When Detroit’s hometown newspaper picks Tesla as its best car of the year, the auto industry has turned a corner.
Henry Payne, auto critic for The Detroit News (who happens to own a Subaru, Honda, Ram, Porsche, and a Tesla), chose two runners-up in the annual rankings: the beefy Ford Ranger, capable of towing 7,500 pounds, and the $135,000 Chevy Corvette ZR1, roaring with 755 horsepower for “raw, unbridled pleasure.” But he anointed the top prize on a mass-market electric sedan: Tesla’s Model 3.
Tesla, he argued, had brought a Silicon Valley sensibility to Motor City, and there was no going back. “The $55,000 Model 3 succeeds because it is Apple on wheels,” he wrote. “Musk re-imagined the car like Steve Jobs re-thought the phone—as a study in design minimalism that is both gorgeous and more efficient than established platforms.” He said his $55,000 all-wheel drive Model 3 Performance version was second in its class only to the exotic, athletic performance of cars like the $75,000 Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio.
Payne, whose twice-weekly auto column previously awarded top honors to the Ford F-150 (2014), Chevy Camaro (2015), Chrysler Pacifica (2016), said the old standards were fading. Auto executives told Payne privately that Tesla had won their admiration for innovations such as wireless updates and reimagined user interfaces, advancements others in the industry have yet to match.
They might also have added a transformative electric drivetrain, low-cost, long-range batteries, and unprecedented sales for an electric carmaker. Tesla is now regularly outpacing its premium competitors, with its Model S and Model X taking market share from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, and the Model 3 is expanding Tesla’s appeal beyond the luxury market. The Model 3 was the best-selling electric car in the US during the third quarter of 2018, and the fifth best-selling sedan overall. It has sold 114,472 units, more than four times that of the second-ranking Toyota Prius Prime.
If you’re waiting for Silicon Valley to vanquish Detroit, you’ll probably be disappointed. Tesla still has huge challenges ahead before it can secure its future as an independent carmaker, including shrinking federal incentives, struggling customer service, and limited charging infrastructure. The company also has a massive target on its back, with other automakers investing at least $90 billion in electrics over the coming years.
There are at least 64 players in the auto industry who have set up shop in Silicon Valley to learn from tech firms and integrate their technology into cars. The relationship that seems to be evolving is one of cooperation says Sven Beiker, a former BMW engineer who now runs the consulting firm Silicon Valley Mobility. “It used to us versus them,” he told Quartz. “It’s definitely more of partnership.”