Tesla made headlines recently when its market capitalization nosed past both General Motors’ and Ford’s to make it the most valuable U.S. automaker. Overall U.S. auto sales are down after last year’s highs, and the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) automakers have been turning in lackluster numbers lately. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s company is on track to sell 100,000 cars this year, after delivering almost 80,000 last year.
So is Tesla poised to dominate Detroit’s Big Three? I seriously doubt it.
Tesla is an amazing company. Its cars have improved suspensions, new top speeds, and autonomous driving—the list goes on. The company has a generational “cool” factor that the Big Three are missing right now.
But they are catching up in a hurry, and not just on style points; Detroit is taking the coming change in transportation business models very seriously. Here is why the Big Three are well–positioned to take advantage of the next wave of automotive technology:
First, they have the distribution. The vast dealer networks these companies operate are commanding assets. Sixteen and a half thousand dealerships in the U.S. employ over a million people. Pretty soon prospective buyers will be able to build their cars online the same way they compile a phone or personal computer, sign up for a monthly subscription plan depending upon which services they want, and head down to the nearest lot to pick up their car. Subscribing for a car might sound far-fetched, but it’s already happening: Subscriptions for Hyundai’s new Ioniq EV (electric vehicle) start at $275 a month, and that includes everything: vehicle, fuel, maintenance, titles, and other fees.
Second, the Big Three have the manufacturing scale and expertise. They will continue to introduce cool new features that they can efficiently implement and distribute to consumers, such as 360–degree video recording, state-of-the-art entertainment systems, and predictive safety technology. The scale of their operations is impossible to duplicate; over 17 million cars were sold in the U.S. last year, of which Tesla sold 76,000, or 0.4%.
Producing a reliable car at scale is incredibly difficult. We’re not talking about an app that two engineers can design over a weekend. Sourcing and assembling vehicles involves extensive regulations and the margins aren’t great. Companies need to invest billions of dollars in factories and distribution channels to make the whole production process work.
Third, the three largest automakers’ financial resources are huge. Since GM and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, the Big Three have invested more than $30 billion in new jobs and facilities. The American automobile industry spends $18 billion a year on research and development, focusing on fuel–efficient, electric, and autonomous vehicles. The Big Three have a combined market cap of $116 billion and cash and equivalents of $83 billion (for a point of reference, total venture capital funding last year was around $69 billion). While Tesla’s market cap is currently strong, it is currently sitting on just over $3 billion in cash.
As Ford noted in an investor presentation a few weeks ago, it is quite happy to take a short-term revenue hit in exchange for long-term recurring revenue gains by heavily investing in technology and services.
Finally, the Big Three have the consumer brand relationships. Remember when everyone was ready to declare the death of the newspaper industry five years ago? Well, newspapers have made a big comeback in recent months, thanks in no small part to reader loyalty that has taken decades to build and is difficult to copy. Consumers can certainly lose their love for brands. But in an age in which the average person living in a city sees thousands of advertisements a day, brand affinity matters now more than ever.
Tesla will continue to impress and innovate. But Detroit has the institutional structure to start competing on technology, design, and, perhaps most importantly, price very soon.
Tien Tzuo is the CEO and founder of Zuora.