Vincent Bolloré v Elon Musk: which is better placed?

By June 28, 2016
véhicule électrique

Both champions of the electric car, both electricity storage enthusiasts, the two industrialists and their companies are hunting in the same neck of the woods but with different resources and different methods. And the tougher of the two is perhaps not the one you might expect.

In spite of the strikes and torrential rain deluging Paris, French state-owned public transport operator RATP recently announced the launch of its first electric Bluebus service. This is a bus that costs a little matter of half a million euros, i.e. double that of a traditional diesel bus, but which underlines the determination of both the RATP and the Paris public transport network authority (STIF) to implement cleaner public transport in Paris and the Ile-de-France region.

Image du bus électrique BluebusThe electric Bluebus, which came into service at the end of May

The Bluebus uses a Batscap battery, which is assembled in the Finistère region of north-west France. Behind the Breton venture is the most powerful businessman in the historic Armorica region. In 2012 Vincent Bolloré inaugurated the electric car sharing service Autolib’ in Paris, which has since been rolled out in Bordeaux and Lyon as well as outside France.

Over 20 years of R&D

Aside from the environmental benefits that the French public transport operator and a number of major cities count on when they install electric transportation services, it is interesting to look at the approach taken by the Bolloré Group, which is behind the venture. Since 2001, Bolloré has been channelling a major part of its R&D into creating electric batteries through a company called Batscap – now re-named BlueSolutions – which is an umbrella entity for all the Group’s electricity storage businesses. BlueSolutions employs 300 researchers, boasts over 20 years of R&D, and has received investment of close to €2 billion.

Electricity the Bolloré BlueSolutions way

Very different methods

Without any fanfare, Bolloré started out by positioning itself not in the electric transport sector, but in the electricity storage business, just like that other iconic pioneer of the electric car, South African-born American Elon Musk. Musk is well-known for his top-of-the-range Tesla electric sports cars, which are a long way away from the Autolib’ ‘yoghourt pots’, even though these are branded Pininfarina. So between the adoptive Californian and the Breton – whose methods are very different – who is the more impressive?

Voiture Tesla en rechargement

Tesla vehicle recharging

When he founded Tesla Motors in 2003, Elon Musk had to make a considerable investment in his bid to launch a car that could not afford to be anything other than a top-of-the-range vehicle, with amazing design and performance, as the aim was to penetrate the highly mature US automobile market. Musk’s strategy is all about high-profile coups, using PR stunts to make his brand the next ‘must have’. As a result, he is still afloat today, despite suffering big losses – $200 million last year alone. His latest bet is the opening of the Tesla Gigafactory 1, which will produce lithium-ion batteries. Last year he revealed that the true mission of his company is not to manufacture cars, but to produce storage batteries, accordingly unveiling the Tesla Powerwall designed for use by companies and in the home.

Broad enough shoulders?

In terms of figures you cannot really compare the Bolloré venture with Tesla, apart from one aspect: Bolloré claim they are investing €2 billion in development. Meanwhile Tesla, star of the Nasdaq, with its $30 billion valuation, has raised and invested in the business some $2 billion in capital. But can Bolloré really compete with Musk? Can a French manufacturer which produces small cars for local authorities rival Tesla, now widely touted as an example of a major disruptor of the automobile industry in the United States?

Image de Vincent Bolloré
Vincent Bolloré: Frederic Legrand - COMEO

In any case there is a pretty big difference between the two. Bolloré is a sound traditional manufacturing corporation with a market valuation of €12 billion and annual turnover of €10 billion, for which electric technology is a promising sideline. Meanwhile Tesla is still not making a profit. And if the Tesla group – cars and batteries – does not manage to reassure investors soon, the firm could be facing a slump in its share price, as happened this February when the fall in the oil price combined with lower demand for cars meant that the company took a sharp, rapid dive on the Nasdaq.

Whither the bounding Breton?

The French electric car champion has therefore no need to quail before the Californian roar. The Bluebus project is proving a success and now Bolloré is making the bluesummer car in partnership with Renault and Peugeot Citroën, plus also the e-Mehari. Moreover, since 2013 Bolloré has been testing its high capacity storage batteries for companies with French power generation company Compagnie Nationale du Rhône. So might Vincent achieve success while Elon is still trying things out? Meanwhile Musk’s successes in the space sector with his revolutionary re-useable SpaceX rocket might well put ideas in the head of the bounding Breton.

See article in French on the future of mobility by Guillaume Degroisse, Global Head of Marketing & Content at L'Atelier


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