If you’re an avid user of social media and a car enthusiast to boot, there’s no doubt that you will have found a number of articles popping up on your news feed with a title along the lines of “Tesla Will Destroy Everyone Else Because Their Technology Is Amazing”. Perhaps that was a bit of an over exaggeration, but every single one of these articles seems to rely on an anecdotal comment from an unnamed Japanese automotive engineer following the tear down of a Tesla Model 3.
While this does wonders for Tesla’s stock value, one can’t help but question the exact nature of these claims. Some pieces will include shoddy justification for why Tesla’s technology in their vehicles is ahead of the competition, but really the main message is that Tesla will put everyone out of business and other automakers can’t keep up.
Except that’s not really the case. For many years, Tesla was struggling to get even the most basic of automotive assembly processes down. A lot of over promising and under delivering later and they could finally get those Model 3s out after taking huge amounts of money in booking fees. Unfortunately that’s what happens when you try to mass produce without much experience in the field itself.
But even if we took that out of the equation, the buzz is more around how “advanced” Tesla’s systems are, and how they are ready for future updates and improvements as features get rolled out. There’s a bit of a flaw here and it comes down to how vehicle ownership actually works. It’s great to have something that can be updated and reprogrammed for things that aren’t yet available, but how long do people actually keep their cars for?
Granted, you could keep one car for your entire life, but mechanical components still need replacing over time, as do batteries and other wear and tear items. After a while, the cost of ownership starts to ramp up to the point where people dispose of their cars, and after a few changing of hands the car will eventually be scrapped.
So what then is the point of packaging all these amazing-yet-unused systems in a car if it’s probably going to be scrapped before those systems are feasibly implemented? For all the talk of full autonomous driving, the unfortunate reality is that will be a long way away from being implemented even in progressive cities. Unlike the usual translation of Moore’s law where technology gets twice as complex every two years, the main spanner in the works is other humans on the road – which Tesla cannot control.
Coming back to the idea that other manufacturers cannot match Tesla on this front, perhaps a better way to think of it is that there is no point offering such systems if there’s no solid timeline for autonomous driving – especially when other manufacturers are working in higher volumes and across more markets. If Toyota were to spend just RM 10 more for every unit they made, across all its models, they would have to fork out over RM 100 million extra in 2019 alone.
As is the case with cost and part optimization, the result is that many features and functions will need to be made piecemeal as not every car is going to have every feature. For different markets, an Engine Control Unit may be a common part, but body control modules (things like your power windows, heated seats, and so on) may be slightly different – hence the need to have these items separate so they can be changed. It’s simply production efficiency, and the reason why Tesla’s integrated control units don’t work in other contexts.
Perhaps the real joke in all this is this notion that Tesla being “six years ahead” of anyone else is anything to worry about, even if it were remotely true. Every mass market model has a lifespan of between five and seven years, which means that manufacturers have to account for shifting trends and consumer expectations over that duration. With battery technology accelerating the way it has been (with an especially big step in the last few weeks), it pays to be a late adopter rather than an early adopter. By the time mass market manufacturers start a full electric offensive, it will make sense and be at the right price point for consumers – rather than being more of an alternative lifestyle option right now.