German Premium Giants Race to Catch Tesla

The gleaming white Porsche with menacing black trim took less than 8 minutes to complete the Nuerburgring’s demanding Nordschleife circuit. The result was respectable but definitely not spectacular for a 600-hp beast that sprints 0 to 100kph (62mph) in a little more than 3 seconds. Unlike the Panamera production car, which can easily beat its lap time, the Mission E concept doesn’t have camshafts, pistons or valves to mix air and fuel in a combustion chamber or a spark plug to ignite it. It runs on a current of pure electrons supplied by a lithium-ion battery, and it can almost fully recharge itself within 15 minutes.

The Tesla Model S doesn’t come anywhere close to those specs — which is the entire point. Porsche’s 1-billion-euro gamble to lure Tesla owners away from their beloved electric car is just one example of how much European premium automakers are investing to try and match their Silicon Valley-based rival. Tesla’s zero-emissions sports sedan has made Europe’s finest automakers look woefully behind the times in an area they typically dominate: technology. The question is whether established brands can win back the hearts and minds of car buyers seeking the next big thing.

Germany’s best known sports car maker promises its Mission E, which was teased at last year’s Frankfurt auto show, will be “an electric Porsche that deserves the name.” That means it will be consistently fast over an extended period with no loss of performance despite repeated accelerating and braking. It is supposed to be the first zero-emissions car worthy of being taken to the racetrack.

Porsche, however, will need years before it can mass produce and sell its electric sports car at a decent profit. In the meantime, Tesla will continue to deliver tens of thousands of its vaunted sedans and SUVs every year to wealthy progressives around the world, most likely at a loss. “I wish we had put that car on the road and not Tesla,” confided a senior engineer at Porsche, not a brand typically prone to technological envy. “We have to earn money at the end of the day though.”

Speak to other developers in Germany and the same healthy amount of respect mixed with a dose of jealousy can be heard. Whether it is the Wall Street-funded business model, outlandish marketing claims or its brash determination to ignore conventions like using independent retailers, Tesla refuses to play by the same rules as everyone else. And the company has so far gotten away with it.

How to compete?

How do Europe’s premium carmakers, and particularly the German luxury brands, compete against a rival like that? The truth is they can’t – at least not as long as Tesla remains a money-losing boutique manufacturer of luxury sports cars propped up by investors.

“Part of it is a cultural issue,” said a Mercedes-Benz official who asked to remain anonymous. “You can’t compare a 130-year-old company shaped by German engineering ingenuity with a startup from Silicon Valley. It’s a different approach.”

Despite those differences Audi, BMW and Mercedes are joining Porsche in the race to provide a response to Tesla’s success. Audi plans to launch a dedicated electric model in 2018. Mercedes will showcase its Tesla fighter with a concept car at the Paris auto show later this month. Mercedes also plans to create a subbrand for electric cars that will offer two electric SUVs and two battery-powered sedans, people familiar with the plan told Bloomberg last month.

BMW hopes its fully autonomous iNEXT, due in 2021, will revolutionize the industry and in the meantime will extend the electric range of its poorly performing i3 as the best solution for those looking for a premium zero-emissions car. Sales of the i3 and the i8 sports car fell 12 percent in the first half of this year despite a 6 percent overall gain at BMW’s namesake brand. Volvo plans a Model S rival, which will arrive in 2019 and share its underpinnings with the S90, V90 and XC90. Jaguar Land Rover is expected to debut a battery-powered concept at the Los Angeles auto show in November.

More electric vehicles will undoubtedly follow as European Union regulators crack down on road transport emissions, announcing early next year stringent new CO2 targets for the period after 2021. Carmakers have no choice but to electrify their powertrains, Tesla simply beat the success-spoiled Germans to the punch.

New frontier

Porsche faces considerable technical and safety challenges to bring the Mission E to fruition and, on top of that, it is unclear whether the brand’s loyal buyers will follow it to this new frontier. “We believe Porsche can bring to life in an electric car those kinds of values core to our brand, such as performance, sportiness and exclusivity. Whether the customers will be the same or not, we will see,” development chief Michael Steiner told Automotive News Europe.

Thermal management is the trickiest problem to solve when it comes to making an electric sports car. Three independent cooling circuits have to furiously pump water around the car’s electric motor, battery and power electronics to dissipate the enormous amount of heat generated. Some of the prototype’s components have to be specially purchased from suppliers to Europe’s rail industry, the only transport sector with experience in managing that much electrical current.

Altogether it will cost 1 billion euros to build the car on an industrial scale, more to develop it and another 1,400 additional new employees to help realize it. Special safety requirements are also needed – those assembling the Mission E would have to be qualified to work with high voltage systems. The 800 volts of electricity coursing through the bright orange cables, twice as much as in a Tesla, can easily kill a human being.

It is too early to say whether Porsche’s customers will trade the guttural roar of their Boxer engines for a silent electric drive. It’s just as unclear whether BMW, Audi and Mercedes can win back customers lost to Tesla. German car executives say Musk’s customers are far more willing to accept flaws and shortcomings they wouldn’t overlook at other brands.

“If I wanted to brag about the Nuerburgring times of my car, I would have kept my Dodge Viper. I know my (Tesla) P85 couldn’t even make it around the ring once without going into limp mode,” wrote one owner ‘jcaspar1’ last July on a Tesla forum. “I am okay with that. It is not a track car by any stretch of the imagination.”

Different set of rules

As a startup, the company can get away with things that make some engineers at established carmakers envious but make their legal teams sick to their stomachs.

Its Autopilot function is a prime example. While the car can accelerate, brake and steer itself, it is still just a glorified form of assisted driving. Occupants have to constantly watch the controls in case the car suddenly swerves off course for no reason. German engineers bristle when asked about Autopilot, and immediately recommend an internet search using phrases such “Help, My Tesla is Trying to Kill Me” on YouTube.

“We made the very conscious decision to be conservative in our marketing since it’s not in our interest for the assistant systems to be used in circumstances they should not,” said the Mercedes official. “Once every 7.5 million kilometers driven there is a serious accident in Germany. Our assistant systems are supposed to minimize that, not add to it by creating new accidents.”

So while many might be thrilled at the novelty of watching a steering wheel rotate left and right by itself, Germans just shake their heads in disbelief. “Where’s the added value for the customer?” asks Klaus Verweyen, Audi’s project chief for fully piloted driving.

After all, once limited autopilot functionality is offered in his upcoming A8 flagship next year, drivers can actually take their concentration off the road entirely and read a book instead. “That’s where we differ,” Verweyen explained.

Nevertheless, the glory associated with cars that can drive themselves has gone to Tesla. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Review named Tesla’s “software update that suddenly made autonomous driving a reality” one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies for 2016. While it admitted the system used a “legal gray area,” Autopilot was “a grand gesture toward an ever-nearing future,” according to the judges.

‘Ludicrous speed’

Tesla’s hip image also comes from not taking itself too seriously. After advertising its cars can reach “ludicrous speed,” an insane acceleration boost that allows a 0-100 sprint in 2.8 seconds, it now claims the next Roadster will even be capable of “maximum plaid” – both references to faster-than-light travel from Mel Brook’s Star Wars parody Spaceballs.

Could one ever imagine the sobering German coming up with this kind of tongue-in-cheek style to technical innovation?

More recently Musk’s Tesla managed to turn a completely banal aspect like the cabin filters and market them as protection against dangerous airborne pathogens in some grim dystopian future or a zombie apocalypse.

Tesla engineers described sealing themselves within a Model X crossover in a contaminated air bubble pumped full microscopic pollutants 20 times more concentrated than the average yearly level in smog-infested Beijing.

“Then we closed the falcon wing doors and engaged the Bioweapon Defense Mode,” they wrote, as if they were space explorers that crash landed on a hostile planet. In less than two minutes “the concentration was so low that we could take off our gas masks and breathe fresh air … [This] is no marketing slogan, it’s real – you could literally survive a biological attack in your car.” How many established car brands would feel comfortable making that kind of promise?

One Audi engineer working on bringing automated driving technology into series production said he admired the brazenness of such claims, even if product liability controllers at his employer would never have allowed it. “We run into problems with the internal approval process with far lesser things,” he said.

Why investors love Tesla

And investors are lapping it up, valuing automotive powerhouses like BMW at a fraction of Tesla even though it is highly profitable and generates more than 20 times the revenue.

“Investors automatically devalue legacy business,” one vice president at the investment bank Morgan Stanley explained, referring to combustion engine powered cars. “So while Tesla is a very high risk model, the benefit is they cannot cannibalize their own business. They basically only grow.”

Researchers and analysts are similarly impressed. For years, Boston Consulting has ranked BMW as one of the most innovative car companies in the world. The Munich automaker even broke into the single digits to reach seventh place last year – it’s best ever ranking. Out of nowhere though and almost effortlessly Musk’s start-up vaulted past BMW to notch a top three spot behind only Apple and Google. Tesla essentially made the creator of the ultimate driving machine look mainstream.

While BMW already has a dedicated electric car in the high-tech carbon fiber i3, unlike Audi and Mercedes, sales of the “megacity vehicle” plummeted in the first three months of this year to their lowest level since Q2 two years ago. Execs are now pinning their hope on an extended range for the runabout.

“Two years after its launch not even 30,000 per year are sold despite all the marketing campaigns,” said Union Investment fund manager Ingo Speich at the group’s annual general meeting in May. “Yet Tesla receives over 400,000 reservations for the Model 3, an electric car that no customer has seen, no exact price has been determined or know when it might be delivered.”

The dress down from Frankfurt’s moneyed elites was a rarity for BMW: typically, professional investors only resort to the bully pulpit of an AGM when they’re worried about the direction of their company.

“To learn from Elon Musk is to learn from a winner,” Speich told his fellow BMW shareholders, before literally calling on CEO Harald Krueger to show more courage and come out from behind the shadow of his predecessor.

More than an EV brand

One of the most common mistakes many German car executives have made in recent years is believing that Tesla is an electric car brand – if that were the case they would have a strong chance to conquest sales back from Musk once they brought their own versions to market.

Yet Tesla is far more than that. It builds battery packs, installs charging infrastructure and most recently plans to integrate energy generation and storage via an acquisition of Musk’s photovoltaic company SolarCity. In the future it plans to expand into electric pickup trucks and even tractor trailers.

Musk has built something of a theology around Tesla with himself as a high priest and sustainable mobility as his nirvana. Rivals may roll out their own “Tesla Fighters,” but you cannot fight it because it’s a way of life, not a product.

In other words, Tesla will stand or fall regardless of what the German luxury brands attempt. Several executives admit their best chance to gain back lost sales is that the young company itself mismanages the transformation from serving a base of diehard fans to becoming a profitable full scale producer of zero-emissions vehicles. Many startups fail to surmount this hurdle. Electric car charging station provider Better Place also began life as an investor’s darling because of its charismatic young founder, Shai Agassi, once the front-runner to head Europe tech giant SAP. Instead his company collapsed three years ago.

Tesla’s biggest strength is also its greatest weakness. Musk is the company’s most eloquent advocate and the South African native is already the third most influential CEO on Twitter according to research by French business school INSEAD. (Among German automotive CEOs only Opel’s Karl-Thomas Neumann uses the microblog). Musk is Tesla as much as Steve Jobs was Apple.

Showmanship over substance?

Moreover, reputational problems may catch up to it. Allegations have been leveled that Tesla tried to hide suspension flaws in the Model S from the public by forcing customers to sign non-disclosure agreements. More recently a single fatal accident has unleashed controversy over its Autopilot. When the Model 3 eventually debuts, Tesla will also increasingly target a more demanding consumer group, who are not likely to be as forgiving when it comes to the inherent trade-offs of an electric car.

A senior automotive executive at Bosch is convinced that sooner or later Musk will not be able to maintain this startup style showmanship over substance: “At some point as they grow customers won’t accept this and Tesla will have to adopt a zero-tolerance approach.”

In the meantime, Porsche has no interest in calling it quits after the Mission E, as long as it can find solutions for battery powered cars to meet its stiff performance targets.

Its development chief could even imagine one day building a 911 with a pure electric drivetrain sold alongside conventional versions, for purists all but blasphemy given the mythos surrounding its rear-mounted boxer engines. “Theoretically it’s conceivable with enough lead time,” Steiner said. “Today the packaging compromises would be too great.”

This story is from the current issue of the Automotive News Europe monthly e-magazine, which is also available to read on our iPhone and iPad apps.You can download the new issue as well as past issues by clicking here.