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Forget the Roadster and the Semi — Tesla’s fate still hinges on the Model 3

Forget the Roadster and the Semi — Tesla’s fate still hinges on the Model 3


Elon Musk, the master of misdirection

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There was a lot of pomp and circumstance at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters for the big Tesla Semi truck unveiling. There was even a surprise cameo from the ghost of Tesla’s Christmas past: the second generation of the Roadster. But at no point did CEO Elon Musk mention the car on which the fate of his entire company still hinges: the Model 3.

It’s not totally shocking. After all, the Model 3 had its own party earlier this year. But since then, Tesla’s first high-volume, mass-market vehicle has hit a number of snags.

Musk, the master of misdirection

When Musk launched the Model 3 in July, the company was anticipating a production rate of 20,000 cars a month by the end of December. In the last quarter, though, Tesla produced only 260 Model 3s — about three cars a day. That’s well behind a normal pace of about one car per minute. Earlier this month, Tesla pushed back its target for volume production on the Model 3 — widely seen as crucial to the company’s long-term future — by about three months to fix production bottlenecks.

In all likelihood, the unveiling of the Semi truck and the Roadster was meant to achieve two outcomes: distract investors and Wall Street analysts from the Model 3’s production woes, while also recapturing some of the excitement and magic that helped propel Tesla to its current heights as one of the most valuable automakers in the US.

“I do feel like the company needed to generate a little bit of excitement,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds. “[Musk] needed a shiny new object to wave in front of everyone’s faces.”

Photo: Tesla

Some analysts feared that the truck and the Roadster would prove to be an expensive distraction for the company, which has never posted a profit and currently describes itself as in “production hell” trying to get the Model 3 out the door. Production of the truck and the sports car are aimed at 2019 and 2020 releases, respectively.

Tesla spent $1.1 billion on its auto business in the most recent quarter, and it expects expenses of $1 billion in the current one. The company had about $3.5 billion in cash and cash equivalents as of September 30th. At the current cash-burn rate, Tesla would likely be down to about $1 billion in cash by the end of the first quarter of 2018. That’s not good, and the potential outcome of such an event helps explain the timing of the Roadster’s reveal.

“Tesla is burning cash at an alarming rate.”

“I feel there is a combination of throwing out a bright, shiny object for the media and fans to focus on and then using that as yet another way to raise capital,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant. “Tesla is burning cash at an alarming rate and another share sale or sale of more junk bonds would be problematic.”

At the event, Musk said interested buyers could reserve a Tesla Roadster now, with a $50,000 deposit on its estimated $200,000 base price, or pick up one of the 1,000 more powerful Founders Series cars by paying the full $250,000 now. It was very clearly framed as a way for Tesla to raise a lot of money for its short-term commitments. If the company finds a thousand takers for the Founder’s series Roadsters, that’s $250 million added to Tesla’s cash balance.

“Essentially doing a Kickstarter for these cars strikes me as a cynical move by a company that is struggling to come to grips with the basics of mass manufacturing and making a profit,” Abuelsamid said. “That said, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head and they are free to do spend their wealth however they please. There are many true believers beyond Elon himself and they want to keep funding the dream.”

For all the breathless coverage it seems to get (guilty!), it’s easy to forget how small Tesla’s impact on the automotive world really is. In the five years since Tesla started producing its Model S, the company has sold about 200,000 cars. The US has more than 250 million passenger cars on the road, making the impact of this, roughly, close to zero. Which is not to say that Tesla’s mission to liberate us from our addiction to fossil fuels isn’t noble. And the company’s ability to steer most of its competitors toward their own electrification plans is incredibly powerful and has helped solidify Tesla as a leader in sustainable transportation.

But if the company can’t get its shit together and start delivering the Model 3 in high volume, all of its efforts could be for naught. If the Model 3 fails to catch fire, demand for EVs could drop overall. States may start to reconsider tax credits and other incentives used to lure consumers to consider electric transportation. Plans to build more charging stations so people can assume a certain level of reliability may fall apart. The country could retreat further from the environmental standards and the oil and gas industry would sink its claws deeper into our institutions.

Okay, that all sounded bad. I’m not saying the future of sustainability relies on the Model 3. But in all honesty, maybe it does.