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Is Tesla the next Apple?

tesla model s electric carThe only moment in last Wednesday’s presidential debate that grabbed my attention was when Mitt Romney called Tesla a loser, and implied that the government’s $450 million loan to the automaker was the worst government investment since the days of $11,000 toilet seats.

Romney’s remarks come as Tesla is rolling out its Model S, a car that Dan Neil described in the Wall Street Journal this way, “This Tesla Model S thing you’ve heard so much about? You know, all-electric sedan, Silicon Valley, that guy from SpaceX? This is one amazing car. I mean, hard-core amazing. But first and foremost, gentle reader, it goes like the very stink of hell.”

Heck, that’s never going to catch on.

Kim Reynolds, writing in Motor Trend, observed, “There just might be a revenge of the electric car after all, courtesy of the only major electric car builder producing EVs without being forced to: Tesla.”

Reynolds’ review ended this way, “Tesla — like Apple in the electronic device realm — is the sort of ambitious and fearlessly innovative company this country needs a thousand more of.”

That’s what I was thinking just after Romney dumped on Tesla. If I had to name the next Apple, the next company capable of utterly redefining the customer experience, it would be Tesla.

This potential is all the more remarkable when you consider that the car industry has been around for more than a century. It is an industry that almost by necessity moves slowly and that demands huge amounts of capital. Quick — name the last truly revolutionary car.

The electric Model S has no engine. None. The Signature Performance version can go from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds. (Competing electrics like Ford’s Focus EV are more like 9 seconds.) The entire car is built on top a giant battery that stretches the length and width of the car, giving it an unprecedented 300-mile range between charges. Nissan’s frugal Leaf, by comparison, is lucky to make it 138 miles under perfect circumstances.

On nearly every important metric, the Model S not only leads, it laps the competition. This graph from Motor Trend puts it into perspective.

electric car graph

Each measurement corner of the graph represents a metric, such as range or acceleration. The closer to the outer edges, the better. The Model S stats are in dark blue, at the outer edges of the chart. No other electric car comes close.

tesla s model electric car 17 inch screen

To top it all off, the car comes with a 17-inch touchscreen. Anton Wahlman, writing for The Street, put it this way. “Forget all other cars you’ve experienced to date — this 17-inch screen feels like a 100-year jump in automotive technology.”

The last time I saw as many positive reviews as the Model S has received was, well, when Apple released a new phone.

This might be a good time for a reality check. The Model S is expensive, with a base price of $49,900 that leaps upwards when you increase power and range. Tesla expects to deliver just 3,225 of these cars this year. The firm isn’t going to be mass market anytime soon.

But that’s the path Apple followed, too. Its products have long been more expensive than the competition’s. When the Apple Lisa launched in 1983, it sold for $9,995. In 1983 dollars. Of course, it was also the first personal computer to offer a graphical user interface, a quantum leap forward in design that we’re still using today.

When Apple started to open retail stores, lots of people — myself included — wondered how the hell Apple could hope to use so much floor space when all they sold was a few digital devices. Last week I walked through an Apple store near Hartford, CT and it was jammed. This is no surprise; Apple stores are always jammed.

tesla store electric carsGuess what? Tesla isn’t opening traditional parking lot-style auto dealerships. Instead it’s opening sleek retail stores that bring to mind, yep, Apple.

Justin Hyde, the first journalist to test-drive a Model S, observed that the “last successful American startup automaker was Chrysler, founded 87 years ago. Every genius, huckster, and combination thereof who’s tried since has been ground into a fine powder by massive up-front costs combined with meager profits and ruthless competition.”

Tesla has already beat them all. It’s a far smarter company than most, and I’d gladly bet on them. Now if I can only convince my wife to let me sell our SUV and minivan…

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.