By Paul Nieuwenhuis, Cardiff University
The Tesla Model S electric car arrives in the UK this week. On the face of it this appears just another car launch, but is in fact something closer to a revolution.
The Tesla Model S is the first battery-electric luxury car to be sold in Britain, and it succeeds the limited edition Tesla Roadster, an electric sportscar built by British manufacturer Lotus in Norfolk and based on its Elise. The Roadster was the car that put the Tesla brand on the map and concentrated many minds in the more orthodox automotive industry on the rising potential for electric vehicles (EV).
Elon Musk, famous for his role developing PayPal and the SpaceX spaceflight company, regards his Tesla cars as the Apple of the automotive sector, arguing that like Apple’s products, the quality and design of Tesla cars allow them to command a premium price. Nevertheless, the £50,000 price tag (after government subsidy) makes it competitive with equivalent luxury cars from BMW or Jaguar. In terms of styling, many feel it is among the best in that segment. The Model S is also the first EV, depending on which battery option is chosen, with a range not unlike cars with conventional internal combustion engines – striking a blow to the “range anxiety” that electric vehicles supposedly cause.
Further evidence of Tesla’s roots in Silicon Valley can be seen in the dashboard – a control screen, like a large iPad – and the fact that much of the car’s software can be reconfigured remotely. Where most traditional manufacturers’ cars would require a trip to the dealer for any software updates (if they bother at all), in the case of the Tesla such updates are carried out regularly, overnight, while the car is charging in its garage. Tesla uses online updates to address any software problems and upgrade the car’s intelligent systems. The Model S “operating system” is installed in two hard drives that run in parallel, so that the car can still operate from one even while the other is upgraded.
The UK is relatively late to enjoy the Model S, probably due to the need to reconfigure the car for right hand drive. Tesla sold 17,650 cars in the US last year, making it the third best selling electric car after the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt (23,094), and the battery-electric Nissan Leaf (22,610), the latter selling at half the price of the Tesla. This puts it ahead in terms of sales of the plug-in Toyota Prius, and many electric and hybrid cars from more mainstream manufacturers. In fact, the Model S has become a kind of cult car among North American celebrities and other wealthy motorists keen to display their green credentials.
In Europe, Tesla is enjoying healthy sales in EV-friendly markets such as Norway, where 20% of all new cars sold in March were electric, and more Teslas were sold than any other car. In the Netherlands some 35,000 EVs are now registered. In terms of total EV sales, including hybrids, the Netherlands was the largest EU market in 2013 with around 25,000 registrations, followed by France with 15,000 and Norway with around 7,000. The UK came in fifth place with around 4,000 – after Germany (with how many?), where high speed Autobahns that sap battery power and loyalty to local manufacturers have kept EV sales down.
Looking at these numbers, it may seem that the Model S will struggle to sell well in Britain. On the other hand, although most EVs sold here so far have been quite utilitarian vehicles used to beat the London congestion charge, with steady sales of the Nissan Leaf, the UK supports a healthy luxury car market. There are no shortage of millionaires and billionaires residing here, so the Model S may find more buyers than for the cheaper models already here.
A further boost may come from Tesla’s innovative sales model. The company favours “experience centres” in shopping malls, a style that has fallen foul of car dealer groups in the US and franchise laws in certain states, prompting a series of lawsuits. LINK Due to quite different car distribution regulation, this is easier to implement in Europe, and Tesla centres in the UK are expected in large up-market shopping centres with London, Birmingham and Manchester among the first locations.
Paul Nieuwenhuis has received funding from the ESRC via the BRASS research centre at Cardiff University, and from the European Union ENEVATE programme.