- Tesla is in something of a consolidation phase after a year-long struggle to get manufacturing of its Model 3 sedan up to speed.
- Tesla is a small carmaker and can’t generate a lot of news from its actual business – and that means a disproportionate focus on the thoughts and tweets of CEO Elon Musk.
- If Tesla grows larger and more successful, it could get more boring, and in the short term, that could make this problem worse.
Tesla’s latest crisis was provoked by CEO Elon Musk making what, in the context of the global auto industry, would be a rounding era. He tweeted that the company would make 500,000 vehicles in 2019, while Tesla had earlier communicated that it would produce just 400,000.
Musk corrected himself, but by then the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating whether he’d violated the terms of his 2018 settlement over a failed plan to take Tesla private. Ultimately, the SEC asked a court to hold Musk in contempt.
Auto-industry executives speculate all the time about how many vehicles they might produce and sell, but nobody cares because the global auto industry is good at dialling up and cutting back production. In the US alone, 17 million vehicles were sold last year. Investors, analysts, and journalists take for granted the competent management of this aspect of the business.
The auto industry is also constantly introducing new vehicles and refreshing old ones. Myself and my colleagues at Business Insider can joyfully expect to report on a test drive dozens of cars and trucks each year that have updated stories attached to them.
Not enough new cars to talk about
Tesla, by contrast, introduces a new vehicle every year or so and infrequently makes significant physical changes to its lineup while pumping out a steady stream of software improvements. This is because Tesla is a small carmaker – it has just three vehicles for sale – that believes one of its cars should serve an owner for a long time and consistently get better over time not through hardware, but through computer code.
That, unfortunately, is pretty boring. This month, by contrast, the auto industry will convene at the Geneva motor show to show off all manners of thrilling sheet metal. Auto journalists will have plenty to keep them busy for a few weeks.
Tesla won’t be at Geneva and isn’t cranking out anything in the way of product news. In this information vacuum goes the attention span of the small army of money and media folk who obsessively monitor the carmaker of the future. All they really have to work with that’s substantial – i.e., not Musk’s weird Twitter musings – is production and deliveries. It’s literally the only simple, hard data available.
True, Tesla is a very new car brand; GM and Ford have been around for over a century. Tesla’s history goes back a decade and a half, and it’s really just been making automobiles in meaningful numbers for about three years. With so little to go on, and with a disproportionately enormous market capitalisation, it’s understandable that investors would cling to every scrap and twig.
Except that most of Tesla is owned by Musk (he has over 20%) and a few major institutional shareholders. They expect Tesla to make more cars in the coming years. They also figure that the annual totals could be volatile, given that Tesla’s manufacturing footprint is relatively modest. They can ignore the noise and think long-term.
Why the fixation on all things Tesla?
Maybe you can figure out where I’m going with this, given that I’ve freely complained before about Tesla being treated like a veteran carmaker when in fact it’s a rookie. The fixation – and I stress fixation – on production is a shining example of demand for Tesla news rather than actual Tesla information.
The bottom line is that Tesla can’t produce that much news. Nor should it. If it produced four times as many models, it would still be unable to satisfy the non-news appetite. And if Musk were suddenly inactive on Twitter – and my colleague Troy Wolverton thinks Musk should hang up his handle – there would be a reckoning. Tesla would then have to be scrutinised as a business, rather than as a media phenomenon.
To be honest, while I think Tesla would benefit from this, it’s not clear that Musk really wants things to chill out. He’s the company’s biggest marketer, its chief salesman. Tesla spends effectively zero on advertising – and sold 250,000 vehicles last year.
Minus the constant, free buzz, Tesla would probably have to commit millions to marketing. The company is a stupendous example of Sean Parker’s view that advertising isn’t cool – and that you can succeed wildly without it while supporting some epic mojo.
But regardless of that motive for Musk to keep on tweetin’, what we’re dealing with here is a company with a dramatic mission than as an enterprise isn’t capable of doing something fantastic and shiny every single week. Don’t forget, Tesla primarily makes cars – and increasingly, mass-produced cars. Mass-production isn’t interesting, except to scholars of manufacturing, for a reason: it’s the background noise of a successful industrial economy.
With each passing year, Tesla becomes a bigger part of that economy. So prepare yourselves – the better Tesla gets at making cars, the less news it should logically generate.
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