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The “Tesla Killers” Were the Biggest Disappointment of 2016

Sometimes it's best just to be yourself.

Without a doubt, “Tesla Killers” are the biggest disappointment of 2016.

It’s been more than fifty years since self-driving cars first appeared in science fiction films, 26 years since Johnny Cab’s cameo in Total Recall, 20+ years since manufacturers began developing prototypes, 12 years since the first DARPA Challenge, and 16 months since Tesla released their semi-autonomous Autopilot.

Self-driving cars? No one can claim they were a surprise.

But wait, there’s more.

It’s almost 150 years since the first electric car, 120 years since the first swappable battery service, 115 years since the first electric taxis in London, 50+ years of increasingly toxic dependency on Middle Eastern “allies”, 40 years since the OPEC crisis, 37 years since the Iranian Revolution, 25 years since Desert Storm, 16 years since 9/11, and 13 years since the invasion of Iraq.

Internal combustion won for a variety of reasons, but the big one—reliable flow of cheap oil—has been evaporating for decades. No one claim the rising appeal of electrification is a surprise.

But wait, there’s more.

It’s been 118 years since the first car dealership opened in the Unites States, and it’s been downhill ever since. Have you ever met anyone who loved their car dealer? People hate them. Nearly 75% of buyers would prefer to do their shopping online, and yet manufacturers have negotiated themselves into a corner, trapping end-users in a debilitating relationship with dealers who serve no one well.

But wait, there’s more.

It’s been 18 years since I first wirelessly downloaded data to my Palm Pilot, eight since I first downloaded an app on my first iPhone, and six since I downloaded music onto my iPod. Now I just use my phone. Smartphones are the PCs of today, 100% of them dependent on connectivity, apps and updates. How is it possible that car companies—with nearly twenty years, 1B+ users and untold billions of R&D—can’t or won’t deliver decent infotainment and wirelessly upgradeable software today?

What’s happening back at the headquarters of traditional manufacturers in Germany, Japan and the United States? The combined talent at any one of these companies is staggering, These are not stupid people, and yet customers who love what Teslas do don’t have an alternative from names they know.

Why? Because manufacturers are attacking Tesla (i.e. the future) piecemeal.

You can’t build a “Tesla Killer” by adding electrification, or self-driving, or no-haggle pricing, or wireless updates, or vertically integrating. Tesla “sells” cars in the same way Apple “sells” computers. Tesla is selling an idea matched to an experience. Musk thinks there’s a better way, broke it down into component parts, and began attacking in plain sight. The Tesla ecosystem doesn’t hinge on any one feature. It’s a holistic sum greater than its parts, built upon a series of temporarily defensible positions.

There are countless brilliant cars coming out of the old industry, delivered on the dirty, rusting plate of the past, but not one has delivered on the promise of being a “Tesla Killer.”

Why? I hate to say incompetence, but two things leap out at me.

Tesla began building their Supercharger network in 2012. I hear corporate espionage is a big thing. Didn’t anyone notice high-capacity transformers and charging units going up near major intersections and shopping malls? McDonalds has decades of research on traffic, real estate and competitors. They know when and where an Arby’s is going up. Wasn’t anyone in Detroit doing business intelligence on Silicon Valley?

The second is Tesla’s Autopilot hardware. The first Model S was delivered in 2012. Let’s assume everyone in the luxury sedan business bought one for competitive analysis. Musk first hinted at Autopilot in 2013. In September of 2014, the first Model S was delivered with Autopilot hardware. I’ve seen German-speaking execs (wearing VW badges, strangely) with measuring tapes poring over a Cayenne at the NY Auto Show. So what if Tesla doesn’t show up at car shows? Didn’t anyone think to go down to a Tesla store and poke around to see what Musk was talking about? 

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and the self-driving fire broke out in October 2015, when Autopilot was finally released.

The following summer, the excellent 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-class arrived. Excellent, but not a self-driving car, and yet that’s precisely what its initial ad campaign stated. Mercedes-Benz should be proud of the E-class, but the world doesn’t always turn on realities. It turns on expectations, the fertilizer of hope.

The 2017 E-class will never be a self-driving car, but a 2017 Tesla with new hardware will be.

Someday, after a wireless software download.

Other fantastic cars have come out this year, like the Cadillac CTS-V, Volvo S90, Mercedes-Benz AMG-GTC and Jaguar F-Type SVR, but those manufacturers’ ad campaigns wisely doubled down on their core values, which are very different from Tesla’s. They are selling the best car they can make today, and promising you no more. Tesla is doing something entirely different.

Satisfaction and loyalty are built on living up to promises every time, but buzz is built upon exceeding them as much as possible, which is why Tesla commands 40% of global automotive press with zero marketing or advertising dollars.

When I was in 8th grade, a wise 9th grader told me to be myself. Car manufacturers should follow that advice.

There was no such thing as a Tesla killer in 2016, because you can’t kill an idea once it takes hold. You can, however, deconstruct it, assemble the elements of its appeal and strike when ready. “Ready”, of course, is a moving target. In time, perhaps five or six legacy manufacturers might catch up with where Tesla is today, by which time Tesla will have moved on to the next phase, under the umbrella of “mobility.”

The rest will be Foxconned, Blackberried and Nokia’d.

I know which brands I’d like to see survive, but innovation is only a word. Product makes it real, but only if you’re first.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive and author of The Driver. He set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on FacebookTwitter  and Instagram.