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Tesla, the electric car company, has been making headlines on a regular basis, not only due to Elon Musk’s unique persona, but also owning to pioneering growing trends in the market, including driverless capabilities and car sharing.

The company’s innovative approach changed the landscape of the automotive industry from the process of buying a car all the way to what powers it. Its influence is so significant that the public’s changing perspective regarding electric vehicles has come to be known as Tesla effect, as a result of the role of the American manufacturer in marketing the segment as tech and performance oriented, rather than just environmentally friendly, as previously perceived.

However, Musk’s success in the automotive world may be short-lived as traditional manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, Volvo and Chinese brands follow suit and make a move to the now-mainstream electric vehicles, a market Musk essentially created, thus threatening Tesla’s dominance in the process.

A bubble waiting to burst?

Tesla’s impressive current market capitalization makes it the most valuable car company worldwide. In fact, its share price skyrocketed more than 700% just last year; if we went back a decade, then, since it went public in 2010, Tesla´s stock price registered no less than a monstruous 20,000% increase. However, digging deeper into production output and financial performance, there is not much significant substance to back up this massive growth, other than investors’ expectations.

Figure 1 – Tesla 5 years stock price performance
Source: Nasdaq

As a matter of fact, only last year was Tesla able to avoid a net loss (registering for the first time a positive $690 million net income), with a net profit margin of 2.2%. Adding this to an extremely high P/E ratio of around 1000, it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that Tesla is be overvalued.

Figure 2 – Tesla Net Income evolution 2011-2020
Source: Macrotrends

Nevertheless, we cannot possibly disregard the huge driving force that Tesla represents as the clear market leader among the EV (Electric Vehicle) market, being undoubtedly the main trigger of the electric revolution we are currently facing. Indeed, Tesla has a great lead in this ever-growing sector, both with its first-mover advantage and its crucial competitive advantage in terms of technology and batteries, as the partnership with Panasonic provided the manufacturer with the best-performing battery autonomy range in the market. Moreover, the fact that the company was able to experience such an impressive sales growth in a year in which many car makers saw their revenues decreasing is by itself a remarkable achievement, leading many to expect Tesla to become the future leader of the car industry.

Figure 3 – Global Plug-In Electric Vehicle Market Share between January and June 2020, by producer               
Source: Statista

A future market leader?

This poses the question of whether, once the EV market matures, Tesla will be able to maintain its position as market leader, with other historical giants of the industry massively shifting their production towards the electric sector. Most likely, the answer to this question will be directly linked to the direction towards which Elon Musk will decide to take his company; by all means, choosing to focus on high-performance vehicles or opting instead to pursue his original master plan of making cars affordable to all may dictate Tesla´s future fate in the car market.

Despite the fact that Tesla’s product portfolio is on the high-end side with prices up to $140k, the brand had long planned an affordable vehicle – Model 3. This is a $35k (in the USA) entry level car and bestselling EV with 365k deliveries in 2020, though the car is still rather expensive for most people, particularly outside the US. Moreover, it comes packed with technology and features seen as luxurious, which are not a priority for the majority of consumers who see price as a determining factor, especially now that EV are no longer a niche market.

Can Tesla withstand competition from legacy manufacturers?

As aforementioned, the company’s plan to dominate the industry is now threatened by conventional carmakers, such as Volkswagen, which is committed to this new market and even has an ambitious plan to knock out Tesla from the podium by 2025.

Last December, the new ID.3 from Volkswagen was the second most sold car in Europe, with 27,997 units sold, 3,430 more than Tesla’s Model 3. Volkswagen’s brand-new car has a slightly greater range (15km) and is cheaper (€4,000), but has lower power than Model 3, smaller cargo space and does not have autopilot. Most importantly, it does not seem to discourage consumers from buying a ID.3 instead of a Model 3, especially because the car already fulfils the needs of most consumers in a great package overall.

Figure 4 – New Volkswagen ID3, released in September 2020.

Competition also comes in the tech segment, mainly in China. The commanding position in the biggest electric vehicle market (China) is occupied by Tesla. Nonetheless, during last year, Tesla saw rivals such as Nio Inc., Xpeng Inc. and Li Auto Inc. catching up. The difference in cars sold between the trio and Tesla has been declining, reaching the lowest value in September 2020, amounting to a total of 1,000 cars. The rise of Chinese EV is strongly connected to Nio’s boosted sales, even though at a higher price tag than Tesla’s Model 3. The threat from China should not be ignored, since it is Tesla’s second largest market.

Figure 5 – Monthly EV Sales figures in China in 2020 by producer                    Source: CAIN

Which Tesla will we see in the future?

Although Tesla has surprised us before, its best chances are to stick to its current target market of high-performing cars, that offer the best technological features to consumers who value those features and are willing to pay a premium. In this area, Tesla has a big advantage that allows it to exercise a fierce competition with its direct rivals: no other car company has yet been able to offer the same high-speed range in an EV and battery autonomy like Tesla. However, it is unclear whether the company will be able to sustain this competitive advantage in the long term, as the tendency is for other companies to be able to eventually reach the same technological potential. Moreover, even with superior features, Tesla has not been able to convince a big share of the loyal consumers of long-standing companies, who prefer to abdicate some horsepower for the quality and reliability traditional automakers have left us accustomed to. Most importantly, legacy manufacturers seem to be transporting the driving essence people are familiar with to electric cars, making the move to electric easier, which might make Tesla’s job to win over customers certainly more difficult.

Notwithstanding, Tesla has been especially successful in captivating the American market, with more than 50% of its sales being centred in the US, a fact they have most definitely taken into consideration, as it has been made clear with Tesla’s bet on the innovative Cybertruck, surely having this prosperous target market in mind.

Regardless of Tesla being or not the biggest manufacturer in 5- or 10-years’ time, one thing is certain: Tesla has accomplished every objective the company established back in 2006 when Musk released The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan. Furthermore, the brand shed light on a fundamental aspect, the sustainability of transportation, a sector responsible for 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Whether you buy a Tesla, a Volkswagen ID or any other electric car, you are proving Elon was right in pursuing the sustainable energy project.

Sources: Business Insider, CAIN, Car and Driver, Cleantechnica, Forbes, Inside EV, Macrotrends, Marketline, Nasdaq, Statista, Tesla, Volkswagen.

Tiago Rebelo

João Correia

Inês Lindoso

Scientific revision: Patrícia Cruz

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