In a surprise announcement late Sunday, Tesla Motors says it turned a profit for the first quarter of 2013, delivering more than 4,750 all-electric Model S sedans and beating its own forecasts. It's a major milestone for the start-up automaker, which also revealed a few last-minute Easter eggs for those waiting for their cars to be delivered — and a play to improve the value of its cars when those owners decide to sell.
Tesla had said it expected to break even on a cash basis this quarter during the ramp-up of Model S output at the factory in Fremont, Calif., with a goal of delivering 4,500 cars to owners. Since Tesla doesn't sell its cars through dealers and puts the key fob of the Model S directly in an owner's hand, it can't count the money from sold vehicles until that swap; traditional automakers mark a car as sold for accounting purposes when it leaves the factory.
"Tesla is here to stay and keep fighting for the electric car revolution,” said Elon Musk, Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO in a statement. “I would also like to thank our customers for their passionate support of the company and the car. Without them, we would not be here.”
Given the history of fledgling automakers — none of which have survived in the United States since the early 20th century — and the carnage among electric vehicle makers such as Fisker Motors, many investors have bet against Tesla, with some $1.2 billion in its shares held by short sellers anticipating its decline. Musk has aggressively fought any perceived attack on the company's image, notably launching a media war with The New York Times after one of its writers was left stranded by a Model S that ran out of charge.
That writer was testing one of Tesla's other projects, what it calls the Supercharger network of free quick-recharging stations meant to make the Model S a long-range cruiser. Using the stations requires a Tesla-specific high-voltage connector that was standard on the $72,400 Model S with an 85 kWh battery, but a $2,000 option on the shorter-range 60 kWh version. Tesla revealed tonight that buyers of the 60 kWh Model S would get the Supercharger connector for free, which it called a bet that the Superchargers will lure more customers to the company's cars.
But Tesla also revealed it was eliminating the lowest-cost planned variant of the Model S, the 40-kWh edition that had been slated to cost $52,400, or $10,000 less than the 60 kWh model. Tesla says only 4 percent of its customers had placed reservations for the 40 kWh car, which had an advertised range of 160 miles. Those customers who signed up for a 40 kWh car will get a 60 kWh car instead — but one whose software will only allow the car to access 40 kWh of energy.
Future owners — including those who buy such a capped Model S second-hand — can pay Tesla that $10,000 difference to have the software reset to use all 60 kWh of battery energy. Musk may still rank as a neophyte automaker, and Tesla's first profitable quarter doesn't solve all of its challenges, but discovering an income stream from people who buy its vehicles used will make the suits in Detroit, Tokyo and Stuttgart just a wee bit jealous.