Driverless Cars

Cutting back on the Tesla staff cookie tin

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Where have we heard this before? When companies look to tighten the belt, bosses often pat themselves on the back by cutting back on ‘unnecessary expenses’ like staff coffee room biscuits. That somehow over a 12 month period a company hemorrhaging millions has saved $832.67 on cookie cutting. Maybe $1,239.31 on fewer newspaper subscriptions. Well it seems Tesla’s Elon Musk is getting tough on approvals. Well he might especially after claims he doesn’t need a capital raise and made wise cracks about going bankrupt on April fool’s day.

Musk tweeted that his finance team were going to be out to trim back on any expense deemed not vital to the cause. All $1mn approvals must be solely signed off by the CEO himself. Suchnis the extent of ‘production hell’ he has moved to 24-7 shifts to hit his slated targets.

His email also bragged,

It is extremely rare for an automotive company to grow the production rate by over 100% from one year to the next. Moreover, there has simultaneously been a significant improvement in quality and build accuracy…

Indeed it is extremely rare to have auto companies doubling production year over year because most companies never plan to improvise their manufacturing  methods to start with. Toyota doesn’t meet a week before starting a new vehicle build and have a thought bubble. “Tanaka-san, did you get hold of Fanuc to see if they have any spare robots they can install by Friday?” Moreover the quality improvements are also a celebration of dreadful moving to mediocre. These aren’t achievements in any manufacturers book. They’re a candid admission of ‘amateur hour’

Musk continued,

Any Tesla department or supplier that is unable to do this will need to have a very good explanation why not, along with a plan for fixing the problem and present that to me directly. If anyone needs help achieving this, please let me know as soon as possible. We are going to find a way or make a way to get there.”

Seriously? It is a rather frightening prospect now that the CEO, whom took over the production floor several weeks ago, is sending a  crisis stations email to staff and suppliers.

His levels of lashing out of late seem somewhat concerning. Two weeks ago he accused the NTSB of lacking credibility by kicking off Tesla in the investigation panel into the recent death caused of a driver in California who had relied on autopilot Attaking the regulator is never a wise move. Worse, he blamed the driver in response to a lawsuit launched by the deceased’s family claiming he put too much faith in a system he champions as smarter than humans. Which is it?

Musk’s full letter to employees is here but perhaps he should take a lead out of the Riva Aquarama production line book. Carlo Riva built the Ferrari of yachts with excruciating attention to detail. All the different stages of production crew had different coloured jackets on. When looking out his window if he ever saw colours mingling he knew he had a problem.

Musk talks the confidence game but the pressure is bearing down on him. Senior departures, impending court actions and a production system that has been found wanting after such a short period of time that major changes need to be enacted because the original concept was so poorly thought out. So much for sensible factory capex allocation.

Elon Musk also made surprising remarks about the new found existence of sub suppliers. Musk can’t  lick his finger to find the direction of the wind forever. This is rookie level discovery. Frankly shareholders should be very concerned.

Do as I say not as I do

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Tesla’s senior VP of engineering Doug Field has been selling down his stake in the company despite suggesting he’s  insulted by those shorting the stock. Field has sold over $6.5mn in stock since Sep 2015, selling $500k worth in recent months according to filings. Surely any company that has signed off on an incentive package triggered at a $650bn market cap (12x today) would be nuts to sell any of the stock now. Will Musk’s April Fool’s joke about Tesla’s bankruptcy actually become a self fulfilling prophecy? Be careful why you wish for!

Tesla’s Autopilot beta testing means customers are crash test dummies

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Back in April 2016, we wrote about the dangerous legal ramifications facing Tesla due to its overzealous promotion of the auto-pilot function. What people tend to forget is the issues surrounding liability. An insurance company often covers a driver with respect to accidents – wet road, poor visibility or being hit by another driver. The insurer covers that type of damage. Yet the death of a Tesla driver in California last week was found to have had the auto pilot function on. Why should an insurer pay for damages that result from willful negligence promoted by the manufacturer itself? This is a design fault. Moreover how could Elon Musk’s legal team not suggest that he refrain from such promotion? Accidents as a result of Tesla’s auto pilot are becoming so numerous that it is hard to fathom why people put so much faith in the system, as this video highlights. They are willingly becoming crash test dummies.

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Tesla’s own website notes, “Build upon Enhanced Autopilot and order Full Self-Driving Capability on your Tesla. This doubles the number of active cameras from four to eight, enabling full self-driving in almost all circumstances, at what we believe will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.”

The video on the autopilot webpage highlighting the autopilot function on the makes no reference to ensure drivers pay attention to the road even when the system is in use. Sounds to me like the ambulance chasers have plenty of ammunition to launch a class action. It only cost Toyota $1.2bn for the runaway accelerator issue. For a company deeply in debt with such heavy losses, rising interest rates, falling credit rating and senior departures, Tesla should be careful not to get carried away with signaling the virtues of systems that are clearly flawed.

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Tesla’s FY2017 – cashflow stunts bigger than a roadster in orbit

TESLA CF VS ONETEL

No beating around the bush. Tesla’s cash-flow situation resembles that of One.Tel in Australia before it became insolvent. Rocketing financing and investing cash-flow with troubled operating cash which in Tesla’s case was flattered by some accounting trickery.  The Q4 2017 earnings release spoke of fairies and magic pixie dust for the most part. Q1 deliveries to date look to undershoot.  Once again a promise to hit production of 2,500 Tesla Model 3s by the end of Q1 and 5,000 a week by end of Q2 2018 (i.e. 6 months away). Note that Tesla had about 860 undelivered Model 3 cars at the end of Q4. That is a high ratio given 1550 were shipped in Q4.

While the company claims a cash balance of $3.4bn which many will pop champagne corks over, Tesla has accrued liabilities, accounts payable and customer deposits totaling $4.975bn at quarter end. This also excludes the $608mn in extra ‘residual value guarantees’ on the books YoY.

The company expects to break even during the year. However with gross automotive margins about to suck up the Model 3 in larger numbers that will take some doing despite claims it can do 25% vs the existing line-up’s 18% range. As at January, Q1 sales in the US are at 2016 levels and European registrations are down around 14% in aggregate across Norway, Holland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Lots can change but it doesn’t read well to kick off 2018’s challenge to break even at an operating level. The Model 3 is on average two-thirds cheaper than the average selling price on existing products so to even hold margins constant will take the mother of all cost cutting all the meanwhile facing new competition over 2018 which will weigh on pricing.

Interesting within the operating cash-flow statement is a term “Changes in operating assets and liabilities,net of effect of business combinations” which shows a quarter on quarter swing of $746.8m pushing net operating cash to +$509mn achieving a new quarterly record. This was achieved mainly by improved collection of receivables (believable), inventory reduction of finished vehicles (were incomplete vehicles that left the factory to parking lots yet to be delivered due to a lack of parts counted?), improved working capital from the ramp of Model 3, and growth in customer deposits (this was only  $168m QoQ vs expectations of $400m) from Semi and Roadsters that were announced with fanfare during Q4. Cash burn appeared lower because the company included customer deposits for the upcoming Semi and Roadster in its operating CF. That is slightly deceiving because deposits aren’t supposed to be drawn from current operations. The Roadster is supposed to be ready by 2020. This seems odd.

Tesla wrote “Despite the delays that we experienced in our production ramp, Model 3 net reservations remained stable in Q4.” Strange there was no mention of progress on Roadster and Semi orders in Q4. Was the $250,000 deposit within 10 days for the Founder series Roadster a bit steep? Truck orders seem around 600-700 at this stage and at $5,000 a deposit, generously speaking $3,500,000 isn’t a swing. As mentioned earlier the +$168m in customer deposits could only reflect how poorly orders for those vehicles are tracking such is the need to avoid talking about them in the statement (surely something to crow about) other than projected performance stats.

Capital expenditures in 2018 are projected to be slightly more than 2017 according to the statement. Tesla also mentioned “quarterly operating income should turn sustainably positive at some point in 2018.” That is a hugely optimistic target for the company which has failed so many times to deliver on promises. As CM always argues, the ‘cult’ following of Tesla is a dangerous vixen which can keep the ‘dream’ floating in orbit when reality is that “Nevada, we have a problem”.

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. The 3% bounce in the shares reflects that blind optimism. Our study shows that even if it made margins similar to mainstream makers it is grossly overvalued.

Tesla X review

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Catching an Uber to Sai Kung in HK and happened to be picked up in a Tesla X. The driver has had it for 9 months and said he’s had many problems. I asked him whether he’d buy another Tesla and he said no chance. He wants a Mercedes Benz. “Everything is better”.

His comments-

”handling – there is no confidence”

”autopilot – never use and friend has crashed using it.”

”quality is poor”

”noises in wheel hubs”

”centre panel is good”

”big windows good”

From the back seat the ride is thrashy but with so much torque suspension needs to be relatively firmer to stop squatting.

I get the coolness of this car. Indeed Elon Musk deserves praise for innovation and waking the sleeping auto giants to the luxury end of EVs. Sadly waking these giants that have production nailed means they hold all the aces, not Tesla. Tesla’s full year earnings aren’t far away where we’ll get a picture of whether the dream can stay alive.

As for this driver Tesla hasn’t won long term customer loyalty.

You can never be too connected

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For all those that say men can’t multitask, this HK taxi driver can field 8 mobile devices and drive…what next a smart watch? Presume he is trading multiple markets. Either that or he’s sick of the stereotype that taxi drivers are usually the last to know!

Return to the nanny state – perhaps the ASB should consider envy not safety

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Coming back to Australia often reminds me  that even when it is not a nanny state it is full of wowsers. This snippet is from Motor magazine. As one can see it highlights how some are compelled to whine over trivial things. Lexus, of all companies, is being bashed for encouraging speeding and the Advertising Standards Board has caved in (although I’m guessing it didn’t  take much to pressure them into the move) . Lexus was then bashed again even after removing the speedy bits.  I’m sure prospective Lexus buyers are waiting for footage of being stuck in a traffic jam

One would be pretty hard pressed to find a car company that doesn’t promote “performance” in its sportier range because by definition it’s kind of the point. Even Tesla for all of its supposed green credentials will brag incessantly about how it’s faster than any other road car to 100km/h, including exotica.

To say advertising “encourages speeding” just takes people for idiots. The moaners are surely aware that speed limit enforcement here is stricter than most. Speed cameras, highway patrols and red light cameras. Drivers here are constantly in fear of their lives. Autonomously driven cars will be a godsend as owners will not have to live in fear of being fined!

On top of that in order be able to buy a Lexus sports car like the LC500 probably requires $200,000. To afford such wheels presumably means that’s someone has half a brain. In traffic congested Tokyo Lamborghini and Ferrari are commonplace . The most impractical vehicle one can imagine but they still sell a tonne of them.

Perhaps we should look at the bright side that only the car company was only criticized for promoting speed rather than being hauled over the coals for not promoting the car in Saudi Arabia with a newly liberated female driver. We shouldn’t hold our breath. When Lexus advertise the LC500 again the next complaint will probably be that it focuses too  much on white males rather than diversity.