Why India is better off without Musk and Tesla


Elon’s insistence on conditions unacceptable to the Indian government may be a major gift: It will provide the Indian automotive industry with the space necessary to build vehicles that will take the global automotive industry by storm.

Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk dances onstage during a delivery event for Tesla China-made Model 3 cars in Shanghai, China January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Tesla will not put a manufacturing plant in any location where we are not allowed first to sell & service cars,” tweeted Elon Musk in response to a question about its plans for India. Like some other things Elon has been saying of late, this did not reflect the reality. Many Indian states, and the central government, have been bending over backwards to get Tesla to establish a manufacturing plant in India and take advantage of the country’s massive market. What Elon wanted, and India was not prepared to offer, was a licence to import its Chinese-made vehicles without any duties, providing it with an advantage over every other company.

India made the right decision in locking the Chinese-made Teslas out, because India is developing a new generation of electric vehicles (EVs), built for the masses, which could dominate global markets. These incorporate the latest technology breakthroughs — unlike the Teslas, which are now a decade old with little more than some software upgrades and a dangerous autonomous-driving technology.

For India, in this age of rapidly expanding technologies, Teslas are as out of date as the 1950s vintage Hindustan Ambassador cars that dominated its roads until the mid-80s. The concept car that Tata has developed, the Avinya, is what Tesla should have evolved into six years ago. The next-generation Mahindra’s EVs will be as functional as the Tesla Model 3, and cost less than half as much. I can’t wait for these to be available in the United States (US).

Before you write me off as another Tesla short-seller or someone with an axe to grind, let me tell you about my background with Elon and Tesla.

I became one of the first purchasers of the Model S after Elon had me bumped to the front of the waiting list in 2012. Elon had endorsed my first book, Immigrant Exodus, and disclosed for perhaps the first time his plans to retire on Mars, at a discussion we held at an event at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. In those days, Tesla was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Elon was taking incessant fire from sceptical journalists, particularly one from The New York Times. In an article in The Washington Post, I proclaimed myself a “Tesla fanboy” and raved about the Model S, calling it a “spaceship on wheels”. Subsequently, I wrote many articles defending and praising Elon.

I also sold my original Tesla and bought a new one in 2016, to be ready for the software upgrades that Elon said would add autonomous-driving capabilities within two years. E-mails from his sales executives confirmed that the car I was purchasing had all the hardware necessary for what Tesla calls full self-driving (FSD).

But the upgrades never arrived. Tesla’s technology is essentially the same as it was a decade ago. Now I am told that if I want the full self-driving features, I will need to buy another new car — and pay an additional $12,000 for FSD. Frankly, given the many reports about Tesla collisions and the negative experiences I have had, I don’t trust anything that the company says. The car’s autopilot once drove the car into my garage door, and I’ve had many close calls on the road, including while being filmed by PBS NewsHour’s Paul Solman for a segment in which I was raving about my Tesla.

I don’t think that Tesla’s technology will ever drive itself safely because it lacks the proper sensors, relying only on cameras. But companies such as Waymo and Cruise, which are using more advanced sensors and treading more carefully, surely will. I had even purchased a Model X because I wanted a more modern look and feel — but I returned it because the interior was constructed of what seemed to be cheap plastic, and the car had design defects.

Therefore, a decade after falling in love with Tesla, I am ready to break up.

India, lacking the gigafactories that Tesla built in the US and China, could be left behind in battery production. But, here too, time and technology may be on India’s side. The dark horse in this race is Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani, who recently purchased a British company, Faradion, for 100 million pounds. In email exchanges, I surmised that he had global ambition concerning sodium-ion batteries.

Faradion’s sodium-ion batteries have almost the same energy density and power as the lithium cells that Tesla uses, but can be produced for a fraction of the price, without the environmental destruction, because sodium is abundant and easy to capture. The slight trade-off in extra mass may be worth it to EV manufacturers, because most people don’t need the 300-mile range that US consumers desire. The sodium-ion batteries also perform better in the cold and aren’t subject to the thermal runaway that has led lithium-ion batteries to burst into flames.

Elon’s insistence on conditions unacceptable to the Indian government may be a major gift to India: It will provide the Indian automotive industry with the space necessary to build vehicles that will take the global automotive industry by storm. And they will eat Elon’s lunch.


Vivek Wadhwa. Photo: Linkedin

Vivek Wadhwa is the author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation 



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here