You are here

Tesla: Just Another Car Company

by HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. | Wall Street Journal | 03-24-2015

Elon Musk has proved that a market exists for electric cars, despite their many inconveniences, especially if they come wrapped in taxpayer subsidies. He hasn’t proved he can make a profit.

His idea of an industry at scale, he would probably be loath to admit, almost certainly depends on government intervention to make gasoline-powered cars increasingly prohibited. His gigafactory, to which he will commit $2 billion to double the world-wide capacity of existing lithium-ion batteries, is a mute acknowledgment that he sees no battery breakthroughs in the offing that would transform the problems of range anxiety and recharge times.

His latest announcement at least has him no longer attacking journalists who mention the problem of range. He updated the car’s software so it will constantly tell the driver if he can hope to reach his destination or the nearest charging station. When a driver gets there, though, he’ll still spend hours, not minutes, filling up. 

Mr. Musk also announced new self-driving features like those all auto makers are working on or have introduced in luxury cars that compete with Tesla’s. He’s been playing catch-up in safety technology too. Even Tesla’s innovations with electric power are not so alien and revolutionary that other car makers have not been able quickly to adopt them for their own vehicles. 

In what way, then, is Tesla disruptive, the fanboy description of companies that come along and render obsolete what went before? 

Good question. When a user leaves his driveway in a Tesla, he still wastes time staring out a windshield and gripping a wheel. He still sits in traffic. As with any other car, Tesla’s electronics are long out of date before the car’s useful life has expired. As with any other car, a Tesla owner ties up thousands of dollars in a piece of equipment that sits idle 95% of the time. Uber is disruptive. Tesla isn’t. Tesla is disruptive mostly of a driver’s confidence that he’s going to reach his destination without needing a tow. 

Tesla solves no problem of the automobile. It only creates a new problem.

Nonetheless Tesla’s stock price is impressive, even if it is down recently. At $25 billion, Tesla is worth almost half of Ford, though Ford sells 70 times as many vehicles, and profitably. 

As the perpetually blunt Sergio Marchionne of Fiat Chrysler has pointed out, Obama fuel-economy rules virtually require car companies to produce electric cars at a loss. Part of Tesla’s market value, then, is attributable to the likelihood that it will be acquired by another car maker needing electric vehicles to offset its gasoline-powered vehicles. But here’s an irony: In a world where other car makers are forced to build and sell electric cars too, Tesla’s golden brand gives it a leg up, but Tesla does not have the option of forever losing money on electric cars. To fully realize its brand value Tesla might have to sell itself to an auto maker that does.

California has tried to solve this problem for Tesla with its zero-emissions vehicle mandates, which have other makers buying ZEV credits from Tesla. But the sheer idiocy of these subsidies is a continual risk to Tesla. A ZEV car in California is one with zero emissions at the tailpipe, no matter how much environmental degradation it causes upstream. Toyota, for one, has recently switched its attention to hydrogen-fueled cars, which emit only water and warm air at the tailpipe, never mind that 95% of the world’s hydrogen is manufactured from fossil fuels.

Policies that are so transparently stupid and perverse, like the policy of subsidizing rich people with $7,500 tax credits to indulge themselves with Tesla’s products, would not seem a sound basis for a scale auto manufacturer, which Tesla aspires to become.

On any given day a meme could get rolling in the media that the policies that prop up Tesla are a fraud, pretending to do something about global warming when they don’t. Even if the electricity powering a Tesla didn’t come mostly from coal, the niche in which Tesla competes, luxury cars, is a vanishingly small part of the putative problem. In fact, passenger cars of every description account for less than 5% of greenhouse-gas emissions.

What P.T. Barnum said about the American public may be doubly true of American politicians, but even a congressman might come to see through Mr. Musk’s feverish attempts to associate Tesla with solar power even though a Tesla is not a solar-powered car. 

Mr. Musk has done a superb job of casting a glow of political nicey-nice around his company. He’s a brilliant entrepreneur. Unlike some other overconfident public figures, Mr. Musk probably won’t embarrass his investors by texting photos of his private parts to strange women or joking about President Obama’s taste in movies. But overlooked may be a considerable amount of political risk that’s not properly reflected in Tesla’s stock price.