As Tesla goes mainstream, luxury carmakers plan rivals

Key Points
  • Tesla will soon have a lot more competition
  • Several luxury carmakers plan models
  • Launch cadence will start in 2019
Tesla Motors unveils the new lower-priced Model 3 sedan at the Tesla Motors design studio in Hawthorne, Calif., Thursday, March 31, 2016.
Justin Prichard | AP

Tesla's Model 3 is perhaps the most desired electric vehicle in history, with a waiting list that stretches more than a year.

But competition could start to heat up relatively soon, according to one analyst.

For now, Tesla seems to be in a class of its own, and enjoys a considerable lead over competitors. It has no rivals in the high-end electric car segment, and enthusiasm for the Model 3, based on reservations, has far outpaced the interest in similarly priced electric cars. These include the already available Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf.

But Tesla will face a bevy of competitors in the next few years, especially among high end carmakers with strong brands of their own, said Barclays analyst Brian Johnson, who has been a consistent skeptic of the California electric car maker and renewable energy company, even though Tesla stock has risen more than 50 percent this year alone.

"We can just hear the Tesla fans objections to the volume of competitor launches – most of those are mass market cars, and many are compliance cars — and hence not appealing to the status-conscious Tesla target segment," Johnson said in his note to clients on Friday.

Recently, Barclays hosted a powertrain conference in London, where several high-end auto companies showed off their planned electric offerings.

From what he saw there, along with recent announcements from manufacturers, Johnson said legacy luxury automakers will begin a launch cadence in 2019 that will distribute a broad selection of electric vehicles across several brands by 2021.

"In particular at our conference, we were impressed by Mercedes' plans for the EQ brand as a standalone platform for EVs from inception," Johnson said. "We think Mercedes' strategy will stand them in good stead in the long run."

He added that BMW will produce early electric vehicles on existing architectures, but will also develop a standalone platform as it builds scale. He expects Mercedes and BMW to have four models each, and Volkswagen to have seven — three from Audi, two from Porsche and one Bentley.

Maserati, Jaguar and Aston Martin are each expected to have one model.

Whether any of these will be able to truly challenge Tesla remains to be seen. But each could conceivably take significant slices out of the market share Tesla all but controls now.

Johnson also thinks, along with many others, that China will be the key growth market for electric vehicles over the next several years, and Tesla is at a great disadvantage to Chinese makers who all but dominate the Chinese market.

Tesla's Model S and X cars compete with 19 Chinese electric vehicle models in that country, by his count. Local regulations favor local companies, and Chinese models typically sell better than Tesla cars, according to his report. Both Daimler and GM have plans to source battery cells in China as well.

Still, some analysts have expressed skepticism that traditional auto companies pose a great threat to Tesla. Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas, for example, said in a note published in April that traditional automakers tend to profit more from cars with internal combustion engines, and was doubtful that shareholders would reward companies for pursuing "money-losing electrics."

Jonas said that Tesla's true competitors may end up being tech companies instead.

To be sure, Tesla has a considerable lead on competitors and has a strong brand. So far the company has had the high-end electric vehicle market to itself.

The company proved that electric cars could offer luxury and high performance and be highly desirable to consumers. They are now aiming to prove that they can also offer at least some of that performance and design at a lower price.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has at times encouraged other companies to make electric cars. In 2014, Tesla released all the patents it held at the time "in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology," Musk said in a blog post.

The market for electric cars is still tiny—only about 1 percent of all cars sold. It is likely about to become quite a bit more crowded.

Tesla was not immediately available for comment.