by Neal Dikeman, chief blogger, Cleantech Blog
Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has been the electric vehicle darling since almost the day it launched. I’d argue there are some really neat aspects to its product and strategy, but it is far from a resounding market leader in EVs.
The Range and Battery Scale Advantage
There are a couple of really exciting things to like. Pulling a quick summary of the prices of all the pure electric vehicles currently selling in North America, I ranked them by EV Price/ Range. Tesla is and always has been the leader here. Down in the <$300/mile range, half of the i3. Quite frankly it’s been the only game in town for a 200 mi electric car.
And as lithium batteries are the big ticket item in an EV, and Tesla loads up on them, that confers some advantage to go with that high ticket price. It drives up its price and its range, and puts it still in a class by itself on range. But as you see when graph range vs price, packing all those batteries in also gives Tesla a huge nominal advantage over its competitors compared to where one would project it to be on price. Tesla talks like this is all technology and battery management that is hard for competitors to match, I think it may be just as much a combination of purchasing scale and simply an illustration of relative cost absorption in a high range EV (at the lower 70-90 mi range of everyone else, the car cost swamps the battery cost, and differential cost of a few mi in range is much less important than the luxury premium). You can see this illustrated in flatness of the PHEV version of the curve, and the wide differential between the i3 and LEAF, both very close in range. Of course, as we are largely comparing prices not costs, some dirt in the numbers is also certainly present.
Plug in hybrids as you’d expect show a much less dramatic differential and flatter curve, with most of the differential driven by luxury vs mass consumer car class than range. The game in PHEV’s appears to be minimize battery for maximum consumer taste and performance output.
Future Impacts of Scale?
The interesting bet however, is what happens in the future. Lithium ion batteries are one of the few fast falling cost items in a car, Tesla ought to be able to ride that curve down faster than the others, since it has both more purchasing power than its competitors (several x more battery kwh per car and one of the volume leaders in cars adds up), as well as a larger exposure in its vehicle unit cost structure in batteries than any of its competitors as the batteries make up such a major portion of its vehicle cost.
However, its attempt to vertically integrate upstream into batteries with the gigafactory might well work against it here, as it gains leverage on the materials in the value chain, but loses leverage against the manufacturing cost, locks in on a single battery design, and has to recover significant capital outlays its competitors do not.
If the rest of the lithium ion industry can cost down as fast or faster than Tesla, it loses out quickly. Alternately, when another car company rolls out a high range vehicle, Tesla’s advantage can erode fast. And finally, it is unclear whether either the PHEV or short range EV strategies, requiring fewer costly batteries, simply continue to outpunch Tesla with consumers. Like its zero emission credit advantage supporting profits when it first launched, this battery scale advantage may also be more short term than sustainable.
North American Market
But possibly most disturbing is trying to tie out this advantage to how Tesla is actually doing with this strategy in its core North American market. It’s now been hot and heavy in North America for a couple of years. Should be delivering results, but things are not quite that rosy for a $20 billion market cap “market leader”.
It was not first, Nissan with the LEAF and GM with the Chevy Volt beat it to the market.
Its core initial US market has seen basically flattish sales growth YoY going on 2 consecutive years now, ostensibly as it scrambled to open new markets overseas, including its struggling Asian market. But struggling to drive high growth in your first core market is never a good sign. One wonders how much excess demand per month actually exists for an $80K electric sports car, and if some of Tesla’s shift of production to seed overseas markets is simply a strategy to keep its domestic demand levels pent up, out of concern that there is not adequate growth possible at this price point in one market to satisfy Wall Street’s valuation. Not a bad idea, but does have implications. In counter point, while GM and Toyota also struggled for growth, Ford and Nissan delivered strong double digit growth in Tesla’s home market while it stayed flat, and BMW has started to chew the mid luxury market in between. One wonders if the strategy of twinning a low range low cost EV with PHEVs doesn’t simply deliver better product line punch than the high mileage high cost strategy.
Tesla is not the largest, and has never worn the crown of most EVs sold for a year, coming in 3rd and slipping to 4th in 2013 and 2014, and only barely edging out Ford so far for 2 months of 2015 and helped by weak Chevy sales months so far. Also probably helped as Tesla apparently had to shift about a month’s worth of car production into Q1 from production issues according to its annual letter.
Source: Insideevs.com tracker
Also pictured is the results from a second tracker with slightly different estimates claiming Tesla is actually ahead so far this year.
But almost as interesting to me has been the rise of the BMW. That i3 which is almost double Tesla’s price/mile is doing rather well. By some trackers has edged Tesla in sales of its i3 and i8 EV and PHEV in North America in 3 of the last 7 months, with less than a year under its belt. Arguably the i3 was aimed more at the Volt and LEAF than the Model S, but getting even remotely close to caught by an upstart short range BMW product this early in its cycle was I am sure never part of Tesla’s plan.
Do note that all Tesla monthly numbers are somewhat suspect, as the company does not publish anywhere near the detail that other automakers do. Charitably it is just playing cards close to the vest? Not just making it harder to analyze hidden growth misses?
All in all, a quite decent performance for a new auto maker, but far from the dominance you’d expect from a $20 billion market cap brand name.
The author does not own a securities position in TSLA. Any opinion expressed herein is the opinion of the author, not Cleantech Blog nor any employer or company affiliated with the author.