Innovation, Static Practices, & How Tesla Has Disrupted the Industry

There are certain things that traditional OEMs care about that Elon Musk and his team will get to—after they accomplish the important things

By Gary S. Vasilash

In 1997 a book by Clayton Christensen was published that had a thesis that was not something that many people in companies really wanted to accept:

It essentially says that there are incumbent companies—think of the long-in-business vehicle manufacturers—who basically provide incremental improvements to their products. Things get better. Just a little bit better. Other companies are doing the same thing, so a given company really doesn’t need to concern itself with doing anything but slightly adjusting the dial. They may improve their existing processes to make their production more efficient, the production of their existing (though improved to some degree) product.

Then a new entrant comes into the field. A new entrant that can pretty much be ignored. (Or so it seems.) That’s because they’re in a space that isn’t particularly valuable (e.g., low margin). Or they provide a product that underperforms the existing. Or they are providing a product that no one has asked for.

The concept, and the title of the book: The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Actually, the one who has a dilemma is the one who isn’t innovating but trying to continue the existence of the status quo.

No one ever got fired to trying to improve margins on an existing product, so that’s pretty much what executives do: invest in improving the existing product. After all, there are all of those sunk costs in equipment and process and knowhow that have to be taken into account.

But then, not immediately, but eventually, the product that could otherwise be ignored, is transformed such that it becomes something to be reckoned with.

Case in point: Tesla.

When it introduced the Roadster in 2008, a essentially a Lotus Elise with an array of lithium-ion batteries that were otherwise found powering laptop computers back then, a two seater that had a price of over $100,000, Tesla was pretty much considered to be a company that was a niche of niche: after all, roadsters don’t have a whole lot of demand, and in 2008 a roadster with an electric powertrain was simply ridiculous.

As time went on, the incumbents looked at what Tesla was doing and didn’t think much. Yes, the Model S may have had remarkable performance, but what about the build? The Model X had doors that were visually impressive but functionally not up to snuff. The Model 3 was impressive, but as everyone knew, Tesla wasn’t profitable, so anyone could build unprofitable vehicles. The Model Y had interior fits that were not the sort of thing that one would expect from a vehicle with its price point.

But also as time went on, more and more OEMs began to realize that not only was Tesla immensely popular among consumers in a way that was beyond the wildest dreams of anyone in the car industry, but that it wasn’t going away.

So they began to roll out an EV here and an EV there, all of which were claimed—publicly or implicitly—to be “Tesla fighters.”

Seemingly that hasn’t worked out.

The innovator’s dilemma in action.

Jeff Stout is executive director for Yanfeng Automotive Interiors and a student of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Stout joins “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Craig Cole of Roadshow by CNET and me in a spirted discussion that largely focuses on what Tesla does and doesn’t do, which leads to a variety of related subjects including whether electric vehicles will become the dominant type on the roads and whether autonomous vehicles are going to occur in a meaningful way in a bounded amount of time.

And you can see it all here.

Charging EVs With Green Energy

An invention that could make more people use environmentally benign charging for their electric vehicles

By Gary S. Vasilash

While some people buy electric vehicles because they are fashionable or because they like the performance or because they detest the smell of gasoline and beef jerky, some other people buy EVs because they are environmentally sensitive and have read studies or heard that guy in a Starbucks holding forth about how EVs are better for the environment than combustion cars.

While that is true—or so the studies and the guy in Starbucks seem to indicate—there is also an issue that these people need to take into account, which is that a lot of electricity is generated by activities like burning coal. Again, while in the long run the EV—even with the sketchy source of power—is better for the environment, there is better. . .and there is better.

And Jim Bardia of Change Wind Corp. has the proverbial better idea.

It is generating electricity for electric vehicles with wind and/or solar power.

While that in itself is not unique, the approach he is taking certainly is.

(The name of his unit isn’t particularly exceptional, however: Wind & Solar Powered Tower.)

He has designed a wind mill that, unlike the pinwheel style we’re all familiar with from charming postcards from Holland or those unsightly windfarms outside of Palm Springs, are axially oriented: think of a can with sections cut out that is centered on a post stuck in the ground that spins when the wind blows. More: the top of the setup is covered with photovoltaic cells that catch the sun. The post is hollow so all of the collected energy is sent down to the equipment at the bottom (including battery storage) that allows electric vehicle charging.

(OK: if you’re thinking about a can on a stick that somehow was engineered to generate electricity, that would be a scale that might work with a Hot Wheels car. Barida is talking about something that is, well, massive, for grown-up vehicles, as in generating 52.2 kW per hour and being capable of an output of 480-volt DC fast charging.)

In this arrangement the devices can be located in parking lots of everything from car dealerships to shopping malls to football stadia.

While it doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to the “grid” (which, as many people have learned this summer, isn’t exactly the most robust of things), Bardia says that it is beneficial to connect to it because excess power can be sold back to the utilities.

Bardia talks about this clever idea on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Chris Paukert of Roadshow by CNET, and me.

And Paukert, McElroy and I talk about a number of other issues, including whether Geely is one of the most interesting vehicle companies in the world, the Biden plan for 50% EVs by 2030 and the EPA regs that may make >30% EVs by 2030 a necessity for OEMs, and a whole lot more.

All of which you can see here.

The Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing & CT5-V Blackwing: Yes, “Cadillac”

If when you think “Cadillac” you think of something big and lush and lumbering like the Escalade (no offense to the SUV, but it is 211 inches long and weighs up to 6,015 pounds, a.k.a., three tons), then the 2022 V-Series Blackwing vehicles are going to absolutely upend that notion: The CT5-V Blackwing is powered by a hand-built (think about that for a moment) 668-hp. 6.2-liter supercharged V8 mated to a six-speed manual TREMEC transmission; the sedan has a top speed of over 200 mph.

Then there’s the CT4-V Blackwing, which is smaller, a subcompact, and is certainly no slouch, as it is fitted with a 3.6-liter twin-turbo V6 such that it has an estimated top speed of 189 mph. Equipped with the optional 10-speed automatic (which is also available for the other car), it has an estimated 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds.

2022 CT4-V Blackwing (left) and CT5-V Blackwing (right): engineered to perform. (Image: Cadillac)

Of course, when you go fast you also need to, well, stop, so there are serious Brembos deployed, with the CT5-V Blackwing featuring the largest factory-installed brakes in Cadillac history: 15.67 x 1.42-inch front rotors and 14.7 x 1.1-inch rear rotors. (There is also a lightweight carbon-ceramic brake package available, which is helpful in track situations, in particular, as it reduces unsprung mass by 53 pounds and rotating mass by 62 pounds.)

At this point you might be wondering why these vehicles are being named with their full names. That’s because you can go to a Cadillac dealership and buy a CT4 or a CT5. Or you can buy a CT4-V or a CT5-V.

The Blackwing execution is a whole different thing.

And so to that end, on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” Tony Roma, chief engineer of Cadillac V-Series Blackwing, provides a deep dive into the features that they’ve brought to the vehicles in order to make them track-capable vehicles straight out of the dealer’s showroom.

Roma talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Chris Paukert of Roadshow by CNET and me.

Roma says that their objective was to make a vehicle that is “light, nimble and precise.”

Which is arguably what some people might not think about when it comes to Cadillacs.

Then McElroy, Paukert and I discuss a variety of other subjects, including Cadillac’s electric future (Roma is also the chief engineer for the forthcoming, ultra-luxury Celestiq electric vehicle), the agreement between Google and Ford and the whole issue of data monetization, January sales and a whole lot more.

And you can see it all here.–gsv