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Who will build the electric car — start-ups or big firms?

Phoenix Motorcars

Phoenix Motorcars’ 1937 Cabriolet Reproduction (CARB certified)

While Hollywood focuses on the murder of the electric car, businesses continue to circle the opportunity. Mitsubishi is the latest, announcing last week that they are bringing their electric vehicle to the States (previously just destined for Japan). They join quite a few startups including Tesla and Phoenix Motorcars, as well as plug-in hybrids from “hacked” Toyotas and Fords.

For sure, electric cars, like hydrogen cars, are no panacea. They are zero-emissions vehicles, but that just means no emissions come out of the tailpipe. Electric vehicles still require energy to run, and usually that energy comes from a local utility, which certainly is a source of emissions. An electric car in Nebraska could be more properly thought of as a coal-powered car. Still, these vehicles create less emissions than comparable conventional autos, and that by itself is exciting.

What intrigues us is wondering which business will capture the electric car opportunity. Will focused startups win the race or do established firms have too much of an advantage? There is no doubt Tesla is hot, but can they really match the engineering and distribution muscle of Toyota?

Startups do have a history of innovating in transportation. Preston Tucker brought disc brakes and fuel injection to cars 30 years ahead of time. Of course, he also went bankrupt in the process.

Ultimately, electric cars may in fact be what business nerds term a disruptive innovation. Clayton Christenson might argue that the incumbents will be reluctant to chase the new technology, judging it to be inferior and not satisfactory for their mainstream clients. As an example, all the big telecom firms have neglected voice-over-IP services, letting companies like Vonage emerge.

Anyone care to take bets? Is Tesla the next Vonage? Or will Tesla’s fame be limited to a Francis Ford Coppola documentary?

Hat tip to Green Car Congress for the Mitsubishi news.

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