About ten years ago, Steve Jobs stood in front of a crowd of reporters and industry gurus, and introduced the first iPhone. Everyone gawked and wondered if he had circumvented contemporary marijuana laws in California, and had found some ‘kind bud’ in Palo Alto. Reporters asked aloud “How is anyone going to like a piece of glass? It has no buttons. It will break. It feels wrong.” And there were other things said not fit for a family audience.
In less than three years, Jobs did it again with Apple’s iPad. Many of the same reporters and industry leaders cried that he was now dropping acid! “How can this be? It is neither a smartphone nor a laptop! It looks funny to hold it up and take pictures. It will break. It feels wrong.” And all Apple did for the next few years was print money as the rest of the industry struggled to catch up. Many companies (Siemens) were forced to get out of the mobile phone business altogether.
Today, Apple has become synonymous with both smartphones and tablets. It is the largest company measured by market capitalization, and within a few years that value may top one trillion dollars. That is a lot of zeroes. In the final quarter of 2016, Apple still sold 78 million iPhones. Needless to say, many of those gurus and reporters were wrong, and should have moved into another area of employment.
In the last week, two announcements were made that will once again change life as we know it. Volvo has decided that beginning in 2019, in only 24 months or so, it will no longer manufacture automobiles with solely gas powered engines. It will make only hybrids and electric cars. Though Volvo is not an industry leader, it has brand recognition and a solid reputation. The leadership at Volvo has made a momentous and brave decision, and it may well become a market leader for it.
On the other side of the world in California, Elon Musk recently said that the Tesla Model 3, a ‘car for the masses’ (Volkswagen said the same thing in the 1930s), will begin production two weeks ahead of schedule. The plan is to begin manufacturing about 20,000 units from December this year. It will be able to travel 215 miles (340 km) on a single charge and here’s a kicker; it will cost around $27,500 stateside after a tax reduction from Uncle Sam.
Another perk is a lifetime of free charges from Tesla, which is in the process of building super-charging stations across the Pacific Northwest, and has numerous super-chargers in place in Europe already. (A half charge takes about as long as it takes to drink an espresso.) Tesla, along with other tech giants like Google, is also very involved in the idea of driverless autos.
There is little reason to doubt Musk when he says that e-cars will be the future. He has bet his whole company and reputation on it, and up to this point he has been the closest thing to Steve Jobs and his vision for Apple. It would also be prudent to remember that Musk is the man and the money behind the landing of SpaceX rockets on barges in the middle of oceans. Though Tesla has been hemorrhaging cash for the last decade, Musk never wavered, much like Jobs before him.
Here in Germany, the reaction to electric cars has been, well, muted, if there has been any acknowledgement of them at all. Germans have myriad reasons why electric cars will not work. They say, “Those battery charging figures are not for summer, only winter. How can we go 180 mph (300 km) on our Autobahns? We would need to increase our coal and gas burning power plants to meet the demand for electricity. It is dangerous because you cannot hear the cars when walking in the city. The minerals necessary to build enough batteries is too costly for the planet. How do we recycle or dispose of the batteries?” And many, many others.
These are all legitimate issues which will be moot, however, if we do not do everything we can to slow the earth’s warming.
There is another point. If we somehow manage to stave off the planet’s burning up, the Germans and their automotive industry, so reliable and on which the German economy is so reliant, may be caught on the wrong side of an Apple moment. Tesla, with others with foresight like Volvo, will be the entrenched Apples of the e-car industry, in a technology area that will be difficult to catch, if not impossible. Every German car company has e-car models, but the lack divergence from their fossil fuel lines. Like Jobs’ glass with silicon and wiring, Tesla aims to revolutionize the industry.
But changing the Germans’ driving habits is more difficult than American eating habits, though the latter might do more to help the planet. Especially so, since the diesel engine was first built by Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, a German, in 1900. Germans love the man and worship his engine. Some say it is often given in miniature as a gift before a boy’s First Communion. Girls get it a bit later. Germans cannot imagine a day without diesel engines, but their lack of imagination will matter not.
If Tesla and others are able to corner the market on electric cars, then BMW, VW, Daimler and Audi will only be able to watch as those other companies stack cash, become synonymous with the sector, and seriously threaten an industry that half of Germany needs, and by extension the whole EU.
Please Germany, get it in gear.
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