Tesla continues to walk the tightrope

One simple slide in a PowerPoint presentation by a Tesla official at an auto convention in Washington this month did almost as much damage as Elon Musk’s rocket blowing up soon after liftoff.

JB Straubel, chief technological officer and co-founder of Tesla Motors, put up a slide on June 15 indicating that Tesla’s Model 3 would not “begin production until 2018.” This apparent delay set the new vehicle back from the previously announced deadline of 2017 and almost knocked the company for a loop. The website Inside EVs broke the story, as it were, and word of the PPT slide was repeated in countless news stories. The interpretation was clear: Once again, Tesla had been forced to postpone key product rollout.

Within hours, Tesla had assured investors and analysts that it was not changing its schedule. The $35,000 Model 3 will be available in 2017, as previously planned. “Contrary to speculative blogger reports, we still plan to show Model 3 in 2016 and begin production in 2017,” Ricardo Reyes, vice president of communications, tweeted. The statement about production in 2018 was said to refer to “full production,” an attempt at back-filling that many analysts viewed with a grain of salt.

Whether the reference to 2018 was just a typographical error or an inadvertent peek under the kimono, the controversy showed how delicately balanced Tesla’s position is, both in terms of meeting customer expectations and in raising money to continue its projects.

Missing deadlines would certainly be nothing new for Tesla. In February 2012 the company said its crossover Model X would be available by the end of 2013. In February 2013, it said it would be late 2014. In November 2013 the company announced that a small number would be available by the end of 2014, but actual deliveries would not begin until the third quarter of 2015. Everyone is waiting to see if this deadline will be kept. Meanwhile, speculation has increased that any delay in the debut of the Model 3 may be due to the resources that have been spent trying to get the Model X out the door.

The Model 3 is Tesla’s bid for the big time. The car is projected to have a range of 500 miles and would be priced at the aforementioned $35K, less than half of the $79,570 MSRP of the 2015 Tesla Model S. The Model 3 is intended to be a mass-market sedan that’s well within the reach of the average car buyer. Musk, Tesla’s flamboyant co-founder and CEO, hopes to sell 500,000 versions of the Model 3 by 2020, a feat that could put Tesla on a firm financial footing.

But there are pending obstacles. One is the Chevrolet Bolt, a plug-in all-electric that is the successor to the Volt, a plug-in hybrid. GM demonstrated the Bolt in a sample model this month and will also be priced in the $35,000 range. GM promised to have the Bolt on the market by early 2017, which would beat Tesla’s Model 3 out of the gate.

Whether electric-car buyers will be attracted to the Bolt – or whether they will wait for what will almost certainly be a superior product from Tesla – is a hotly debated question. “GM is ramping up to make 20,000 Bolts. Tesla is ramping up to make 500,000,” said one commenter to a Wall Street Journal story. “When a company names its new car the ‘Bolt,’ Tesla has little to worry about,” said another. But other readers cited GM’s superior service network, and the company’s long history of making money, while Tesla has only lost money.

One thing is certain: Tesla is building brand loyalty. A survey of 145 Tesla owners by automotive analyst Dan Dolev of Jeffries found that 85 percent said their next car would also be a Tesla, and 25 percent wouldn’t even consider another brand. Eighty-three percent said they would recommend Tesla to their friends, and a remarkable 89 percent said they would still buy a Tesla without the $7,500 federal government tax break. The owners also turned out to be not nearly as rich as expected. Almost 70 percent had previously owned cars that cost less than $60,000, including ones as modest as a $15,000 Toyota Highlander. They paid an average premium of 80 percent over their previous car when they bought a Tesla. As a result of the survey, Jeffries raised its target price for Tesla stock to $350 from its current $265.

The battery-producing Gigafactory outside Reno is moving ahead on schedule, with the first phase of the structure near completion and machinery is about to be moved in. The current phase represents only 14 percent of the planned layout. Once completed, the Gigafactory will be the largest building in the world, with a footprint of 5.8 million square feet and two stories of manufacturing totaling 10 million square feet. Panasonic, Tesla’s battery partner, is expected to send hundreds of workers to the site this fall to prepare for full-scale production. The factory will also employ hundreds of local workers.

Wall Street Journal columnist Charley Grant threw a wrench into the works recently when he wrote that Tesla is still burning through cash and probably will run out of money if the Model X does not sell as expected. He says the company should sell another issue of stock while the price is still high. He suggested that a price of $200, 25 percent below the current market rate, could raise $750 million and carry the company over to the introduction of the Model 3.

Whether the company will dilute ownership or take a chance that Model X sales will reverse its cash flow is just one of the many decisions Musk will be facing in the near future. One thing is certain: He will be balancing atop that high wire for several years to come.

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