The recent pre-launch of the Tesla Model 3 has caused many to call it the “iPhone moment” for the automotive industry. This allusion is to the heady days of 2007, when Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs ushered in the smartphone era and phones went from being tiny clamshells with text and talk capability to mini portable connected computers. In its first release, the iPhone changed the way consumers interacted with technology and with each other.
But the transformative moment for the car industry has yet to arrive. The Tesla Model 3 certainly looks different to, say, a 1976 Buick LeSabre. However, the utility provided by the cars—getting from here to there—is fundamentally the same. Both cars require the driver to climb inside, put on a seatbelt (yes, they were standard in 1976), and drive to their destination. The Buick had far more trunk space and ran better on leaded gas. The Tesla takes half an hour to recharge but has swifter acceleration and a smaller environmental footprint.
The Model 3 release is therefore more of a “flip-phone moment” than an “iPhone moment” for the auto sector. Another allusion might be to describe it as the “Prius moment” from 1997, when Toyota revolutionized the auto industry by making the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle.
Tesla, presumably, would not mind sharing either of these kinds of moments with mankind. Neither the flip-phone nor the Prius were life-changing in the way the iPhone was, but both were extremely popular. The 500,000 reservations for the Model 3 so far show that the car will likely enjoy strong commercial success when first released. Whether this early demand will last, however, still remains to be seen.
The history of the Prius in the U.S. provides a useful case study.
Like the Tesla (TSLA), the Prius was viewed as a technologically advanced car that was highly prized by environmentally conscious early adopters. Though the economy entered recession soon after the 2000 U.S. launch, overall new car sales remained elevated, providing support for the fledgling hybrid. When gas prices soared in the mid-2000s, just as Toyota was ramping up production, the cars quickly gained in popularity, reaching 180,000 unit sales in the U.S. by 2007. The Great Recession then took its toll. Prius never repeated its 2007 success, but was still selling 140,000 units per annum as recently as 2013. However, after oil prices halved the following year, hybrid sales declined precipitously. A mere 75,000 Prius units are expected to be sold in the key U.S. market this year.
Rather than hybrids and electric vehicles, history shows that consumers in the U.S, the world’s largest auto market, prefer pickup trucks and large SUVs. At the time the 1976 LeSabre was new, only 22% of light vehicles sold in the country were pickups. The prevalence of trucks grew through the late 1970s oil price shock and reached 61% of total light vehicle sales by 2005. A period of sustained high gas prices then let hybrid cars regain some of their former prominence. The truck share fell to 47% of new light vehicle sales in early 2012. After world oil prices declined in 2014, truck sales came booming back. A full 64% of new vehicle sales this July were such vehicles, demonstrating that Americans love large, powerful, spacious trucks and SUVs, so long as they can shoulder the day-to-day costs of making them go.
This matters for Tesla because gas prices will likely remain subdued this year while new vehicle sales are expected to fall by 500,000 units after strong results in 2015 and 2016. Taking all that into account, if anyone other than Tesla was releasing an all-electric midsized sedan this year, you would say they were absolutely bonkers.
Tesla, though, enjoys an Apple-like mystique and will probably succeed, in some form, with the Model 3. If nothing else, it will become the status symbol for the tech-savvy, environmentally committed slice of the car-owning public, knocking the Prius off its perch as the pinnacle of vehicles among this set. Nevertheless, such a result will still stop short of the game-changing “iPhone moment“ for the auto industry.
So what would such a Tesla actually look like?
One could argue that the vehicle must have a rugged steel tray, seat six burly adults in comfort, and be able to haul two boats to the top of Pikes Peak. A more likely possibility would be a technically perfect, officially sanctioned, self-driving, electric vehicle ready for use by rideshare companies around the world.
Until this happens, vehicle innovation will lack the impact on fundamental driving habits that the iPhone had on the way consumers use their cell phones.
The iPhone has hundreds of “killer apps.” Tesla needs only one for its moment to truly arrive.
Tony Hughes is managing director at Moody’s Analytics.