Tesla is taking a big risk with its truck and new supercar -- but it just might work

Tesla RoadsterTeslaTesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the new Roadster.
  • Tesla is once again in a period where it looks like it’s doing too much.
  • This has coincided with a sliding stock price and questions about its focus.
  • But the company is guided by a vision that bigger than mere business success.

LOS ANGELES — Tesla is more than Tesla. Sure, the company has a factory in Northern California where it makes cars, but it also has a design studio in Los Angeles, and that’s where you start to get a sense of Tesla’s potential.

Last week, I was in Hawthorne, just south of Los Angeles, to report on the unveiling of the Tesla Semi (and unexpectedly, the new Tesla Roadster). Tesla’s presence in LA is actually smaller than that of its sister company, SpaceX.

So when being driven in a Tesla Model X from one site to another, I saw the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, an experimental Hyperloop tube, and a huge white fence concealing the efforts of an enterprise called the Boring Company that’s digging a tunnel under LA to solve the city’s daunting traffic problems.

Other stuff in the orbit of CEO Elon Musk isn’t visible, but it’s still in the overall picture: SolarCity and the Tesla Energy business. But the larger point is that to enter the world of Tesla and Elon Musk is to enter a different world. I’ve spent plenty of time at traditional automakers, and none of them have rockets parked at the headquarters.

Why Tesla’s plans seem like a bad idea

This is impressive, but some Tesla watchers don’t think it’s a good thing. Tesla might be valued at $US50 billion by the stock market, but it’s currently struggling with a fundamental: building a $US35,000 midsize sedan, the Model 3, for which it has a whopping 500,000 unfulfilled orders.

In that context, pulling the cover off a massive freight-hauling truck and debuting a $US200,000 supercar doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mistake? At one level, yes, because Tesla’s biggest weakness should by now, 14 years into its existence, be a strength. It isn’t. An old-school car-making giant like General Motors ate Tesla’s lunch by bringing an affordable, long-range, all-electric vehicle to market a year ahead of the Model 3.

Tesla is much better than GM at generating buzz, however, and that shouldn’t be underestimated. GM’s story is well understood; Tesla’s is radically new. For better or worse, Tesla must feed that story. And so Musk inspires the company to attack new businesses, such as trucking and energy storage. Additionally, Tesla is the sum-total of Musk’s vision: to liberate humanity from its dependence on fossil fuels.

So Tesla is more than Tesla.

Tesla keeps proving sceptics wrong

And it’s easy to go broke underestimating the company. The recent decline of the stock after Tesla posted a big third-quarter loss has meant that short-sellers are finally making money, but if you had invested after the 2010 IPO, you’d have witnessed an insane return. It wouldn’t be 100% speculative, either. In 2010, Tesla was building and selling almost no cars. In 2017, it will build and sell 100,000.

Ultimately, what seems to trouble Tesla sceptics the most is the company’s apparent lack of discipline and humility. They want business to be conducted according to a familiar formula: make something, sell it, book profits. Tesla considers this formula to be short-sighted and stupid, a roadmap to limited ambition and blameworthy for generated the very threats to the planet that Musk and his employees are trying to defeat.

Tesla is arrogant enough to think that it can do it all. Or at least, everything that’s necessary to execute on Musk’s vision. These days, the company is pushing the envelope on what’s possible, and Tesla scepticism is once again mounting. But a word to the wise: Tesla has never stopped being underestimated. And it has rarely failed to defy the naysayers.

Get the latest Tesla stock price here.

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