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Apple is no longer Apple – but Tesla is

Updated Aug 8th, 2014 4:21PM EDT
Tesla Model X Model 3

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This is the state of the smartphone/tablet market: Investors were overjoyed when Apple delivered 4.6% revenue growth in the spring quarter. And the hottest product of the year in the mobile device industry is going to be iPhone 6 because it finally is an iPhone with a screen size larger than 4 inches.

The phone industry has turned into something so mortally boring people don’t even notice how all the excitement has leaked out…until you compare it to the car industry, which is now in the same exact spot where the phone sector was in 2007.

The original iPhone changed what a phone was. The role of the display morphed from vehicle of passive viewing to actual control mechanism, far more intuitive than a keypad could ever be. That sort of fundamental shift of how a product can be used can only happen once in a decade or two. Now Tesla is changing the car in an equally fundamental manner: this new vehicle is totally silent, free refueling stations enable you to drive from California to New York without paying a cent in fuel costs, etc. It’s not reasonable to expect that the smartphone can undergo a similar transformation of its essence so soon after 2007. Maybe the next quantum leap will happen in 2019 or 2025 or 2031. Until then, fiddling with thinness, display size and camera quality is what we have to deal with.

Back in 2007, it was Apple bursting into the scene with the revolutionary concept of a large touchscreen that proved devastating for industry giants Nokia and Motorola. Right now, Tesla is getting ready to gut GM and Ford with its car range that is about to expand radically. Just as with Apple, the narrow early distribution of a groundbreaking new product is giving the established players a deceptive period of grace. It will take a couple of years for the real impact to become clear.

But we clearly are now entering an interesting period as Tesla prepares to roll out an SUV called Model X in 2015 and a budget car Model 3 in 2017. Both change the scope of Tesla’s consumer reach, because though Model X is going to cost more than $70,000, it will offer far more value for the money than the current Model S.

An ecstatic new Morgan Stanley research note claims that “we’d be disappointed if the Model X did not sweep every major Car of the Year award on offer by the automotive media.” Tesla is not trying to whip up enthusiasm for Model X but is actively trying to discourage early excitement and funnel people into buying the currently available Model S.

But there is a palpable sense of frenzy building in the automotive press and financial media. The design of the Model X is unusually bold and exotic for an SUV — the gull wing doors in particular are a gutsy move.

The Model X is small potatoes compared to Model 3, though. This car is expected to retail at $30,000, less than half of the price of the current Model S. It will represent a direct attack on the smaller German quality cars of BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz. If Model X production ramps up aggressively and starts making real inroads in the luxury SUV market, the Model 3 could form the second prong of a dangerous pincer movement aimed at the most lucrative parts of the car industry: high-end SUV models and compact luxury sedans.

As Tesla’s charging station network expands and buzz around the structural innovation of the new models builds, rival car vendors seem to be wading through molasses. From GM to BMW, the old behemoths are experimenting with electric cars, but their efforts seem curiously tentative and half-hearted, much like Nokia and Motorola seemed to move in slow motion back in 2008 through 2010 as the Apple surge was building.

This reshaping of the car industry has all of the drama and big personalities that defined the phone industry seven years ago. Who would have thought back then that all the excitement would migrate to car business so rapidly?

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.