Tesla’s Musk: ‘We’re not currently showing all of our cards’

August 1, 2014, 12:46 PM UTC
Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors.
Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors.
Noah Berger/Bloomberg—Getty Images

Some time between the projections (tripling deliveries by the end of next year) and predictions (electric cars will be cheaper than gasoline-powered vehicles in fewer than 10 years), Elon Musk, chief executive of the electric automaker Tesla Motors, hinted at, then dropped a cryptic crumb during the company’s second quarter earnings call.

“People have gotten used to us showing all of our cards,” Musk said. Then he paused. “We’re not currently showing all of our cards.”

Piling into the intrigue, he later added: “Our cap ex and R&D numbers are better than they appear because there are things you don’t know about.”

Here’s what we do know. Palo Alto, Calif-based Tesla (TSLA) is plowing through cash as it increases production of the Model S sedan, ramps up for the Model X sport utility vehicle, builds out its network of fast electric car-charging stations, and expands into China and other markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

The company is even bringing in professionals from Formula 1 racing to help it revolutionize automotive service with a “pit crew” approach. It’s also spending money to create the “most advanced paint shop” in the automotive industry, Musk said.

And then there is Tesla’s proposed $5 billion Gigafactory, a massive facility intended to produce more lithium-ion batteries annually by 2020 than were made worldwide in 2013. Panasonic, its existing battery cell supplier, said Thursday that it has agreed to help it build the plant. But it didn’t provide details on the amount it would contribute.

Tesla has been more forthcoming. The automaker plans to invest between $750 million and $950 million in 2014, an increase of $100 million from its previous guidance. The company is already spending money on construction of the Gigafactory even though it has not settled on a final site.

Tesla confirmed that site preparation began in June near Reno, Nevada. Though the city appears to be the lead contender, Musk said the company would do similar prep work in one or two other U.S. states under consideration. Upon completion, the factory is expected to employ about 6,500 people.

Tesla said in February that it was considering Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas for the plant, which will have the capacity to produce 50 gigawatt hours of battery packs a year for its Model S luxury sedan and a cheaper third-generation vehicle intended for the mass market. By 2020, Tesla estimates the facility will be able to make enough batteries to supply 500,000 vehicles a year. Musk has since added California to the list of viable locations.

“Before we actually go to the next stage of pouring a lot of concrete we want to make sure we have things sorted out at the state level, that the incentives are there that make sense,” Musk said.

Currently, the company is on pace to deliver more than 35,000 vehicles by the end of year. It announced Thursday that it plans to deliver more than 100,000 cars in 2015. Musk said he expects that number to come from about 1,000 Model S and 1,000 Model X cars manufactured each week through the end of 2015.

Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., manufacturing plant has the space to produce 100,000—or even more—cars, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

“If they have the batteries and the Chinese demand, then they could get 100,000 cars next year,” Brauer said. “And Elon isn’t in the habit of making predictions he can’t live up to; if he says it, then he thinks it’s really possible.”

John Gartner, a research director with Navigant Research, said the company’s prospects in China are promising.

“China’s automotive market is about 50 percent larger than the U.S. automotive market so, there’s great potential,” Gartner said. Tesla’s expansion in China is auspicious as competition increases in the U.S. luxury electric car market.

For Tesla, the 100,000-car mark involves widespread investment areas beyond its manufacturing plant. Tesla continues to build out its electric car-charging infrastructure and will open “probably around” 100 service centers in China and more than 300 globally by the end of next year, Musk said.

“We are spending a lot of money on service expansion,” said Musk, adding that he wants Tesla’s service to be invisible, a team of magic elves who come in quickly and quietly to dispatch the problem.

Tesla generated $769.4 million in revenue in the second quarter nearly double the amount from the same quarter last year, which included $23 million in powertrain sales to Daimler and Toyota. Tesla has started production deliveries to Daimler for the Merecedes-Benz B Class Electric Drive model and is winding down sales to Toyota for the RAV4 EV.

Still, the company’s second-quarter loss widened to $61.9 million from a $30.2 million a year ago as it increased spending.

The company more than doubled its research and development spending to nearly $107.7 million in the second quarter compared to the same period last year. And Tesla’s capital expenditures reached $176 million in the second quarter, up 25 percent from the previous quarter and four times more than a year ago.

Tesla delivered 7,579 Model S vehicles in the second quarter, just above the 7,500 it forecast. The company said its revenue and deliveries for the third quarter will drop to 7,800 vehicles from its previously forecasted 9,500 because it shut down its factory for two weeks to add a new final assembly line.