Elon Musk went to the Detroit Auto Show this week and made a splash. In a speech, he welcomed the traditional automakers in their quests to introduce and popularize electric vehicles. Specifically, he said, “The main reason I’m here is to talk about electric vehicles and to do what I can to encourage other automakers to accelerate their electric-vehicle programs. The need for sustainable transport is incredibly high.”
That led to much discussion in the press and social media (not to mention a nearly 10% drop in Tesla’s stock price…). Most of the commenters concluded that he meant just what he said, that building the industry helps Tesla more than any other company, that his position is consistent with Tesla’s recent “open sourcing” of electric vehicle patents, and more.
It reminds me of 1981, when Apple Computer owned the nascent PC market, and IBM introduced their PC. Apple famously ran a full page ad, whose title copy read, “Welcome IBM. Seriously.” People wondered if Apple was serious or not–did they really want the world’s largest computer company to enter the market? All signs were that Apple was indeed sincere.
However, to put it plainly, IBM (along with Microsoft and the PC world in general) ate Apple’s lunch. So much so that Steve Jobs was photographed giving the IBM logo the “middle finger salute” and ultimately Apple nearly went out of business.
However, at the time of the Apple ad, Apple got a lot of attention. Just as today, Musk is generating a lot of attention for Tesla.
Does Elon Musk really want a mass-produced Chevrolet Bolt as a direct competitor to his new low-priced electric vehicle? Does he think that a growing market will help him more than anyone? Maybe. But I think there’s a bit of P.T. Barnum showmanship at work here. What else is Musk going to say, really–“I’m scared to death that tough competitor models from international companies who have cost and distribution advantages over my niche company are going to eat my lunch?” Even if he believes it, would he say it?
Whatever Musk really believes, he has every reason to take the public position that he has taken.