Inside the industry: New Tesla approach is to kill rivals with kindness

Does anyone say wonder why Ford boss Jim Farley and Tesla’s Elon Musk are trying to kill each other with kindness at present?

The outpouring of warm words following the launch of the electric Ford F-150 Lightning can surely only mask darker thoughts as the two get set to fight in the lucrative US pick-up market.

Tesla has the Cybertruck on the way – or at least, it’s meant to. Unveiled in 2019 to much fanfare (mostly for its looks and partly because a window smashed when Musk tried to demonstrate its bulletproofness), its late-2021 launch is rumoured to have been pushed back due to issues including getting its outlandish styling to meet crash regulations.

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Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Ford (whose financial fortunes have in recent years often been driven more by its American trucks than its entire European business) got a jump by confirming that the F-150 Lightning will reach buyers next year.

Potentially, the two trucks will arrive in showrooms at the same time. Order slots for both can be secured with a refundable $100 deposit; Musk claimed 250,000 in the first week after unveiling and Farley declared 50,000 after just 48 hours – both of which are strong figures in a country where EV sales are still below 2% of the total.

Cybertruck versus F-150 Lightning, then, has all the makings of war, particularly when you consider the cash at stake, the F-Series taking more than 750,000 annual sales and having been rated by Bernstein Research almost a decade ago to have raked in £35bn before interest and taxes. Investing in new tech won’t help that return but should extend it.

So, why has Musk fallen over himself to congratulate Farley on the electric Ford’s launch? I suspect that it’s the start of a communications shift on the Tesla boss’s part, as highlighted also by his cosying up to Volkswagen Group counterpart Herbert Diess on European matters.

It’s hard not to suspect that Musk now recognises Tesla is no longer the free-thinking upstart it once was, and that its position is most threatened by established manufacturers muscling in on its space. It’s better, then, for him to take the higher ground, emphasise Tesla’s pioneering position at every opportunity and bask in the glow of leadership.

Better still, a vibrant mainstream – typified by Ford and VW on different continents – only heaps pressure on the premium brands that have Tesla and its Californian-minded clientele in their sights.

Maybe Musk’s warmth stems from knowing Ford and VW will never truly be rivals and that by bigging them up, he’s obliquely highlighting how far Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz et al still have to go.