Will Three Model S Fires make Tesla join the Long Line of Green Car Company Failures?

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 10th, 2013

Week in Review

Tesla has had three car fires with their Model S in six weeks.  Causing their stock price to slide after surging earlier in the year.  Forbes wrote about those better days in a May article that is making the rounds again.  Explaining why Tesla was escaping the fate of so many other green car companies (see The Real Reason Tesla Is Still Alive (And Other Green Car Companies Aren’t) by Joann Muller posted 5/11/2013 on Forbes).

Add VPG to the growing list of recent green car failures: Bright Automotive (electric delivery vans) , Carbon Motors (clean diesel-powered police cars), Aptera Motors (three-wheeled electric cars), Coda Automotive (inexpensive electric sedans) and, arguably the most infamous, Fisker Automotive (plug-in hybrid sports cars).

All had applied for financing under a $25 billion U.S. Energy Department loan program to promote development of cleaner cars, but only Fisker and VPG managed to draw the lucky tickets. Fisker was awarded $529 million (but received only $193 million before the DOE cut them off because of missed milestones) and VPG received $50 million. But now, they’re all dead, or almost dead. (One exception: tiny Wheego Electric of Atlanta, an EV start-up that started out making glorified golf carts and now sells a handful of bubble-shaped two-seaters with a top speed of 65 mph. The company is talking about introducing a $44,000 electric SUV next, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

That leaves only Tesla Motors TSLA -1.27%, maker of the plug-in Tesla roadster and the new Model S sedan, still standing. Which begs the question: why has Tesla made it when so many others have not..?

Experience, for one thing. While most of the other green car start-ups were founded by traditional car guys with a dream but little experience running a company, Tesla founder Elon Musk, with degrees in physics and business, had already built and sold one successful company, PayPal, (to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion) and also runs SpaceX, a maker of rockets and spacecraft. He had the stomach to push through difficult times, and the chutzpah to twist the arms of reluctant investors…

Tesla has been clever in other ways, too. It sells credits it receives from the state of California for producing zero emissions vehicles to other automakers that aren’t so clean. At up to $35,000 per vehicle, it’s a windfall that has helped keep the company alive, according to Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski. “At the end of the day, other carmakers are subsidizing Tesla,” Koslowski told the Los Angeles Times.

While true until now, Tesla says those credits will decline as sales spread beyond California and into Europe.  In the first quarter, Tesla said credits sold to other automakers amounted to approximately $68 million or 12% of its revenues.

So the long list of green car company failures tells us there is no market for these cars.  Making it a poor economic model.  Companies that have depended on selling cars to succeed have failed.  But if you’re creative and can think of other sources of cash you can keep a green car company in business even without selling cars.  But tax credits and government loans still weren’t enough to fund Tesla.

Musk, luckily, is a billionaire. He pocketed roughly $180 million as a cofounder of PayPal, and helped get Tesla off the ground in 2004 with an initial investment of $6.3 million. He put in another $20 million in 2007, and then in fall of 2008, with the company on the verge of collapse as the economy seized to a halt, Musk was virtually broke. He spent his last $20 million trying to keep the company afloat, while living off personal loans from friends.

The $465 million government loan helped, as did Tesla’s initial public offering in 2010, which raised $226 million.

Today, Musk is worth almost $3.8 billion — $1 billion more than Forbes estimated less than three months ago. Tesla stock has surged 40 percent this week alone, following the positive earnings report and the Consumer Reports review…

Musk could well make it happen because unlike those other green car companies, he has things you can’t get from the government: huge skin in the game, passion and talent.

This is why Tesla is still in business while those other green car companies are not.  Passion.  Something that is hard to truly appreciate unless you’re an entrepreneur.  And lots and lots of money.  While other companies ran out Musk was still able to go on by putting his money where his passion is.  Makes you want to cheer him on to success.  Even if you don’t believe the electric car is a valid economic model.  You love gasoline.  And you love the internal combustion engine.

Will those three fires in 6 weeks be too great an obstacle for Musk to overcome?  Will the passion and cash last?  Time will tell. 

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