NEW YORK — The New York Auto Show floor featured nearly every well-known automaker delivering cars to the Western consumer market. But there was one very conspicuously absent brand: Tesla. Among the scores of car brands listed on the show’s official materials, Tesla’s name does not appear once.
Elon Musk’s widely admired, top-rated car, which is helping to drive Electric Vehicles into mainstream consciousness, was nowhere to be found at the show. Was it a subtle strategic move or a blatant thumb in the eye of the rest of the auto industry from Tesla?
“I didn’t hear [Tesla’s absence] mentioned once,” said Michelle Krebs, Autotrader senior analyst. “I guess it’s because there’s so much else going on.” (Tesla wouldn’t respond to a request for comment about its absence.)
Those sentiments were echoed by most others we spoke to on the show floor Wednesday and Thursday, just before the show was opened to the general public. The absence of Tesla barely registered among regular attendees.
During a private meeting with Ford CEO Mark Fields on Tuesday, along with several other journalists, the reaction to the mention of Tesla was similarly muted. But it also yielded some insight into how some of the established players view the Silicon Valley-based automaker.
“I think we can learn something from everybody, that’s our approach as a company,” said Fields. “We never poo-poo a competitor because they’re too small.”
Based on the uptick in innovation within the auto industry in recent years, it appears Ford’s CEO may be expressing a widely held sentiment with regards to the upstart electric automaker.
We’ve seen this story before. When Apple arrived on the scene decades ago, the major computer brands, mired in tradition, dismissed the quirky startup, and its co-founder Steve Jobs, as little more than a boutique computer promoted by an unrealistic CEO. They would never have expected it to become the most valuable company on the planet.
The auto industry has, apparently, been paying attention to that lesson of history. It is working hard to keep up with the approach to innovation embodied by Tesla.
“They’ve raised the awareness around electric vehicles, which I think is a good thing,” says Fields. “What [Tesla has] taught us is how they interact with their customers is really interesting, in terms of the over-the-air updates.”
Fields then went on to describe an example of a Tesla customer experiencing a problem with their vehicle — only to wake up the next morning to find that Tesla had pushed out a software update to the car, addressing the issue.
“The most interesting thing about Tesla [is that] they’re indicative of how startups think,” says Fields. “And we are really encouraging everyone in our company to think like a startup.”
Another interesting parallel between Tesla and Apple: Both companies opt to skip industry conferences and conduct their own launch events at other times, all the better to attract attention.
Tesla announced its next consumer product just before the start of the New York Auto Show. “They definitely like to control the news,” says Krebs. “I’m sure [Musk’s] tweet was done for timing with the show.”
Major new Tesla product line — not a car — will be unveiled at our Hawthorne Design Studio on Thurs 8pm, April 30
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2015
And as with Apple, Tesla’s impact is being felt despite its absence.
“[Musk’s] whole thing is proving a Silicon Valley company can build cars as well as traditional automakers, but in an untraditional way,” says Krebs. “I don’t think [established automakers] feel their business is threatened by Tesla, but they are certainly paying attention.”
No one brings this point home more than Ford CEO Fields, who unveiled a wide ranging set of startup-style auto experiments, from car sharing to autonomous vehicles, during January’s CES conference in Las Vegas.
“We want [our employees] to challenge custom and question tradition,” said Fields on Tuesday. “We want them to ride the technology curve where it makes sense. We want them to move fast and test, and we want them to take appropriate risks.
“I think that’s what companies like Tesla do — look at the industry through a different lens.”
Tesla has a long way to go before it can claim the kind of success Apple has enjoyed, of course. But if Musk is stealing from Jobs’ playbook, it looks like the strategy is working.
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