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Image credit: Roberto Baldwin / Engadget

Can Tesla avoid becoming the BlackBerry of electric cars?

Building cars is hard.
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Roberto Baldwin / Engadget

It wasn't that long ago that the idea of a semi-autonomous, or even an electric car, driving on public roads was incredibly far-fetched. Sure, there were hybrids from companies like Toyota and Honda, but nothing that anyone with a straight face would call cool. Tesla changed all that, first with its roadster but then (more importantly) with its Model S and Autopilot. Its cars had an EV range of more than 200 miles and made caring about the environment and driving "the future" a status symbol. Tesla changed everything in the automotive world and now, well now, the industry has caught up and Elon Musk's company is mired in what he calls "production hell."

Tesla -- even with all its faults -- has been incredibly important to the auto industry. In 2006 Musk dropped his master plan to sell high-end EVs to the well-off to help create an electric car for everyone. Car startups, even from established automakers, tend to die a sad, long death (anyone remember Saturn or, more recently, Scion?). But Tesla had hype and a grand vision on its side. It took a while though -- 11 years -- before the company delivered the first of its affordable Model 3s to customers.

During that time, though, other automakers paid attention to the Silicon Valley company as it gained attention for its cars and Autopilot (its semi-autonomous feature). This is especially true on the high end of the market. "Tesla has been very influential in motivating the luxury brands to offer similar capabilities," Gartner lead automotive analyst Mike Ramsey told Engadget.

It was more than the fear of missing out on the self-driving future that lit a fire under automakers. With the Model S, Tesla demonstrated that people actually wanted an electric car. So while it was working on generating the capital and buzz for its Model 3, automakers like GM pounced and introduced their own electric cars. The result is the Bolt, a long-range EV with a price tag of just under $30,000 with tax credits applied. Detroit took Tesla's plan and beat it to market.

Meanwhile, Tesla is struggling to get its Model 3 out of its factory. "The problem is its popularity has risen so much that scale has become a bigger and bigger part of its business, and it is no longer, in reality, a tech company; it is a manufacturing company, for better or for worse," Ramsey said.

Innovation is important to any industry, and Tesla does that. But where does it go from here? Even if it hits its production goals, it'll be over a year before anyone who orders a Model 3 today will have it delivered to her garage. In the automotive world, that's not a win, and the long lead time could affect the company's health long-term, which could impact the battery and solar-panel portions of the company.

If Tesla wants to get those cars on the road, it needs to focus less on car innovation and more on improving its manufacturing. People want to get behind the wheel of Musk's master plan.

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Tesla doesn't consider itself a car company in the traditional sense. In addition to cars, SUVs and an upcoming semi, it also has the Energy portion of the business. The Powerwall and Powerpack help keep electricity flowing to homes, offices and more importantly, the grid. It's solar panels and Solar Roof help homeowners reduce their electric bill and carbon footprint. Everything the company does is centered around a goal of reducing the filth we push into the air. It's a lofty and commendable mission.

But it's the cars that get the press, and that makes them an important part of the company's bottom line and brand. Even if absolutely everything goes wrong for the company, Musk's 11-year-old manifesto will still come true. Automakers are onboard for an electrified future with many promising EV or hybrid models in 2019. And it's tough to find a company that's not working on an autonomous car. So even if Tesla loses, it still won.

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