Why Hasn’t Another Car Company Built a Viable Tesla Competitor Yet?

OHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

OHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

As cool and popular as Tesla has gotten, you’d think there would be other major automakers trying to take some of Tesla’s market share for itself. While it’s still really a startup company, sales of the Model S actually beat some gasoline-powered luxury sedans like the Jaguar XF. Currently, though, the other available electric cars don’t have the range to match the Model S, and any that do don’t have the sales to compete with it.

The Nissan Leaf, for example, is a competent and fairly popular electric city car, but its range is too short for most people to keep it as their only car. The story is the same for every other fully-electric car offered by an automaker. The fact that several of them are only available in just a few cities in the U.S. certainly doesn’t help their popularity either.

Even range-extended electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt have yet to be embraced by the public in the same way the Tesla Model S has. Using a small engine as a generator to allow owners to massively extend the range of their driving and alleviate their range anxiety is arguably better technology for consumer than a battery-only energy supply. After all, being able to refill a Chevrolet Volt with gasoline means Volt owners can drive anywhere they want and aren’t limited by access to charging stations like Teslas are. Still, the Model S is cool and popular, while the Volt isn’t.

As Autoblog points out, Tesla’s strategy in building the Model S isn’t exactly revolutionary either.

“Take the cheapest and most energy-dense lithium battery cells available, build a thin, rectangular pack and place it in the floor of the passenger cabin. To get around the low-power output ability of these individual cells, use a lot of them. Then, stick the electric motor, inverter, and gear reduction unit between the rear wheels. Immediately, this creates a vehicle with the lowest possible center of gravity and maximum amount of rotational inertia – the two most important fundamental elements for creating a great-handling car.”

Tesla has taken a very practical approach to building the Model S while taking advantage of the handling benefits that result from using a simplistic layout. Removing components like the engine, transmission, drive shaft, and gas tank also maximizes the amount of space designers have to work with and making the more spacious and accommodating than other cars of a similar size. Even better, with no powertrain to work around, designers had more freedom to shape the look of the car.

Tesla_S

Source: Tesla

So why aren’t Ford and GM copying Tesla’s approach? Why is Tesla still essentially on its own in this space while other manufacturers play around with electric city vehicles and a few range-extended electric cars? The biggest reason is that there’s no reason to do so just yet. While gas is still fairly inexpensive, and conventional vehicles are still incredibly profitable, why would a major car company disrupt its own market just yet?

For now, automakers are content to take conventional cars and convert them to run on electricity. Unlike Tesla’s approach, using existing platforms requires compromises in packaging, especially when it comes to the size of the battery pack. There’s simply no way to achieve the driving range or dynamics of the Tesla Model S without developing an electric-specific platform. Sure, cars like the Chevrolet Spark EV might satisfy 80% of a city driver’s needs, but they will never be widespread in rural and most suburban areas except occasionally as commuter cars.

Tesla’s most important feature, however, isn’t battery range or driving dynamics. It’s the charging network. Tesla has invested heavily in making sure its owners can drive across the U.S. using its Supercharger corridors, and other manufacturers simply can’t compete. Between the 200-plus mile driving range the Model S offers and the Supercharger setup, the fear of not being able to drive outside of the city is essentially erased. Until other manufacturers can offer similar nationwide charging capability, it’s going to be hard to convince most people to buy an electric car that isn’t a Tesla.

It’s important to remember that car companies are multi-billion dollar companies for a reason, and they’re not exactly stupid. In the same way Ford completely surprised everyone when it revealed the next-generation GT, don’t be surprised if the major manufacturers that are suspiciously absent from the EV market suddenly reveal fully-developed, long-range electric vehicles in the near future.

Even if they do, without a viable nationwide charging network in place for their customers, these companies are going to spend a long time playing catch-up to Tesla’s electric cars.

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