In its decade of existence, electric-car startup Tesla has accomplished many things the auto industry didn't think it could do.

But could Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] be as disruptive to the existing industry as were Toyota and Nissan, the two largest Japanese car importers during the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties?

That's the premise of Adam Jonas, who leads auto-industry research at Morgan Stanley. His quote ends an article in The New York Times last Friday.

That column, by noted financial author James Stewart, looked at Tesla's opportunities and challenges from the point of view of a potential buyer.

"There’s been a seismic change," Jonas says. "The auto industry hasn’t seen anything this disruptive since the dawn of the Japanese manufacturers.”

And the disruption Jonas cites was severe.

Small, reliable, fuel-efficient

Toyota and Nissan (then Datsun)--along with later arrival Honda--offered small, fuel-efficient cars (which Detroit said no one wanted) that were more reliable than anything coming from domestic competitors (a fact Detroit ignored for three decades).

Collectively, they went from selling fewer than 100,000 cars a year in the mid-Sixties to millions by the end of the Eighties.

They expanded their model lines, established U.S. assembly plants (under threat of import duties), and pioneered the crossover utility vehicle, among other achievements.

In 1970, General Motors alone made half the vehicles sold in the U.S. Last year, that number had fallen to 17.9 percent--an 88-year low.

The decline of the three domestic automakers is reflected in what they're called in the media: Many outlets now refer to the former "Big Three" simply as the "Detroit Three."

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk with Tesla Roadster

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk with Tesla Roadster

Tesla on top

Tesla has already surpassed most other notable automotive startups. At its current rate, it will have more than 26,000 cars on the world's roads by the end of the year.

That handily beats Delorean (9,000 cars), Bricklin (2,850 cars), and Tucker (a mere 51 cars) among the notable automotive startups of the past half-century.

The Tesla Roadster alone, even before it struggled into showrooms late in 2008, was enough of a goad to GM that the company green-lighted the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car (and protected it during its epic 2009 bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring).

The Volt remains the highest-selling plug-in electric car on U.S. roads, though Tesla's planned volume of 21,000-plus Model S cars during 2013 gets close to Volt numbers.

What are the risks?

So knowing that we have many Tesla fans and supporters in our audience, we have two questions.

What are the biggest risks that could prevent Tesla from growing into a global automaker of scale?

And, how will we know when Tesla has truly disrupted Detroit and the U.S. auto market?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below. Keep it polite, please!


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