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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Is Tesla In Crisis?


Tesla CEO Elon Musk is facing a series of headache-inducing calamities as he pushes to transform the electric carmaker from niche player to mass-market manufacturer with the Tesla Model 3.

Calamities include battling the United Auto Workers union at its Fremont, Calif., factory, seeing high-level executives leave, and having its parts supply stifled. As Musk said last year, the company is going through “production hell.”

Labor relations are getting worse between Tesla and its factory workers in Fremont, which the UAW is using to file a string of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The union conflict had been publicized in February 2017 when Tesla employee Jose Moran posted a blog article detailing harsh working conditions. Moran said that some of these workers had contacted the union because of it. In October, Tesla fired about 700 workers, which CEO Elon Musk said was part of routine performance reviews, but which union supporters described differently.

Volkswagen has faced similar efforts from the UAW to organize its plant in Chattanooga. The union lost a vote in 2014 to unionize factory employees but has successfully organized a group within the plant to stay with it. Workers in the greater Bay Area, where Fremont is based, have been known to be more supportive of unions than in other parts of the country. However, unions such as the UAW have been losing support and membership for several decades. Convincing a majority of the workforce to bring in the union is a difficult task — but the prospect of unionization is enough to rile up Musk.

Tesla workers and management are facing a steep uphill climb. In July of last year, Musk predicted the company would be building 5,000 cars a week by the end of December 2017. A Bloomberg tracker estimates that's more like 832 cars a week this month. To reach Tesla’s revised goal of hitting 5,000 a month by the end of June, conditions will need to improve significantly. Related: Scientists Are One Step Closer To Nuclear Fusion

Questions are being raised out how effective Musk has been managing the company through this difficult conversion to a mass-market manufacturer. The electric automaker has been seeing other problems come up, including three of its top financial executives leaving recently. Tesla has been losing other executives, which can be typical for Silicon Valley tech-savvy companies having its talent poached away. But the latest round with the three executives leaving coincides with mounting pressure for profitable Model 3 deliveries.

Investors would like to see better performance from Tesla. The company's stock has gone from a recent peak of $357 in late February to around $311 per share as more information comes out regarding the steep hill that Tesla is climbing.

Major established competitors like Volkswagen and General Motors face similar challenges in building and selling electric vehicles profitably. Consumers are leaning toward SUVs, crossovers, and pickup trucks as gasoline prices stay low. Small fuel-efficient vehicles, hybrids, and electric vehicles are a tough sell when pump prices stay down.

Competitors do have major advantages over Tesla — deep pockets covering the cost of manufacturing the cars and a lot more experience in how to do it profitably.

Production hell has been a reality for Tesla in March. NBC reported that a current Tesla engineer estimated that 40 percent of parts made or received at the Fremont factory require rework. Sometimes, the parts need to be shipped back out of the plant for rework, and in other cases, vehicles seem to be pulled off the assembly line for repairs before being shipped out.

News also came out last week that the company stopped production in Fremont to adjust equipment that can increase the production rate. Production was reportedly suspended from February 20 to February 24 to make these changes. Some of the problems have also been traced back to its Gigafactory battery plant near Reno, Nev. But most of the problems seem to be coming from the Fremont plant.

Production has been slowly increasing for the company, with 101,312 vehicles delivered last year — a 33 percent rise over 2016. But the electric carmakers’s goal is much higher — hitting 500,000 vehicles built this year, a five-fold increase, and one that looks unrealistic for what will be accomplished this year.

Related: Legal Risks Jeopardize World's Largest IPO

Tesla does benefit greatly from having loyal fans and EV owners. Tesla’s Model X electric SUV has had the worst quality rating of any vehicle on the U.S. market by Consumer Reports. It’s buyers, however, are willing to be tolerant, according to David Sullivan, a senior automotive analyst with AutoPacific.

Model X owners seem to be more tolerant than those looking into the Model 3, he said. Tesla has the challenge of reaching out to buyers of the more affordable electric car that starts at $35,000 before incentives.


The Tesla Model 3 is finding an audience and is doing well in sales at 2,600 units sold in the U.S. during February — beating the Chevrolet Bolt, Toyota Prius Prime, Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and BMW i3 by a fairly wide margin.

The pressure is mounting thought, as Tesla aims to nearly double Model 3 sales by the end of June.

By John LeSage for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Kr55 on March 22 2018 said:
    Musk simply doesn't know how to run a profitable company. He's an idea man, and a heck of a salesman. But he's slowly moving to a place where just ideas and salesmanship are not enough, people finally want to see something real, and I'm not sure he knows how to actually balance the numbers without more stock issues and loans.

    Telsa is still prices as if Tesla EV's will be the only game in town for the next 2 decades. They won't. When well run companies finally see the numbers make sense, they will push Telsa way into the background, who will have lost likely tens of billions trying to make something that people will finally want on a global scale, and before the numbers finally look like they can add up for Tesla, they will be dealing with massive global competition that have centuries more manufacturing expertise than Tesla.
  • Jim jomes on March 22 2018 said:
    This will all play out in a few months. Either they are making what he says they are on the model 3 or they aren't. He will get to 5000 a week, and then the question will be can he sell 5000 a week or more. I for one support him since it's all made in America by americans (more than any other automaker). His cars are nice and I do agree that his autopilot saves more lives than not. But, I'm not buying one unless I had a house to charge every night. Instead living in the city it's too much of a hassle.
  • TheWay on March 22 2018 said:
    Tesla is doing just fine overall. The UAW would like to paint a bleak picture but fact of the matter is working conditions are better in the factory than when UAW was in charge of it a few days back with GM. I doubt UAW will have much luck there as silicon valley has a good record of keeping unions out by offering good benefits while throwing out the low performers. And Tesla is no exception.

    Tesla's stock volitility is nothing new. It is down now but it'll be up soon enough, then down then up. Overall it has been trending upwards.

    As for the delays in production, it isn't surprising either. Originally Tesla aimed a production rate of 500k-700k cars per year by 2020. With the high amount of demand for the Tesla Model 3, they set up ambitious targets to speed up the production rate. So while they are falling behind the updated guidelines, they are actually ahead of their original guidelines.

    Production of cars is also not the only thing that is required. You also need production of batteries. Tesla's and Panasonic's battery platform is easier to scale than LGs and cheaper. All the other manufacturer's attempts at batteries have failed which prompts them to buy on market from LG. And LG's platform is scaling really slowly, limiting most manufacturers to 20k-30k cars per year. Tesla will figure out their production faster than the other manufacturers can secure a sizable amounts of batteries.

    @Kr55 - Musk knows very well how to run a profitable company. Paypal was profitable, SpaceX is profitable. As for Tesla, the Tesla Model S and X are some of the most profitable cars in the business. What Tesla is losing money on is on rapid growth. Tesla can show a profit at any point they wish to, but in doing so will slow their growth.

    Tesla's stock price is not based on Tesla being the only game in town. Toyota has over 190 billion market cap and they ain't the only game in town. Not to mention Tesla is also in the energy business, not just the car business.

    As for competitors pushing them in the background. Highly unlikely. Tesla has the first movers advantage, technological lead and infrastructure lead. By the time they catch up, Tesla will be as big as they are. The other manufacturers also have hundreds of billions in ICE R&D which they can't just write off. So they need to conversion to EVs be as slow as possible.

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