Tesla’s Troubles Raise Questions About Its Invincibility

Tesla’s Troubles Raise Questions About Its Invincibility

Tesla S&P 500

As the share price plunges, investors wonder whether the company, led by Elon Musk, can withstand intensifying competition.

Elon Musk appeared to be in a defiant mood Wednesday when he stood before employees at Tesla’s factory near Berlin a week after an arsonist set fire to a high-voltage power pylon and brought production to a standstill.



“They can’t stop us,” Mr. Musk, the company’s chief executive, told workers in a giant tent beside the plant.

But there are proliferating signs that Tesla may not be as unstoppable as it once seemed. The company’s car sales are no longer growing at a torrid pace. Chinese automakers and established brands like BMW and Volkswagen are flooding the market with electric cars. And Tesla has been slow to respond with new models.

Mr. Musk’s many outside ventures, and his penchant for making polarizing political statements and attacking people he disagrees with, have raised questions about how focused he remains on managing Tesla. Wall Street is increasingly concerned about the company: Tesla’s share price has lost one-third of its value this year even as major stock indexes have hit record highs.

“A bet on Tesla has always been a bet on Mr. Musk,” said Eric Talley, a professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on corporate law, governance and finance.



In an interview with the former television anchor Don Lemon that streamed online on Monday, Mr. Musk brushed off the drop in the company’s share price as part of the cycle.

“The stocks go up and down, but what really matters is are we making and delivering great products,” Mr. Musk said.

The weeklong production stop at Tesla’s factory in Grünheide, its second this year, was only a temporary setback. But the decline in the share price indicates that investors are reassessing Tesla’s long-term prospects and are no longer certain that the company — still worth more than any other carmaker — will one day dominate the industry.

Mr. Musk can take much of the credit for goading other automakers to focus on electric cars, proving that they could be practical, profitable and fun. Tesla’s Model Y sport utility vehicle was the best-selling car of any kind in the world last year.



But Tesla has not added a mass-market vehicle to its lineup since the Model Y went on sale in 2020. Chinese automakers like BYD, SAIC and Geely Auto are bringing out dozens of new models. Analysts said Tesla’s Cybertruck, a futuristic pickup that went on sale in limited numbers last year, would probably appeal to a relatively narrow set of buyers given its high price and unconventional design. And while Tesla is working on an electric car that would cost around $25,000, it is not expected to go on sale in large numbers until 2026.

“I’m a little surprised at this point there hasn’t been the next thing,” said Michael Lenox, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia who studies industries undergoing technological upheaval.

Tesla has repeatedly adjusted prices in response to demand, cutting them to boost sales and then sometimes raising them again. While the cuts have helped make electric cars more affordable, analysts say the strategy has eroded the company’s profits without doing much to increase revenue. The cuts have also sharply lowered the resale value of Tesla cars, because no one pays more for a used car than a new one.

The strategy trains potential buyers “to wait for a deal,” Gary Black, managing partner of the Future Fund, said on X. Mr. Black, who has more than 400,000 followers on X, which Mr. Musk owns, has long been a Tesla optimist, but the fund recently sold some of its shares in the company.



Tesla faces particularly intense competition in China, the world’s largest car market, where more than one-third of new car sales are electric. BYD surpassed Tesla in global electric vehicle sales in the last three months of 2023 with a broad array of sedans, sport utility vehicles and cheap subcompacts. Its Seagull model sells for less than $12,000 in China.

Tesla China

Even after Tesla’s price cuts, the Model 3 sedans and the Model Y S.U.V.s made at a factory in Shanghai are far more expensive than many Chinese models. European and Chinese automakers are also introducing new electric vehicles at a dizzying rate. More than 150 will go on sale by the end of the year, according to HSBC.

At the same time, Tesla is not well positioned to compete in the luxury market because its cars don’t offer as many amenities as cars made by the likes of BMW or Mercedes-Benz, said John Helveston, an assistant professor of engineering management at George Washington University who has studied Chinese car-buying habits.



“In China, there are so many great options that Tesla just falls in the middle,” Mr. Helveston said. “It’s an overpriced car for the luxury you get out of it.”

Tesla has not told investors how it will regain ground in China, which generates the bulk of its sales. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

“What will they pull out of their toolbox other than price cuts to keep them in the mix in 2024?” asked Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research firm. “The price-cut tool has lost its effectiveness.”

Mr. Musk’s disdain for the established way of doing things, as well as his love of big engineering challenges, has made it difficult for Tesla to bring out new products quickly, Mr. Helveston said. The Cybertruck is an example. It is made of stainless steel, which resists rust better than conventional steel but is notoriously difficult to work with. The truck arrived two years behind schedule and took up resources that could have been used for products with broader appeal.



“Tesla could be doing far better than it is if they had been less aggressive in trying to do everything new and used half the knowledge out there that works,” Mr. Helveston said.

But doing new things excites Mr. Musk, who chuckled with glee when telling Mr. Lemon about the revamped version of the company’s Roadster sports car, which he said Tesla planned to bring out at the end of the year. The vehicle will combine technology from Tesla and his rocket company, SpaceX, “to create something that’s not really a car,” he said.

In Europe, the Model Y was the best-selling electric car last year. But Volkswagen and its Audi, Skoda and SEAT brands together sold more electric vehicles than Tesla on the continent, according to Schmidt Automotive Research. Sales of the Model Y fell at the end of the year after Germany and other countries cut subsidies.

Tesla could also suffer from restrictions that the European Union is considering imposing on Chinese imports. All Model 3 sedans sold in Europe and the right-hand-drive Model Y for Britain are imported from Shanghai. Tesla accounts for one of every four Chinese-made cars imported by Europe, according to Schmidt.



tesla china model y

“This would narrow what has been impressive, but nonetheless narrowing, profit margins and make a more even playing field for European automakers that have been manufacturing locally,” said Matthias Schmidt, founder of the research firm. He noted that France had taken protectionist policies a step further by restricting government subsidies for purchases of electric vehicles to those produced in the European Union. Italy has indicated it may do the same.

Mr. Musk is also a source of uncertainty. In January a Delaware judge struck down his pay package, worth more than $50 billion, saying Tesla’s board of directors used a flawed process in negotiating his compensation. In response, Mr. Musk threatened to move Tesla’s corporate registration from Delaware to Texas.

Tesla’s board has not unveiled a new pay package for him. Mr. Musk, who oversees SpaceX and several other businesses in addition to Tesla and X, has threatened to pursue unspecified new ventures outside Tesla unless he is given control over 25 percent of the company. He currently owns about 13 percent.

“You now have a grumpy C.E.O.,” said Mr. Talley of Columbia Law School. “What does that portend for the ability of Tesla to command Mr. Musk’s attention? Is it possible he would just disengage from the company?”

Mr. Musk’s whistle-stop visit to Grünheide appeared timed to show employees in Germany, some of whom had voiced concern about their safety after the arson, that he remains committed to the company and the factory. The plant is producing around 300,000 cars per year, but aims to expand that to as many as one million.

Asked by reporters whether he intended to stick to that plan, Mr. Musk responded, “Yes, absolutely.”

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