Electric vehicles may make up a tiny fraction of the global auto market, but Morgan Stanley is already declaring Tesla Motors is likely the world's most important car company.
"Not even two years after the delivery of the first Model S, Tesla Motors has transformed from fledgling start-up to arguably the most important car company in the world," Morgan Stanley said in a note Tuesday. "Tesla is also emerging as an emblematic force in America's effort to foster high tech manufacturing job growth."
It's a big claim for a relatively small, niche industry. In the first quarter, Tesla produced 7,535 Model S vehicles and it expects to deliver 7,500 units in the second quarter.
Last year, just 96,000 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S., less than one percent of the industry's total sales of 15.6 million vehicles.
But Morgan Stanley believes the company's relative size, with a market capitalization of less than half larger rival General Motors (GM), belies its importance.
"Forget the company's market cap," it said. "If measured by the number of times the company's name is mentioned in board rooms and R&D centers across the global auto industry, we don't think anybody comes close to Tesla."
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It noted GM last year established "Team Tesla" to advance development of long-range electric vehicles, while a BMW engineer has said Tesla's presence has helped reinvigorate automobile innovation.
"BMW will be a stronger company longer term because Tesla is around," the report said.
Morgan Stanley also expects Tesla could move the needle on the U.S. economy, noting five U.S. states are in the running for its planned $5 billion and 6,000-job gigafactory.
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The bank estimates a vertically integrated battery factory and charging infrastructure could imply Tesla will directly employ up to 20,000 U.S. workers within seven years, up from the current 6,000, which would indirectly support as many as 150,000 jobs in the U.S. economy.
Morgan Stanley calls it "GDP (gross domestic product) moving stuff."
The bank has set a $320 target, compared with its $231.67 closing price Tuesday, noting that implies only a 0.85 percent market share by 2028.
Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, certainly appears to be aiming at using his company to drive change in the auto industry. Last week, he announced Tesla would open up the company's patents for use by anyone who wanted to use the technology.
The move was in addition the company's decision to open the Supercharger system, which allows Tesla drivers to charge the car's battery, for use by other automakers.
In addition to creating standardized electrical car specifications, Musk's goal is to spur electric vehicle development by his competitors. The theory is that if other automakers can piggyback on Tesla's knowledge to build new models or technology that creates greater demand for electric cars, and eventually Tesla will benefit by being able to sell more of its vehicles.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1