Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Picture: SUPPLIED
Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Picture: SUPPLIED

New York/San Francisco — For a few tumultuous years, Tesla gave the bulls reason to believe and bears reason to doubt. Sure, Elon Musk was pulling off what legacy carmakers tried and failed to do — make electric vehicles (EVs) cool — but he was presiding over an inexperienced enterprise, and the old guard would catch up.

As Tesla observers try to understand how and why the stock has tripled in a little more than three months, analysts and Musk’s own rivals are second-guessing the notion that the Model 3 maker will be caught anytime soon.

“There’s a recognition that Tesla is in a pre-eminent position in terms of EV technology,” Peter Rawlinson, the CEO of upstart Lucid Motors, said in an interview on Monday at the Bloomberg NEF Summit in San Francisco, the US. “They’re even further ahead than has been reported, and I think the gap is widening, not closing.”

The praise echoes comments made recently by the CEO of Volkswagen, the world’s largest vehicle maker. Tesla usurped the German manufacturing giant by market capitalisation on January 22. Not even two weeks later, its $140.6bn value exceeded VW’s by about $50bn at Monday’s close — and was poised to move higher, up 3.5% on Tuesday.

Cars will “become the most important mobile device”, VW’s Herbert Diess told top executives at an internal meeting in January. “If we see that, then we also understand why Tesla is so valuable from the view of analysts,” he said, lamenting that VW is not also looked at as tech-like.

Mud slinging

Rawlinson, who was chief engineer of the Model S before joining Lucid in 2013, was not always this positive, even going so far as to talk down his former employer’s product.

“I contend that Tesla is not truly luxury,” he told Bloomberg News in September 2018, when Lucid had just secured a $1bn investment and Musk was less than a month removed from trying and failing to take Tesla private. Rawlinson said then that Teslas were “premium and high-tech, but not luxury”. On Monday, he reiterated his view that the interiors of Tesla’s cars fall short.

But since that earlier interview, Musk has built a commanding lead in the still-fledgling US EV market, and the Model 3 has risen to become one of the top-selling cars in Europe — electric or otherwise. Tesla needed only a year to construct its first overseas assembly plant in China and in January started deliveries of locally built sedans. By March, it plans to begin handing over Model Ys to customers, months ahead of schedule.

“We think they are pretty far ahead in battery and EV technology,” Adam Jonas, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, said in an interview. “Tesla has moved from being seen as an auto stock to be seeing as a tech stock” that is “mentioned in the same breath as Amazon, Apple and Google”.

‘Technological gulf’

Global carmakers from VW to General Motors are pouring billions into electric vehicles, trying to capture some of Tesla’s stock-market mojo while also meeting tighter emissions standards around the world. But the inferior battery range of recent EV entrants including Audi’s e-tron crossover and Porsche’s Taycan sports car show how far legacy carmakers are lagging behind, Rawlinson said.

“I’m not being critical of the Germans — it’s wonderful they’re creating these cars and coming in,” he said. “But it just shows much of this technological gulf remains.”

Lucid’s debut model, the all-electric Air sedan, is scheduled to start production in December, and the company hopes to deliver 15,000 units in the first year. Pre-production versions are exceeding 644km of range in testing, Rawlinson said.

Musk said during an earnings call last week that the Model Y crossover will have 506km of range, which would handily beat the Audi e-tron and Porsche Taycan’s US Environmental Protection Agency-estimated ranges of just more than 320km.

Traditional carmakers are at a disadvantage when it comes to building battery-electric vehicles because they have to keep spending money and resources on combustion-engine cars, which influences how they think about vehicle design and battery-pack efficiency, Rawlinson said.

Head start

Even VW and GM, whose pockets are deep enough to invest in dedicated EV platforms, are behind because they don’t put a high enough priority on developing EV technology in-house, he said. Traditional manufacturers and even some EV startups “are saying the electric powertrain is already commodified, that it’s not a differentiator.”

Lucid will announce a contract with a major cell maker soon, but battery chemistry is only part of the battle. Pack architecture, software and thermal management are just some of the elements necessary to achieve superior range, Rawlinson said. The company is beginning to seek funding for a new electric SUV based off the same platform as the Air.

In the meantime, Gene Munster, a reliable Tesla bull, says that while it’s premature for the electric-car maker to be valued like Apple, the comparison will gain credibility as long as Musk keeps increasing revenue.

“The thesis for Tesla’s business miracle is rooted in the handful of years that the company operated with effectively no competition,” Munster, managing partner of the venture capital firm Loup Ventures and long-time Apple analyst, wrote on Monday in a research note. “Tesla has nearly a decade head start in EVs as other automakers underinvested in the space.”

Bloomberg