Tesla is its own thing. But at least philosophically, it’s Apple with an attitude. And that goes a long way toward explaining why its stock has been on a roaring bender. Of course, by the time you read this it may have crashed, but for the moment go with me.
Autonomy and electrification are getting the attention and, yes, they will change how cars work. But beyond that, how they’ll exist alongside humans is being negotiated right now too. Sometimes in formal settings, sometimes in ad hoc negotiations, sometimes with scientific precision and sometimes by blind hunch. It’s AC vs. DC, Betamax vs. VHS, PC vs. Mac, and Android vs. Apple iOS. Some companies will win, and some will lose. And right now, a lot of stockholders are speculating that Tesla will be the big winner.
Of course, there are also a lot of “short sellers” betting on Tesla tanking, but this isn’t stock tip sheet you’re reading. This is about cars.
Though it was considered by many to be a superior format, Sony’s Betamax ultimately lost out to VHS in the Format Wars. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“Go” pedal on the right, “whoa” pedal on the left, and sometimes another pedal to the left of that. To turn there’s a steering wheel, to blow the horn hit a button at the center of it, and a stick turns on blinky lights that tell other drivers what’s going on. That is the standard driver interface and it has been around for something like 100 years. It wasn’t legislated or mandated, it was organically evolved, and almost spontaneously and universally, adopted. There’s nothing that says it has to remain this way, and it likely won’t.
Among many other things, touchscreens, pre-collision warning systems, night vision cameras, radar proximity sensors and even taken-for-granted old tech like cruise control, power steering and power windows have all, over time, already changed how humans interface with their vehicles. Still though, all the current technology works on the assumption that a human is in charge. Yeah, well, that assumption is going away.
No company has been more aggressive in screwing with the driver interface than Tesla. From how it updates the software in its cars to how it reports what’s going on to the driver, Tesla does it its own way. The J1772 electric vehicle connector, built to a Society of Automotive Engineers specifications, has become the standard charging port for most electric cars. Tesla ignores it.
Tesla’s network of Superchargers is a closed system, open only to Tesla vehicles. (Photo: Getty Images)
But the J1772 isn’t just a plug that shoves juice into the batteries, it’s a device that uses set communication protocols to swap information between the vehicle and charging network. Most manufacturers have adopted the J1772 so that their cars can use almost any charging network, communicate with those networks, and maybe communicate with the manufacturer itself. Tesla, on the other hand, is building its own networks of chargers and using its own communication protocols. It’s striving to build its own batteries and use them in every application they can dream up. A Tesla may share the road with other semi-autonomous electric cars, but it isn’t sharing much with them.
This is all reminiscent of the PC vs. Mac and iOS vs. Android battles. When Apple bet on holding its Mac operating system to itself and closing off others, it kept Apple from growing very large. But then with iOS, it made a similar bet and walled the iPhone off from other phones using Google’s shared Android system. And that bet paid off huge to the point now where Apple, once a basket case many suggested should be parted out, is worth more than $1.3 Trillion and is one of the world’s most valuable companies. Tesla seems to be betting big on becoming the Apple of electric mobility while everyone else is producing PC clones and Android replicants.
Tesla’s driver interface mixes traditional with forward-looking. (Photo: Getty Images)
There’s no guarantee who will win the battle to determine the driving interface of the future. And sometimes, players emerge unexpectedly.
At CES in Las Vegas this past January, Sony showed its vision for the automotive future cleverly named the Vision-S. It’s a complete car and seemingly no one outside of Sony knew the company was working on one. But it also concentrated more intellectual firepower on how man and machine will coexist in the near future than ever before. There 33 different sensors on the Vision-S — cameras, Radar and LiDAR – that monitor everything going on around and inside the vehicle. It’s always hooked up to the web; it’s supposed to be constantly communicating with other vehicles; and the dashboard contains touchscreens from door to door.
It’s not likely that all of Sony’s ideas will be adopted. In demo mode at CES, however, with its integrated entertainment systems and more-or-less intuitive command and control system, the Vision-S was received with almost universal praise. Sony is already a supplier of entertainment and other electronic systems to vehicle manufacturers. And suppliers have the potential to undermine Tesla’s momentum if they come up with unexpected breakthrough tech.
Sony’s Vision-S was unveiled at CES 2020, but who knows when it will hit the roads? (Photo: Sony)
Because suppliers to OEMs can share tech between brands, there’s a natural advantage there. If the same hardware and software is in, say, Audi, Hyundai, Toyota and GMC vehicles, they will all likely integrate into some shared information system easily. If cars are going to talk to one another, they’re all going to have to speak the same language. The generally available MS-DOS/Windows operating systems have, after all, been pretty damned good to Microsoft. But like Apple, Tesla wants to control the entire revenue stream.
Naturally, government regulations will be a big influence. Cars and trucks may well be the most regulated consumer products and it seems unlikely that the people in government will suddenly drop all their initiatives. What government mandates in the way of controls, limits, safety systems and, eventually, inter-vehicle communications protocols, will determine the boundaries in which all automotive systems evolve.
Apple’s iPhone has been a juggernaut for the brand. (Photo: Getty Images)
Elon Musk shouldn’t be underestimated. If he wants to keep all the vehicles he sells tightly tied to the ecosystem he is establishing for them, he’s likely to succeed. The question is if that’s enough vehicles to matter. Apple is valuable and ludicrously profitable because there are 1.5 billion iPhones out there pumping money into the company. What is critical mass of usage for Tesla? Who the Hell knows? But big bets are being made.