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A legendary car executive thinks Tesla is facing the 'trifecta of doom'
Tesla will report third-quarter earnings next week. The second half of October has been rough for Elon Musk's startup electric-car maker. The biggest issue arose when Consumer Reports pulled its "recommended" rating for the company's Model S sedan, citing an annual owners survey that found the vehicle wanting.
That sent the stock into a decline, although it now appears to have stabilized at around the $212 level.
Who knows if Wall Street is just holding its breath ahead of an earnings report in which Tesla will admit that it can't make its 2015 goal of between 50,000 and 55,000 vehicle deliveries — it has about 17,000 to go in the fourth quarter? Regardless, a well-know and outspoken voice in the industry says that Tesla could be in trouble.
Bob Lutz was General Motors' car guru before and after the company's bankruptcy. Before that, he put in stints with Chrysler and BMW. He's a car guy's car guy.
And writing in Road and Track, he's someone who's worried about Tesla's future.
"Tesla's showing all the signs of a company in trouble: bleeding cash, securitized assets, and mounting inventory," Lutz writes. "It's the trifecta of doom for any automaker, and anyone paying attention probably saw this coming a mile away."
[C]heap gasoline isn't helping Tesla's case. Right now, prices around the country are hovering close to $2 a gallon. If that's bad news for the Prius and the Volt, it's worse for the Model S.
In addition, there's never been any secret sauce to the company's battery technology. The automakers that bought into Tesla's tech early did so to avoid having to pony up development dollars on first-generation battery packs of their own. Now that Audi has announced it's getting into the EV game, Tesla should be even more concerned.
I talked to Lutz last year when the paperback edition of his book, "Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership," came out. Then, he was fairly direct about the reality of Tesla's market position.
"There's nothing about [Tesla's] battery technology that can't be copied by another car company," he said. "Or it could simply buy batteries."
Lutz argued that Tesla's success is due in part to design, and I tend to agree with him. Prior to Tesla, electric cars were boring and virtuous. After Tesla, they became hot, fast, and sexy.
But Lutz has now advanced his critique of Tesla. His new concern is costs, and he's focused on the difficulties of operating "stores," aka dealerships, that aren't independently run by a dealer network:
Nobody has ever been successful with company stores, though plenty of manufacturers have tried them. When I came to BMW in the Seventies, it had five factory stores. The idea was, like Tesla, to be in control of the retail environment and give customers an upscale experience. They were all money pits.
I think Tesla CEO Elon Musk figured that if factory stores work for Apple, they'll work for Tesla. But the fixed costs for an Apple store are next to nothing compared with a car dealership's. Smartphones and laptops don't need anything beyond a mall storefront and a staff of kids. A car dealership is very different.
Lutz goes on to maintain that, despite his admiration for Musk, Tesla could be headed toward the same fate as nearly every other startup automaker in the past 100 years: failure.
I'm not so sure. Almost a decade ago, I also wrote about how Tesla wasn't long for the world. And although Musk and Co. went through several crises and flirted with bankruptcy, the company hasn't merely survived — it's prospered. I learned then to be very careful about underestimating Tesla's resilience.
That said, Lutz's credibility is immense. And without question, Wall Street is likely bracing for some bad news next week. What Lutz does contribute to the discussion, minus his more dire prognostications, is that Tesla is increasingly functioning like a real car company. For Lutz, that means it has to start thinking about selling a cheaper car and maybe even going with a hybrid strategy, adding a range-extending gas engine to its lineup.
A crazy idea? Musk would probably think so.
But it is a crazy idea coming from Bob Lutz.