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Tesla is a no-show at electric car conference

Eric Evarts
Consumer Reports officially recommends the Tesla Model S

Electric car advocates meeting in San Diego this week for Plug-In 2013 should be celebrating: After decades of effort, major automakers have sold hundreds of thousands of electrified cars in California and across the country. Instead, the organization is focusing on how to sell even more electric cars by, for example, installing more and faster public car chargers accessible to more drivers, developing longer-range electric cars, or convincing consumers to sacrifice the automotive ideal of driving anyplace at any time. But the invisible 800-lb. gorilla in the room is Tesla. (Read our full Tesla Model S road test.)

The California automaker—whose cars are the envy of most companies in the  industry—skipped the event. And why not? Tesla already builds long-range electric cars, and it has rolled out scores of free fast chargers across the country (albeit accessible only to its own customers who have paid at least $60,000 for their cars).

Meanwhile, the rest of the industry is moving on at this event as if Tesla doesn’t exist, in part because its cars are so expensive and because the company isn’t on hand to represent itself. Big automakers and utilities, the primary players at this conference, have been working together for decades to figure out how to make electric cars more attractive to consumers. And it makes sense for them to continue their efforts.

But, for better or worse, Tesla is like the Apple of the electric-car industry: moving forward with its own standards and not playing nice with established players. And its products, based on its own closed system, have won virtually every accolade in the traditional automobile industry, including Consumer Reports’ recommendation and our highest test score ever. (Turns out, even its crash test scores are exemplary.)

It’s not uncommon for revolutionary new technologies to start at the high end, with expensive luxury products and trickle down. So far, Tesla’s excellent-but-expensive Model S has been outselling most dedicated electric cars on the market. Although Nissan is doing well with its Leaf, and the Ford Focus Electric is gaining ground. And while there can’t be enough $90,000 electric-car buyers to sustain that pace, the underlying question here at Plug-In 2013 is, how long could the strong pace last? In the meantime, it looks like a standards war akin to the Apple/PC divide in the 1980s and '90s is brewing in electric cars.

Learn more about electric cars in our alternative fuel special section.

Eric Evarts

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