The Jesus Car: It’s Elon Musk vs. Detroit.

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It is decidedly unfair to compare the efforts of one man and his small band of engineers to the hulking industrial machine that is the Detroit auto industry. Unfair to the auto industry, that is. I walked around a new Tesla S that was parked in the garage below the office and I immediately thought, “This is good…no great…no, insanely great.” At it’s functionally six-figure price point, it may take Tesla a little longer than Apple’s iPhone to up-end an entire product category, but, to me, it really appears to be only a matter of time.

2013 Tesla Model S Sedan
2013 Tesla Model S Sedan

User Experience Design vs. Car Design

It’s the door handles, stupid. So, back in the garage, I watched the door handles emerge from the body of the car and present themselves as the Tesla owner approached his white, perfectly finished, Model S. No buttons were pressed on the key fob—proximity alone drive this behavior. It’s the kind of feature that occurs when you start with an end user experience in mind and design a car around it. Inside, the cockpit of the Tesla is no less user-centric. The Model S controls are presented on a 17” touch panel. Clean. Uncluttered. Context sensitive. And it probably adds a thousand dollars or more to the sticker price. Neither of these choices—the emerging handles or the touchscreen—would likely come out of Detroit (at least, they didn’t). Because when you start with a car and assume the driver will adapt, you make very different choices.

Accelerating vs. Cruising

For more than 70 years, the philosophy in Detroit has been one embracing incremental change. If last year’s car was good enough, making some minor incremental improvement should be good enough for next year’s model. Elon Musk has never been about incremental change. His M.O. is total disruption. If PayPal and Space X weren’t enough evidence, watching the emergence of the Tesla Motors business model should be all the convincing you need. Tesla didn’t stop at leapfrogging Detroit technology; it is planning to upend the entire purchasing and refueling infrastructures, to boot.  Tesla is challenging decades-old laws mandating local independent dealerships—seeking the ability to sell direct to consumers. They’re creating their own hypercharging station infrastructure—again disintermediation of the existing distribution partners. In every aspect, they will own and control their brand experience.

Messiah Complex vs. Survival Instinct (Individual Will vs. Quarterly Return)

While it’s true that Tesla is as publically held as any of Detroit’s Big Three, I have a hard time believing that Elon Musk feel’s as beholden to analysts or the quarterly return as his more entrenched counterparts. Unlike Detroit’s CEO’s who are playing to survive, Musk is beyond playing to win. He’s playing to change everything. And I, for one, like it.