Model III opening act: Chevy Bolt

It’s spring, 2017. Tesla dominates every automotive website and is becoming a household name even among non-enthusiasts. Everyone is talking about the Gigafactory, and the imminent Model III and its very large customer waiting list. Along comes the Chevy Bolt. It’s available already. No waiting around for that hyped Model III. You can have a cheap-ish Chevy with good range right now, for about the same price. GM is publicly patting itself on the back for beating Tesla to the punch. Yes, GM is the real innovator ’round these parts. The General began that PR push in 2015 and hasn’t let up.

But here’s the question of 2017: Would you rather have a Chevy immediately or a Tesla very soon, for about the same money? What about your friends/relatives/coworkers? Would they pull the trigger and get a Bolt instead of waiting a few months for a Tesla?

If you can’t imagine yourself or anyone you know choosing a GM product over a similarly-priced, similarly-timed, American-made Tesla, that should tell you something about GM’s ability to poach Tesla customers. Here’s the reality: Assuming the Bolt does indeed narrowly beat the Model III to market, it will function merely as an opening act, as in a rock concert. It will prime the public for the new wave of affordable, long-range EVs. The beneficiary of all this? Tesla, the company whose products are to electric vehicles what Kleenex is to facial tissue, Vaseline is to ointments and Prius is to hybrids. (By the way, the Honda Insight beat the Prius to market in the US by seven months. Yes, the now-extinct Honda Insight.)

So thank you, General Motors, for deciding to warm up the audience. Perhaps someday you’ll become the headliner.

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A post full of brain-scratchers

Model X second row seat quote TeslaMondo

What’s hiding in Model X? Clearly the falcon wing doors and the second row seats have a unique relationship in the Model X. You don’t hear Tesla mention one without the other. Both will earn a prominent place in the automotive hall of fame, but also the hall of pain, since those bedfellows are least partially responsible for the Model X delays.

Will the seats move in mysterious ways? Will they swivel 90 degrees to ease child seat ingress/egress? Or 180 degrees to interface with the third row? Backward-facing seats aren’t alien to Tesla, of course, since they’re optional in the Model S. Tesla’s platform offers copious “opportunity space” given the lack of powertrain hardware below. The lack of spare tire doesn’t hurt either. Will Model X beat Model S in creative use of space? SUVs are, of course, supposed to excel in hauling people and their cargo. What about exterior cargo? Surely the falcon wing doors make roof cargo impossible. But Elon is Flash Gordon, King of the Impossible. And stop calling him Shirley.

Thinking beyond seats, what about machine vision technology? Will the Model X offer a 360-degree “bird’s eye” view of the vehicle? Nissan, GM and others already employ such a feature. Toyota will follow suit in next year’s RAV4 Hybrid. Using imagery from cameras mounted fore, aft and on the side mirrors, a central processor spits out a full-surround view. This sounds like something Tesla would use, and the surround-view would look rather impressive on Tesla’s vast screen, yes?

How will Tesla survive without Musk as CEO?
By appointing JB Straubel, that’s how. Easy.

Thinking cap TeslaMondoWhat’s coming after Model III? A pickup? Tempting! Tesla could build a made-in-America torque champion. But the truck market is scary as hell. Ask Toyota. The Tacoma owns almost two-thirds of the compact/midsize truck segment in the US, but the Tundra is still an impostor among its full-size peers, despite advantages in QDR. What if Tesla’s truck ends up like the Tundra? It could happen. Trucks are all about off-road fantasy and toughness, with Bob Seger thrown in somewhere. Where do “electric” or “battery” fit in to that fantasy? Nowhere. And there are no Superchargers in the middle of nowhere, where truck owners pretend to go. Tesla cannot afford even one product flop, so it should forfeit the first-electric-truck honors to a big company with more money to risk.

What else? How about a really affordable car? If you had to pick a price that most of America, and the developed world in general, considers “affordable,” what would you pick? Probably $20,000 USD. That’s the minimum price of admission to the Camry/Accord Lounge, and more than enough for a Corolla/Civic. However, a $20k-ish Tesla would require not only a couple more Gigafactories, but also a change in business model. Tesla would suddenly attract need-based buyers who cannot order a car and wait. These people need wheels TODAY. Their other car was totaled, or received a rejection sticker, or developed a terminal health problem in the dead of winter. If they cannot go to a Tesla store and drive one off the lot, they’ll end up in a Camry. So Tesla would have to stockpile the product at point of sale, and unhorse people from their trade-ins, and get them financed on the spot. Sounds like a dealership, right? Exactly.

Could Tesla’s brand cachet survive a plunge in the $20k realm? Risky business. Jaguar tiptoed into in “cheap” with the X-Type — and barely made it out alive. Ah, but Jaguar is painted into a corner by its own premium car persona. Tesla is already molting into something bigger. By 2025, when a $20k Tesla might emerge, the Tesla name will transcend not only premium cars, but cars, period. It will be a bona fide movement. It will have its tentacles all over clean energy storage, electric cars and even (indirectly) the solar boom. So you won’t merely buy a Tesla. You’ll “go Tesla,” just as you “go solar.” Such terms imply leaving the grimy old world behind for a shiny, clean one. Such movements transcend brand snobbery. They appeal to all income strata. Think Prius. Parking one in your driveway will never render you lowbrow, or ruin the awe of the Land Cruiser in your garage.

Will the competition ever arrive? It already has, if you believe what you read. But back to the Prius for a second. The Prius had competitors from day one — and has wiped the floor with them for 15 years, using lowly Ni-MH technology. Tesla is so far ahead of the pack, and maintains such a relentless pace, that nobody will catch up without resorting to patent-borrowing from Tesla. And that would mean forfeiting the race. So the short answer here is no.

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Remember the resale value guarantee? Well . . .

Model S retention TeslaMondoTo bolster Tesla’s buyback program, Musk guaranteed the Model S would hold 50% of its value after three years, and he backed the assertion with his own private money.

Looks like he’ll be keeping it, the rascal. NADA says that so far, the Model S beats all EVs* in retained value for one, two and three years. That’s an especially important metric for leases, for it can make or break profitability. A negative surprise at the end of the lease would mean the lessor undercharged for depreciation and likely lost money.

Used car buyers obviously have faith in the Model S even though it’s very new. Usually new kids on the block suffer badly until they’ve established a long track record of not breaking down or otherwise falling out of favor. But the Model S has very few moving parts, has a strong warranty, and constantly improves via over-the-air updates, so it ages very slowly indeed.

Surely these upcoming events will test Model S resale value:

1. Model X. When the world starts buzzing about it, will Model S become old hat?
2. Model III. Will people choose a smaller Tesla at half the price?
3. Model S version II. When will it come? Will it run circles around the current generation, for less money?

*NADA includes hybrid electrics in this comparison. Seems any vehicle with a plug becomes an “EV” to most of the world, even industry trackers.

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Euro automakers lack Tesla’s balls

Stefan Lodeweyckx TeslaMondo

Stefan Lodeweyckx

That’s the opinion of several European business leaders, speaking at a sustainable energy conference in Belgium. Euro business culture frowns upon failure and therefore clings to the status quo, leaving real innovation for a US-based guy like Don Quixote Musk, who has already said that in hindsight, he thought Tesla would probably fail, but forged ahead anyway because someone had to do it.

Despite all the headlines about European “Tesla-killers” from VW, Daimler, BMW etc., none exist. Why? “I’m sorry for my language but you need some big balls and a lot of guts.” So said Stefan Lodeweyckx, CEO of Enervalis. Others at the conference echoed that thought.

Europe isn’t alone, of course. Tesla caught all automakers, from all continents, in a coma. Its product line and business model are so far afield from the rest of the auto world that nobody quite knows what to do, yet everyone knows inaction will only allow a historic invasion by this merciless gang of Silicon Valley engineers — now with a world-renowned Canadian battery scientist riding shotgun, and soon with financial support from its red-hot energy storage unit.

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Tesla’s “mad scientist” in action

Jeff Dahn TeslaMondoHow many times have we heard that Tesla could die at the hands of a battery breakthrough? Some labcoat hero, we’re oft-warned, could suddenly render Tesla and its Li-ion Gigafactory obsolete overnight. Well, now Tesla has contracted a labcoat hero of its own, to work with CTO JB Straubel, hardly a slouch himself, in the quest for increased battery output at lower cost and with longer life. In other words, to reach that elusive tipping point so crucial for Model III, and for Tesla’s future. His impact on Tesla Energy? Unknown, but fun to ponder.

Bonus: This Dr. Jeff Dahn is really into electric cars.
Bonus bonus: He’s a prolific inventor.

Now, some may decry a renewed embrace with Li-ion instead of flirtation with one of the many alleged “next generation” technologies. But when you really look at the options, only one of them makes sense:

1. Jump on board with a newfangled technology that has great laboratory promise no track record in an automobile. Just imagine the headlines: “Tesla betting the farm on experimental technology.” Investors would flee.
2. Wait around until a new technology proves itself, and THEN build the Gigafactory. This would suspend Tesla’s growth at best and kill the company at worst. And besides, Tesla has said the factory will have built-in flexibility to handle some rolling changes if need be.
3. Take its proven Li-ion technology and refine it to the max. If this new contractor can boost range by even five percent, and cut cost by five percent, that means a 210-mile car for $33,250 instead of the oft-referenced 200 miles for $35k. And then there’s battery longevity to consider. Another couple years without battery degradation would make a big difference in Consumer Reports’ 2027 reliability surveys. That embedded video of Dr. Dahn, FYI, focuses on why Li-ion batteries fail. Here’s his article about the same subject.

Jeff Dahn research group TeslaMondoWith home-grown batteries produced at a massive scale, a killer one-two punch of Musk and Straubel, and now an on-board “mad scientist” with his own team of technicians, Tesla is dressing for combat and loading its weapons in very exciting Hollywood fashion. Now we just need a montage with stirring music.

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Students begging for “scaled” grades

California EV mandate TeslaMondoWhen an entire class is failing, the teacher sometimes saves face by “scaling” everyone’s grades so nobody flunks. Usually it benefits the worst-performming students, while the A students get nothing out of it. Well, in California, underperforming automakers — which means almost all of them — are pushing to get their failing EV marks “scaled” in a way, so they won’t have to blow as much money on their lackluster EV efforts or even buy credits from Tesla. Basically, they’re looking to get a passing grade without doing their homework. Will the teacher cave in and scale the grades?

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Honda’s latest hit should tell us something

Honda HRV TeslaMondoPeople obviously relish small hatch-SUV-wagon things with optional AWD. Honda just sold almost 6,500 HRVs in its two debut weeks, even though the vehicle offers the sex appeal of an Amish water closet, and even though Honda hasn’t yet run a single advertisement for this sub-CRV entry.

Fast forward circa 2017: Tesla apparently will release an AWD crossover version of the Model III. So says the WSJ today — while providing neither a link nor a direct quote. Apparently we’re supposed to take the WSJ’s word for it. But anyway, let’s assume this crossover Model III is indeed the “more adventurous” version Musk has hinted. The overnight success of Honda’s flaccid blob suggests Tesla’s virile alternative cannot possibly arrive soon enough. Undoubtedly Toyota will rush back into this space, after pulling the plug on the Matrix a few years ago when it should have developed it further. D’oh! Here’s a window of opportunity for Tesla to enter a hot segment before one of the sleeping giants wakes up. Sure, Tesla’s entry will cost more, but by 2017 Tesla’s brand cachet will have people digging between their sofa pillows to find change for their Tesla fund.

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What’s up with these Tesla patents?

Expanding on the patent porn in the previous post, here are some oddball Tesla patents that have received little or no discussion on the net.

This first one did get some attention in EV forums. It’s a dual-battery powertrain, lithium-ion and metal-air, with one serving as the primary workhorse and the other an auxiliary backup for a selectable extended-range mode.

Patent 1

This second patent is even farther astray from the Tesla powertrain we know. It involves a fuel-burning “generator” to boost battery life. In other words, a Tesla hybrid! Mind you, this one is pretty old. It seems Tesla simply leapfrogged it. Musk, as you know, has called hybrid cars “amphibians” doomed to evolutionary obsolescence.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 8.46.08 AM

And this third one is a total mystery, at least to TeslaMondo. It appears to be a seat with anti-whiplash airbags that instantly maneuver the back and headrest into ideal crash position. Google patented a similar thing years ago. Mercedes uses headrest airbags in some models, too.

Screen Shot 2015-06-14 at 7.18.35 AM

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Universal language of aggression?

So what new information does this image offer?

1. Perhaps we can see what Elon means by the door opening “framing” the second row seat.
2. The transition from windshield to roof seems to, um, not exist. Or does this photo suffer from a simple case of awkward lighting?
3. And we still can’t tell what the “face” really looks like. Sheesh.
4. If Google can build a Karate Kid robot, then Tesla can build a Karate Kid car.

FYI, some patents:

Model X
Dual-hinged vehicle door

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Model X with door open TeslaMondoKarate Kid robot TeslaMondo

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Score one for Team America

Elon Musk Captain America TeslaMondoThe Model S is the most American “green” car and easily the most American high-end car. And this is without the Gigafactory. Does anyone really buy cars according to this index? Probably not, but it’s kinda fun to think of an American marque leading the world in automotive innovation. Detroit hasn’t moved that particular needle in quite some time. Moreover, while the D3 seek labor outside the US, Tesla is expanding and hiring on American soil, with a preference for verterans to boot.

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