Everyone knows that this week Elon Musk will teleport back down to Earth from his orbital platform and present humankind with his latest gift: the Tesla Model 3. Everyone is wondering what this more-affordable Tesla will look like, but I’m more interested in the idea of Teslas that don’t look like anything at all.
I’ll explain before the threats happen. You see all Teslas (well, all after the early Lotus-based roadster) differ from most cars built today in that they have a separate, discrete chassis that contains the battery packs, the motors, suspension, connections for all the drive-by-wire controls—pretty much everything.
It’s very close to the old GM Hy-Wire concept, which was a design that used a self-contained ‘skateboard’ onto which bodies would be bolted. It’s a very compelling idea, and it’s one I’ve discussed in detail before.
Tesla is really the only modern car like this, having a separate chassis that’s capable of supporting a variety of different body styles. The most successful version of this idea from the past has to be the Volkswagen Type I chassis, which was, of course, used for the Beetle, Karmann Ghia (slightly widened), Thing, Brasilia, Country Buggy, and more.
Outside of VW’s hands, the cheap and ubiquitous Beetle chassis—which, like the Tesla skateboard, could be pretty much driven around on its own—became the basis for countless kit cars: the famous Myers Manx and copycat dune buggies, Ford GT replicas, old ‘30s MG replicas, funky vans like the Brubaker Box and the Boonie Bug, Bradley GTs, tiny big rigs, shrunken Hummers, and so much more crazy fiberglass crap. The VW pan started a whole cottage industry in the 60s and ‘70s.
Only the Tesla chassis is capable of doing anything similar today.
Now, with the imminent coming of the Model 3, I think it’s worth bringing up again, because it could suggest a new way of doing business that could make Tesla much more important, and yet much less noticeable.
Interestingly, it’s the same basic idea that Microsoft had in the early ‘80s with MS-DOS and later, Windows: why build your own computers when you can just sell the operating system to as many companies as possible? That way, hundreds of manufacturers are essentially building and selling computers for Microsoft, and, in case you weren’t aware, that worked out pretty well for them.
Tesla could take a similar approach. If Tesla sold their basic chassis and control systems as a platform, any company that wanted to get in the car business could skip the difficult drivetrain/charging/control/etc part and just focus on the body design, interior, and whatever special features they want to add.
With electric cars, it’s not like the driving dynamics of electric motors is that different, anyway—any electric car motor is going to spin a shaft with basically the same feel, unlike car engines that can differ as wildly as a big block Chevy V8 and a Mazda rotary or a flat-six Porsche and an inline-six AMC 4-liter. So why re-invent the wheel (and the systems to drive that wheel) every time?
Take Apple, for instance. If Tesla offered a car platform, why wouldn’t Apple be interested in licensing or buying those platforms for their car? Does anyone think the things that Apple is going to bring to the table are focused on the fundamental driving dynamics of the car? No way. Apple will focus on what they do best, design, and unique approaches to how people interact with the car. The actual act of how the car moves won’t likely be a big deal at all, as long as it moves.
There could be campers and RVs built on the Tesla platform. Maybe Airstream would use them to essentially make electric, self-propelled silver trailers. There could be light Ariel Atom-like sportscars, or perfect replicas of vintage Avantis or Jensen Interceptors, or Tatras, hyper-luxury party torpedoes, and highly rational people-haulers. Delivery vehicles, buses, food trucks, whatever—there’s so many kinds of vehicles that could work just great with the Tesla drivetrain.
As more and more manufacturers sprung up to build these niche-market and mass-market vehicles (remember, the barrier to entry in the car space will be so much lower if you can just use such a flexible platform) the Tesla Standard would grow as well. The charger network would grow, and Tesla’s proprietary standards would increasingly become the norm.
Parts and service would become more and more accessible as the Tesla Standard grew: depending on how the cars are constructed, the physical chassis themselves may be able to be swapped out, so instead of waiting for a part, a service center drops your body onto a new Tesla Standard skateboard and off you go, the broken one sent back to a plant for repair and/or remanufacture.
From the outside, the world of the Tesla standard could appear to be dizzyingly diverse, with an incredible range of designs, purposes, and style of car available. Without the need for R&D development, smaller niche markets could be targeted.
Underneath, though, the powerful hand of Tesla will be there, a hidden uniformity underlying everything. Maybe they’d have a ‘POWERED BY TESLA’ or a ‘TESLA UNDERNEATH’ badge on there, tastefully.
Yes, part of this does creep me out, as someone who loves mechanical idiosyncrasies. But I can’t help but see the logic in this. After the Model 3, Tesla should focus on making a reference standard for their platform. They’ve already released their patents, this is the next step: give everyone the tools to build cars that work on a Tesla Standard chassis.
They can build and sell the chassis themselves, or sell licenses. There’d still have to be set standards for safety and crash-worthiness, but it’s possible that’s a niche for yet another company to fill as well, selling safety modules and subframes to smaller coachbuilders.
I know it sounds weird to compare Tesla to Microsoft/MS-DOS/Windows when, conceptually, I think they’d rather be considered an iconoclastic Apple-type company, but if they’re really serious about world domination (and don’t tell me that’s not what gets Elon Musk’s trouser turgidity meters pinging) then they really need to find a way to sell the Tesla chassis as a universal electric car platform.