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Starting an auto company is a high risk proposition. In the US, Tesla is the first successful auto startup in nearly a century.
The first great electric auto should have come from an existing manufacturer, but going all in electric is also high risk.
Part of the reason the Model S is so successful, is because it is purpose-built as a fully electric car. Tesla went all in. They don’t make gasoline cars, so their cars are built with full electric in mind from the very beginning.
If you want to make the perfect electric car, you don’t build a gasoline vehicle and then throw in an electric motor and battery. Yet, this and new hybrids like the Volt and i3/i8 are the best we’re seeing above the Nissan Leaf from other manufacturers (the only other purpose-built 100% EV – and also the best selling EV worldwide).
Existing auto manufacturers are hesitant to go all-electric. For one thing, enough batteries don’t currently exist to power all new cars, if they were all electric. If you produced 500,000 Model S size electric cars in a year, you would exhaust the entire world’s supply of lithium ion batteries. Tesla can’t produce at a rate faster than 50,000 per year at the moment because they are constrained by said battery supply. So they are solving the problem by literally doubling the world’s battery supply with an enormous, $5 Billion factory in Nevada.
This factory, the Gigafactory is a *huge* gamble, and if Tesla can’t sell enough cars and home batteries to make the factory worthwhile, *they will go bankrupt.* No one else wants to take these risks, so they’re sitting back, waiting for Tesla to take them first.
TL;DR: The EV business is extremely risky and only a Silicon Valley startup was willing to take on said risk.