A few years back I was chatting with some Topix artists near their downtown Toronto studio when a car emerged from an underground garage beside us. This cool sleek silver vehicle rose out of the shadows and drove past us – very quickly. Two things stuck with me: the fact that everyone had stopped talking to watch it, and the unique electric motor sound it made. It was my first up close view of a Tesla sports car, and it wasn’t until I reflected for a bit that I concluded that the game had changed and that most people just hadn’t realized it yet, because what had happened is that Elon Musk had just done for cars what Steve Jobs at Apple – just as quietly and elegantly as the thing I saw glide past me.
I say this as a long time admirer of older fast cars. As an owner of a ’67 Chev Camaro SS, and coming from a family with two other car savvy brothers, I knew enough about where power and performance game from, and good design. Europe had its curved road and track inspired roadsters, and North America had its own straight road heritage. That is, go in a straight line from a standstill, very quickly. High performance vs high power. However, I have no intention on siding with the traditionalists on this one. The combustion engine is going away. The question is, how did Tesla help ensure this inevitability although the technology has been around for many years now?
Part of it is innovation, but the more critical part is vision, and knowing what people really want. And just as important, knowing who the trend setters are that you want as early adopters, because like I said, the technology has been around for a while now. I like a quote I heard that said change happens slowly, but then when it does it often happens faster than you want. I think that like surfing, Elon Musk timed it right to catch the wave. My guess is that he knew there was a future for this stuff, but that what was more important to him was what he would want. We’d all seen the little nerdy Prius electric cars. Compact, slow, short range durations. Very green. Be honest, how many people really wanted to emulate those owners. As frustrating as it was, instead we saw more affluent, trendy types of people buy high powered sports cars or SUVs. Status and performance. Gas guzzlers. Probably the biggest genius behind the Telsa strategy was to get those same people to see the Tesla sports cars in their neighbours’ driveway and suddenly realize their own car wasn’t so cool anymore.
They’ll all start saying that soon enough, because in the first place, they’ll have to concede that they are very fast cars. The technology is faster than combustion engines. Has been for a long time. In fact if I am correct, the electric car entries into the landspeed competitions needed to have their own class – in part because they dominated (note: in Sept 2016 the Lithium-Ion powered Venturi Buckeye Bullet just set the landspeed record at 341 miles per hour) . But the real kicker is the “cool”. Sure it’s green technology, but what Musk was able to achieve was a sense of disruption along the lines of the iPhone. That’s what it is really. Its got the same buzz. Design style meets substance, plus intelligence, and it became a social media friendly darling. The same line-ups to order and buy, the same sense of technical secrecy. The feeling that something really revolutionary and superior was going on, and that is was all aimed for the next generation. And it didn’t hurt that Road and Track carried the results of a competition among all the fastest sports cars, Ferrari, Porsche, whatever, and that the Tesla entry beat them all. I love it. I love the disruption. Though I feel bad for any of these guys who dropped one or two hundred grand on high performance cars to get people to turn heads, left wondering if they might be stuck with yesterday’s news. Worse, that daughter Cindy might start thinking that Daddy’s car pollutes a lot. Ouch.
So, a prediction. Look to see Lamborghini and Ferrari and everyone else scramble to offer their own high end electric entries. Look also for companies that will offer conversions of sports cars to electric. And look for other new all-electric car companies. They’ll all hold out for a while, but just like BMW tried to convince the world that 2 wheel rear-wheel drive technology was more traditional and superior, buyers knew that all-wheel drive was better. Safer, smarter, better. You don’t see many people refusing X-Drive today. Think motorbikes will buck the trend? Think again. The new electric ones are being built by smaller shops, cheaper. No transmissions, no cooling systems with rads, no pistons. Just hit the throttle and go faster than any other bike on the road. Ignore the naysayers who say there won’t be enough charging stations. Believe me those things are already starting to go into new condos and business buildings and Walmart parking lots. The conversion will happened as fast as it took all new car companies to start including USB and ipad ports in their dashboards as standard features.
It’s done, and its going to change the world. It’s cool, it’s revolutionary, and it’s being applied all over the place. Design and smarts, plus buzz. A hell of a combination. So yes, I truly believe the quote. I do think the change happens slowly, but that it really is now happening faster than anyone thought.
DM Jun 2017