Tesla isn’t a car company, and it isn’t a tech company — it’s a new GE for the 21st century, and it’s just getting started. Here’s how it could dominate the global business world. (TSLA)

  • Tesla has been labeled a tech company and a car company, but it’s neither — it’s a General Electric for the 21st century.
  • Tesla is already operating in the auto industry, the energy business, software, autonomous mobility, electric batteries, and residential solar.
  • Tesla could move into numerous other enterprises, from healthcare to robotics — all industries that should be important and valuable over the next 80 years.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.


I’ve covered Tesla for over a decade and for that entire time, I’ve constantly insisted that it isn’t a Silicon Valley tech company, but rather a carmaker. Just like General Motors, Toyota, Ford, or Mercedes-Benz, just with electric motors instead of internal-combustion engines.

Wrong! So wrong!

But not because Tesla is actually a Silicon Valley tech company. It isn’t. Silicon Valley doesn’t really create technology companies anymore; instead, it creates companies that sit on top of the internet — mainly the mobile internet these days — and sell attention-spans to advertisers and services to businesses. 

In effect, they’re media companies whose content is generated for free by users: Google searches, Facebook posts, and so on. Apple is an exception, but there we have a design firm, effectively, that lives on the exceptional profit margins of its premium devices, chiefly the iPhone.

There have always been powerful media companies and media conglomerates, but nobody ever confused them with old-economy technology companies, such as automakers, aviation giants, or even the first wave of computer companies, such as IBM.

Now that we’re something like four decades into the “tech” transformation of the economy, we’ve forgotten what actual technology companies look like. The best example, from the previous century, is General Electric, which can trace its roots to Thomas Edison and the late 19th century. GE is the quintessential American conglomerate.

But it’s importance, while still critical, has been fading. The successor, it dawned on me a few weeks ago, is Tesla.

It should have been obvious to me all along. Here’s why:

Both Tesla and General Electric have their roots in … electricity! Obviously, Thomas Edison, the father of the electric light bulb, brought electrification to the 20th century, starting in the late 19th.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison.

AP Photo/J. Walter Thompson


Tesla, of course, takes its name from Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor who both worked for Edison and later established a rivalry with him over different formats for electric current.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla.


Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons



Elon Musk is the 21st-century’s Edison. Not because he has invented anything in a lab, but because he’s used the modern machinery of Silicon Valley-style finance to create companies that can tackle global problems, mainly climate change.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press


Musk made millions when he and his partners, including Peter Thiel, sold PayPal to eBay. Musk then sunk everything he had into Tesla and his other company, SpaceX, while also helping his cousin, Lyndon Rive, launch SolarCity.

Elon Musk Tesla Roadster

Elon Musk stands in front of an original Tesla Roadster.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters


Musk was assembling a sustainable transportation-and-energy conglomerate from the very beginning. Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX were interconnected — a sort of pre-conglomerate, organized around world-changing technologies.

elon musk spacex

Elon Musk.


Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images



Meanwhile, the entrepreneurial Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs and Apple had given way to …

steve jobs

Steve Jobs.

Kristy MacDonald/AP


… the advertising-and-attention driven Silicon Valley of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook


Tesla didn’t make computers (although it used plenty of them) and it didn’t try to monetize online behavior. It made cars …

tesla roadster

An original Tesla Roadster.


Wikimedia Commons



… And later batteries …

Powerwall 1200px



YouTube/VideoMisery


… including some really large batteries for utilities …

tesla powerpack



Tesla


… And after it acquired SolarCity in 2016, integrated solar residential rooftops.

solar roof tesla



Tesla


Tesla is also developing a “full self-driving” system under its Autopilot brand.

Tesla autopilot

A Tesla Model S.

Tesla


And in the coming years, Tesla could enter the heating, cooling, and air-filtration business, building on the hospital-grade filtration technologies it already includes in several of its vehicles.

Tesla bioweapon defense mode

A Tesla Model X.


YouTube/PremiumMoto TV



Tesla also became a supplier of parts to ventilator makers during the COVID-19 pandemic — and developed a prototype of its own ventilator design, using auto parts. This indicated that Tesla could move into healthcare.

Tesla Ventilator



Tesla/Screenshot via YouTube


And for many years, Tesla has been working with robotics. Musk is particularly enthusiastic about highly automated factories.

Tesla D Getty 4



Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images


As a technology manufacturer, Tesla’s growth has been impressive over the past five years. It now has a factory in California …

tesla factory

Inside the Tesla factory in Fremont, California.

Tesla


… A battery plant in Nevada …

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Tesla Gigafactory near Sparks, Nevada, U.S. August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Tesla Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada.

Reuters


… A new plant in China …

Tesla China delivery ceremony

A Tesla Model 3 rolls off the assembly line at the Tesla factory in Shanghai, China.

REUTERS/Yilei Sun


… and is building a factory in Germany.

tesla factory

The newest Tesla Gigafactory will take shape in Berlin.

Google Maps


SpaceX also has a rocket factory — and Tesla has a design studio — in Los Angeles.

SpaceX

The SpaceX factory and Tesla design studio in the Los Angeles-area suburb of Hawthorne, California.

SpaceX


GE was considered one of America’s greatest corporations when it was led by the late Jack Welch.

jack welch

Former GE CEO Jack Welch.

REUTERS


After Welch stepped down, Jeff Immelt took over in 2001. He left in 2017, and since then, GE has been seen as a colossus in decline, although it still consists of a large number of vitally important businesses …

jeff immelt

Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


… From aviation …

General Electric GEnx engine

A General Electric GEnx engine.

Anthony Bolante/Reuters


… To healthcare.

Model AE Simple Test Lung Ventilator



Ford


This is Tesla’s destiny — to supplant the 20th century’s most important technology conglomerate and establish itself as the most important technology conglomerate of the 21st.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk.

REUTERS/Joe Skipper


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