(p. 1) For much of last year, established automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor operated in a different reality from Tesla, the electric car company.
G.M. and Ford closed one factory after another — sometimes for months on end — because of a shortage of computer chips, leaving dealer lots bare and sending car prices zooming. Yet Tesla racked up record sales quarter after quarter and ended the year having sold nearly twice as many vehicles as it did in 2020 unhindered by an industrywide crisis.
Tesla’s ability to conjure up critical components has a greater significance than one year’s car sales. It suggests that the company, and possibly other young electric car businesses, could threaten the dominance of giants like Volkswagen and G.M. sooner and more forcefully than most industry executives and policymakers realize. . . .
Tesla and its enigmatic chief executive, Elon Musk, have said little about how the carmaker ran circles around the rest of the auto industry. Now it’s becoming clear that the company simply had a superior command of technology and its own supply chain. Tesla appeared to better forecast demand than businesses that produce many more cars than it does. Other automakers were surprised by how quickly the car market recovered from a steep drop early in the pandemic and had simply not ordered enough chips and parts (p. 12) fast enough.
When Tesla couldn’t get the chips it had counted on, it took the ones that were available and rewrote the software that operated them to suit its needs. Larger auto companies couldn’t do that because they relied on outside suppliers for much of their software and computing expertise. In many cases, automakers also relied on these suppliers to deal with chip manufacturers. When the crisis hit, the automakers lacked bargaining clout.
Just a few years ago, analysts saw Mr. Musk’s insistence on having Tesla do more things on its own as one of the main reasons the company was struggling to increase production. Now, his strategy appears to have been vindicated.
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“Tesla, born in Silicon Valley, never outsourced their software — they write their own code,” said Morris Cohen, a professor emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in manufacturing and logistics. “They rewrote the software so they could replace chips in short supply with chips not in short supply. The other carmakers were not able to do that.”
“Tesla controlled its destiny,” Professor Cohen added.
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Doing more on its own also helps explain why Tesla avoided shortages of batteries, which have limited companies like Ford and G.M. from selling lots of electric cars. In 2014, when most carmakers were still debating whether electric vehicles would ever amount to anything, Tesla broke ground on what it called a gigafactory outside Reno, Nev., to produce batteries with its partner, Panasonic. Now, that factory helps ensure a reliable supply.
“It was a big risk,” said Ryan Melsert, a former Tesla executive who was involved in construction of the Nevada plant. “But because they have made decisions early on to bring things in house, they have much more control over their own fate.”
As Professor Cohen of Wharton pointed out, Tesla’s approach is in many ways a throwback to the early days of the automobile, when Ford owned its own steel plants and rubber plantations. In recent decades, the conventional auto wisdom had it that manufacturers should concentrate on design and final assembly and farm out the rest to suppliers. That strategy helped reduce how much money big players tied up in factories, but left them vulnerable to supply chain turmoil.
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 8, 2022, and has the title “Why Tesla Soared as Other Automakers Struggled to Make Cars.”