NEW YORK – On Thursday night, Tesla Inc. founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk introduced the company’s new electric-powered tractor trailer. The “Semi” goes 800 km on a charge, uses Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system, with lane-keeping and automatic braking. The truck has lower center of gravity than traditional haulers, dramatically reducing rollover risk; dynamic torque distribution lowers the chance of jack-knifing. Musk promised the truck “will not break down for a million miles.”
That wasn’t the big news.
Musk, in a very Steve Jobs-like, “Oh, and one more thing” moment, introduced the Tesla Roadster. The $200,000, all-wheel drive supercar goes 0-60 mph (0-96.5 kph) in a mind-blowing 1.9 seconds, making it the fastest production car ever. Oh, and it tops out at more than 250 mph (402 kph).
Why does speed matter? Automakers have been sponsoring racing teams since the beginning of the automobile. Manufacturers have seen the merit in the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” marketing formula; recent studies back up those beliefs. Fast halo cars are aspirational vehicles created for shoppers. Lots of Chevy buyers spend time gawking at the slick new Corvette in the showroom; most end up buying sport-utility vehicles or ordinary sedans. Many of the styling cues from the halo cars trickle down to the more pedestrian vehicles, as does the latest automotive technology, from antilock-braking systems to suspension improvements to aerodynamics to turbo chargers.
Two years ago, I suggested Musk create just such a halo car: “Put a sexier body on the Model S — low-slung, fat tires, gull-wing doors and steal share from Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Porsche, Bentley and Bugatti.” Minus the gull-wings, the new roadster is all that, and more.
When Musk first rolled out the Tesla Model S P100 “Ludicrous Mode” in 2015, reports noted that “sixty miles per hour in 2.8 seconds is crazy fast.” For a fraction of the cost, the five-passenger, four-door sedan was competitive with the likes of Lamborghini, Bentley and Porsche. It was not long before videos of the Tesla Model X P90D Ludicrous — a bulbous, ungainly SUV — was shown smoking a Ferrari F430 in a drag race.
Pure electric cars like the Roadster have several inherent performance advantages, most notably immediate peak torque and a single-gear transmission. That’s a large part of the reason why these cars tend to beat their gasoline-powered competitors in drag races. To be fair, the $200,000 dollar F430 was produced between 2004-09, so it isn’t Ferrari’s latest greatest speed ship. That would be the LaFerrari, the company’s $1.4 million flagship. It has a 6.3-liter V-12 engine, with an electric hybrid drive, and makes an enormous 949 horsepower. That translates into 0-60 mph in 2.6 seconds.
In other words, LaFerrari owners pay an extra $1.2 million dollars for the opportunity to be beaten by the new Roadster.
The same day Musk was rolling out his Roadster, the Wall Street Journal reviewed the brand new 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 (price, $325,250 as tested) with the question “Is this the fastest street-car ever?” The answer — 0-60 in 2.7 seconds — was almost. But within six hours, once the Tesla Roadster was introduced, it wasn’t close. Perhaps the Porsche Mission E will prove to be more competitive.
Other super cars are suffering similar fates. The $1.3 million McLaren P1 hits 60 in 2.7 seconds (tweaked versions can reach 60 in 2.4 seconds); the Porsche 918 Spyder goes 0-60 in 2.6 seconds and costs $847,000. A six-figure upgrade shaves a few tenths of a second off that time, but not enough to beat a car that costs three-quarters of a million dollars less.
If these supercars can’t beat the Tesla, perhaps the next generation of “hypercars” can: Aston Martin’s Valkyrie and Mercedes-AMG Project One both cost about $3 million. Undeniably beautiful and extremely limited in production, these spectacular cutting-edge cars in present form will both be slower than the Tesla Roadster.
The speed crown matters to automakers. As we noted earlier last week, most all of the major auto manufacturers have been frightened by Tesla into embracing hybrid and/or electric vehicles. How successful Tesla is as a car company is almost beside the point and is surely open to extended debate. But it has already forced the rest of the industry into following its electric lead.
Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz is the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management.