition to which Mac never agreed. And as we learned last week, Musk could wind up getting hit with a lawsuit over the mess with the diver.

The impending flood of luxury electric vehicles undoubtedly presents a new challenge for Tesla, though the company is not entering the fight weaponless. While the Model 3 has struggled, it’s still selling better than some traditional luxury sedans. There’s also a Model Y crossover SUV and a second-generation Roadster on the way. With EV adoption steadily growing, and China opening up access to outside manufacturers (something Tesla’s already moved to take advantage of), those could wind up being more than enough to buoy Tesla against the competition.

But that’s only if Musk finds enough money to fund all of this. And it assumes that Musk won’t let another impulsive action put his company in jeopardy, which is hardly guaranteed. If there really is a Tesla killer on the loose, then, it’s likely the call is coming from inside the factory.

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