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Why Tesla scares the rest of the car industry

The new, $200 000 Tesla Roadster

On Friday, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk introduced the company’s new electric-powered tractor trailer. The “Semi” goes 800km on a charge, uses Tesla’s semiautonomous driving system, with lane keeping and auto-braking. The truck has lower centre of gravity than traditional haulers, dramatically reducing rollover risk; dynamic torque distribution lowers the chance of jack-knifing. Musk promised the truck “will not break down for a million miles”.

That wasn’t the big news.

Musk, in a very Steve Jobs-like, “Oh, and one more thing” moment, introduced the Tesla Roadster. The US$200 000, all-wheel drive supercar goes 0-100km/h in a mind-blowing 1.9s, making it the fastest production car ever. Oh, and it tops out at more than 400km/h.

Why does speed matter? Car makers have been sponsoring racing teams since the beginning of the automobile. Manufacturers have seen the merit in the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” marketing formula; recent studies back up those beliefs.

Fast halo cars are aspirational vehicles created for shoppers. Lots of Chevy buyers spend time gawking at the slick new Corvette in the showroom; most end up buying sport-utility vehicles or ordinary sedans. Many of the styling cues from the halo cars trickle down to the more pedestrian vehicles, as does the latest automotive technology, from antilock-braking systems to suspension improvements to aerodynamics to turbo chargers.

Two years ago, I suggested Musk create just such a halo car: “Put a sexier body on the Model S — low-slung, fat tires, gull-wing doors and steal share from Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Porsche, Bentley and Bugatti.” Minus the gull-wings, the new roadster is all that, and more.

When Musk first rolled out the Tesla Model S P100 “Ludicrous Mode” in 2015, reports noted that 100km/h in 2.8s seconds is “crazy fast”. For a fraction of the cost, the five-passenger, four-door sedan was competitive with the likes of Lamborghini, Bentley and Porsche. It was not long before videos of the Tesla Model X P90D Ludicrous — a bulbous, ungainly SUV — was shown smoking a Ferrari F430 in a drag race.

Performance advantages

Pure electric cars like the Roadster have several inherent performance advantages, most notably immediate peak torque and a single-gear transmission. That’s a large part of the reason why these cars tend beat their petrol-powered competitors in drag races.

To be fair, the $200 000 F430 was produced between 2004 and 2009, so it isn’t Ferrari’s latest, greatest speed ship. That would be the LaFerrari, the company’s $1.4m flagship. It has a 6.3l V12 engine, with an electric hybrid drive, and makes an enormous 949 horsepower. That translates into 0-100km/h in 2.6s.

In other words, LaFerrari owners pay an extra $1.2m for the opportunity to be beaten by the new Roadster.

The same day Musk was rolling out his Roadster, The Wall Street Journal reviewed the brand new 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 (price, $325 250 as tested) with the question, “Is this the fastest street-car ever?” The answer — 0-100km/h in 2.7s — was almost. But within six hours, once the Tesla Roadster was introduced, it wasn’t close. Perhaps the Porsche Mission E will prove to be more competitive.

Other supercars are suffering similar fates. The $1.3m McLaren P1 hits 100km/h in 2.7s (tweaked versions can reach 100 in 2.4s); the Porsche 918 Spyder goes 0-100 in 2.6s and costs $847 000. A six-figure upgrade shaves a few tenths of a second off that time, but not enough to beat a car that costs three-quarters of a million dollars less.

If these supercars can’t beat the Tesla, perhaps the next generation of “hypercars” can: Aston Martin’s Valkyrie and Mercedes-AMG Project One both cost about $3m. Undeniably beautiful and extremely limited in production, these spectacular cutting-edge cars in present form will both be slower than the Tesla Roadster.

The speed crown matters to car makers. Most all of the major car manufacturers have been frightened by Tesla into embracing hybrid and/or electric vehicles. How successful Tesla is as a car company is almost beside the point and is surely open to extended debate. But it has already forced the rest of the industry into following its electric lead.  — By Barry Ritholtz, (c) 2017 Bloomberg LP

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