For one day in April 2017, Tesla Inc. was the most valuable automaker in the United States, surpassing Ford Motor Co. and General Motors (GM) in market capitalization. GM retook the value crown the following day, but Tesla has been nipping at its heals while staying more valuable than Ford.
If I could explain why one stock is worth more than another, I’d be a far wealthier person, and you’d probably be reading some other person’s semi-informed opinions about the state of the motor vehicle market. Even though it’s losing money while its rivals are rapidly accumulating cash, Tesla is the darling of the market right now.
Clearly, the California-based electric vehicle producer has caught the attention of investors and some auto enthusiasts. To many of its supporters, Tesla is revolutionizing the industry – showing the old dinosaurs of the auto world that Americans really want cool electric vehicles.
So, congratulations Tesla. You’re “it.” Just don’t expect it to last.
Cars are fashion, so to quote that great business advisor Heidi Klum, “One day you’re in, the next, you’re out.”
Vehicles of the moment come and go, rarely staying in that cool center of attention for very long. Just ask Toyota. In 2008, when gasoline passed $4 per gallon, buyers had to wait months to buy a Prius hybrid. Fans called the car revolutionary, saying Toyota was showing the old companies what people really want. The Prius was the cool car of the future. As GM and FCA US LLC headed toward bankruptcy in 2009, critics said if the companies had only followed Toyota’s lead, they would have survived.
For all the talk about a technological revolution, however, the Prius’ popularity was exceptionally shallow. Other companies produced hybrids in hopes of mimicking Toyota’s success, only to find buyer indifference.
Ford produced hybrid versions of the Escape and Fusion; buyers yawned and opted for traditional versions. GM offered hybrid options for the Chevy Malibu and Silverado pickup; few noticed. Honda, the first automaker to commercially launch a hybrid, could not attract buyers to the Insight.
Even Toyota couldn’t copy Toyota’s success. Hybrid versions of the Camry sedan and Highlander crossover stayed on dealer lots while buyers waited for Priuses. Many buyers didn’t want cool technology or exceptional fuel economy. They wanted to be seen in the most-fashionable car on the road.
People want a Tesla today, not any electric car (or a Prius for that matter – sales down 17.1% through April of 2017 after falling 26.1% in 2016). If electric-vehicle demand was behind Telsa’s rise, Nissan’s Leaf, Mitsubishi’s iMev, GM’s Chevy Bolt EV, or BMW’s i3 and i8 would be garnering similar levels of attention.
Maybe this vehicle will be different – something akin to the 1964 Ford Mustang that went beyond being cool for a moment, creating a whole new class of vehicles. Or, Tesla’s cars could join the much longer list of vehicles that burned brightly but briefly – Chrysler PT Cruiser, Hummer H2, Nissan Cube, Mini Cooper, and Honda Element to name a few.