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Speaking Sustainably

Tesla versus General Motors: Why must Musk get all the glory?

This piece originally appeared on Shelton Group.

The other day, my 7-year-old daughter actually referenced Elon Musk in a conversation. By name.

If you have kids, you know they’re giant mirrors, reflecting back to you what you’ve said before. So, clearly, I’ve talked about him enough, and in a positive enough light, that it registered with her. But it’s not fair.

Like the news media and seemingly everyone else I talk with about the subject of electric cars, Musk/Tesla is held out as THE icon, THE example, THE visionary, THE one who will lead us to an electric transportation age. And as Musk raced to get production of the Model 3 up to the 5,000 cars/month he promised would happen, the media covered it with bated breath, as if we were following the first airplane trip around the globe.

But what about General Motors?

GM actually beat the Tesla Model S to market by three years with the Chevy Volt — against all kinds of odds and coming out of the Great Recession. And in the Bolt, it has accomplished what Musk is still struggling to do — release an all-electric car at a middle-America price point. In November of last year, the Bolt outsold all other electric cars — including all three Tesla models. And, according to its recently released sustainability report, GM intends to have at least 20 all-electric car models in the market by 2023, just five years from now.

And in the Bolt, GM has accomplished what Musk is still struggling to do — release an all-electric car at a middle-America price point.
So why does Tesla capture so much of "the ink" and not GM (or Nissan, for that matter)?

In my view, it’s all about the story.

The best stories have drama and conflict. They leave you on the edge of your seat, dying to hear more. Musk does that so, so well. He pulls you in with visions of rocket ship travel and going to Mars, he keeps you in the story with never-before-tried business models and production approaches, and he earns your respect as he embodies the hero’s journey — a visionary sleeping at his factory, making appointments to talk with journalists at 2:00 AM. As humans, we love a good will-they-win-or-will-they-crash-and-burn story, and Musk embodies that, too. The more the news media questions whether Tesla will make it, the more we want to tune in to see how the story ends.

Meanwhile, GM is telegraphing an image of steadiness and responsibility. Its "zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion" vision is admirable and something we can all buy into. It just needs to be made sexy. You may be thinking, "Come on, Suzanne, GM will never be as sexy as Tesla." That may be true — Elon Musk and Mary Barra have very different styles, and the brands they represent have very different descriptors and emotions attached to them. For now, anyway.

I suggest that GM create a riveting story. It could cast itself as the protagonist in pursuit of redemption. It could hook our hearts by talking openly about their regrets (the government bailout, the safety issues, etc.) and linking those regrets directly to its vision of the future. And in that vision of the future, it could aim bigger — not just for 20 electric models in five years and not just for zero emissions, but for Every Vehicle an Electric Vehicle by 2035.

GM could cast itself as the protagonist in pursuit of redemption. It could hook our hearts by talking openly about their regrets (the government bailout, the safety issues, etc.) and linking those regrets directly to its vision of the future.
So, there’s still the issue of all those non-electric vehicles …

My friends in the automotive industry would likely say, "That’s a nice idea, Suzanne, but, um, Ford, GM, Toyota — they still make a lot of money selling gas-guzzling trucks." Right. But what I’m suggesting is that GM devote itself to changing the game. If Every Vehicle Is an Electric Vehicle, that means trucks, too. That means doubling down on a clean energy future, rethinking everything the auto industry knows and innovating the technology that makes it all work.

It would make for a fantastic story. One that would give Tesla a run for its money.

How about it, GM?

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