How Tesla defined a new era for the auto industry

The Tesla Model S car outsold the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the US in May 2013 and outstripped S-Class deliveries globally by 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 July 2020

How Tesla defined a new era for the auto industry

  • The newcomer’s daring approach to innovation has left others playing catch-up

FRANKFURT: Tesla’s rapid rise to become the world’s most valuable carmaker could mark the start of a new era for the global auto industry, defined by a Silicon Valley approach to software that is overtaking old-school manufacturing know-how.

Tesla’s ascent took many investors by surprise. But executives at Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, had a close-up view starting in 2009 of how Tesla and its chief executive Elon Musk were taking a new approach to building vehicles that challenged the established system.

Daimler bought a nearly 10 percent Tesla stake in May 2009 in a deal which provided a $50 million lifeline for the struggling start-up. That investment gave Mercedes engineers an inside view of how Musk was willing to launch technology that wasn’t perfect, and then repeatedly upgrade it, using smartphone style over-the-air updates, paying little regard to early profitability.

Mercedes engineers helped Tesla develop its Model S luxury sedan in exchange for access to Tesla’s partially hand-assembled battery packs, but in 2014 Daimler decided to sell their stake amid doubts Tesla’s approach could be industrialized at scale.

Tesla would go on to pioneer new approaches in manufacturing, designs in software and electronic architecture which enable it to introduce innovations faster than rivals, leaving analysts to draw comparisons with Apple.

Three people directly involved on the Mercedes side of the collaboration said the partnership highlighted the collision of old and new engineering cultures: the German obsession with long-term safety and control, which rewarded evolution, and the Silicon Valley carmaker’s experimental approach which embraced radical thinking and fast innovation.

“Elon Musk has been walking on the edge of a razorblade in terms of the aggression with which he pushes some technologies,” said a former Mercedes engineer who worked on the partnership.

By contrast, Mercedes and other established automakers are still not comfortable about releasing a new technology, such as partially automated driving, without years of testing.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Investors favor the Tesla model, in an industry undergoing fundamental and dizzying change even though the US carmaker will face an onslaught of competing electric vehicles from established automakers in coming years.

They are putting their money on Musk and his company, even though Mercedes-Benz alone sold 935,089 cars in the first half of 2020, dwarfing the 179,050 delivered by Tesla in the same period.

Today, Tesla is worth nearly $304.6 billion, more than six times Daimler’s market capitalization. 

Daimler and Tesla began collaborating after Mercedes engineers, who were developing a second-generation electric Smart car, bought a Tesla Roadster. They were impressed by the way Tesla packaged batteries, so arranged a visit to Silicon Valley to meet Musk in January 2009 and ordered 1,000 battery packs.

The collaboration expanded. In Stuttgart in May 2009, Tesla said the partnership would “accelerate bringing our Tesla Model S to production and ensure that it is a superlative vehicle.”

For its part, Mercedes wanted to use Tesla’s batteries to power an electric version of its compact Mercedes-Benz B-Class. The Tesla Model S would hit the road in 2012. An electric B-Class, arrived two years later.

Despite having batteries supplied by Tesla, the Mercedes had a shorter operating range after Daimler engineers configured the B-class more conservatively to address their concerns about long-term battery degradation and the risk of overheating, a second Daimler staffer who worked on the joint projects told Reuters.

German engineers found Tesla had not done long-term stress tests on its battery. “We had to devise our own program of stress tests,” the second Daimler engineer said.

Before starting production of a new car, Daimler engineers specify a “Lastenheft” — a blueprint laying out the properties of each component for suppliers. Significant changes cannot be made once the design is frozen.

“This is also the way you can guarantee that we will be profitable during mass production. Tesla was not as concerned about this aspect,” the second Daimler source said.

Daimler’s engineers suggested the underbody of the Model S needed reinforcing to prevent debris from the road puncturing a battery pack, the first engineer said.

To quash doubts about safety and security, following a series of battery fires, Tesla raised the ride height of its vehicles, using an over-the-air update, and a few months later, in March 2014, said it would add a triple underbody shield to new Model S cars and offered to retrofit existing cars.

Musk was able to make adjustments quickly thanks to Tesla’s ability to burn through more cash during development.

“At Mercedes you can make such adjustments every three years at best,” the engineer said.

The Model S would go on to outsell the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the US in May 2013, and outstrip S-Class deliveries globally by 2017.

Musk’s relentless focus on innovation explains, in part, why he has disrupted the traditional auto world. In an interview at the 2020 Air Warfare Symposium, published on YouTube, he was asked about the importance of innovation among his employees.

Musk said: “The incentive structure is set up ... such that innovation is rewarded. Making mistakes along the way does not come with a big penalty. But failure to try to innovate at all ... comes with a big penalty. You will be fired.”

Established automakers are playing catch-up to Tesla, designing their own software operating systems and dedicated electric cars. 

From an investor perspective, traditional players face billions of dollars in restructuring costs as they transform product lines and factories to move away from internal combustion technology

“No one is going to give an OEM (established automaker) a five-year window to say ... you can totally retool your business, and I am going to buy in and fund this journey,” said Mark Wakefield,   of the consulting firm AlixPartners.

Start-ups, however, get time from investors to learn, make mistakes and grow, he added.

Investors are betting on Tesla’s ability to scale up manufacturing just as they once backed Toyota, which defined the auto industry’s last era with its mastery of highly efficient production. 

The Japanese giant also cultivated ties with Tesla, with the US startup helping it design an electrified RAV4 compact sports utility vehicle under a 2010 deal.

Both the Toyota and Daimler collaborations were agreed before the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal in 2015, which forced carmakers to step up investments in electric cars.


Oil giants’ production cuts come to 1m bpd as they post massive write-downs

Updated 10 August 2020

Oil giants’ production cuts come to 1m bpd as they post massive write-downs

  • Crude output worldwide dropped sharply after the market crashed in April

LONDON: The world’s five largest oil companies collectively cut the value of their assets by nearly $50 billion in the second quarter, and slashed production rates as the coronavirus pandemic caused a drastic fall in fuel prices and demand.

The dramatic reductions in asset valuations and decline in output show the depth of the pain in the second quarter. Fuel demand at one point was down by more than 30 percent worldwide.

Several executives said they took massive write-downs because they expect demand to remain impaired for several more quarters as people travel less and use less fuel due to the ongoing global pandemic.

Of those five companies, only Exxon Mobil did not book sizeable impairments. But an ongoing reevaluation of its plans could lead to a “significant portion” of its assets being impaired, it reported, and signal the elimination of 20 percent or 4.4 billion barrels of its oil and gas reserves.

By contrast, BP took a $17 billion hit. It said it plans to recenter its spending in coming years around renewables and less on oil and natural gas.

Weak demand means oil producers must revisit business plans, said Lee Maginniss, managing director at consultants Alarez & Marsal. He said the goal should be to pump only what generates cash in excess of overhead costs.

“It’s low-cost production mode through the end of 2021 for sure, and to 2022 to the extent there are new development plans being contemplated,” Maginniss said.

London-based BP has previously said it plans to cut its overall output by roughly 1 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOEPD) by the end of 2030 from its current 3.6 million BOEPD.

Of the five, Exxon is the largest producer, with daily output of 3.64 million BOEPD, but its production dropped 408,000 BOEPD between the first and second quarters. The five majors, which include Chevron Corp, Royal Dutch Shell and Total SA, also cut capital expenditures by a combined $25 billion between the quarters.

Crude output worldwide dropped sharply after the market crashed in April. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to cut output by nearly 10 million barrels a day to balance out supply and demand in the market.