3 key takeaways from Tesla’s blockbuster fourth-quarter earnings

January 30, 2020, 2:25 AM UTC

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and CFO Zachary Kirkhorn sounded plenty optimistic on a conference call with investors Wednesday night. But not all of the insights they provided were upbeat.

The call came after Tesla released financial results for the fourth quarter. For the second time in a row, the electric vehicle maker blew away Wall Street projections, and the stock jumped more than 11% in after-hour trading.

But the investor call focused less on the past than on what to expect in 2020 and after, including some clear headwinds, as Tesla continues to pursue growth. Here are the most important things Musk and Kirkhorn revealed.

Full self driving is months away, and may not work well

Easily the most surprising part of Tesla’s conference call with investors on Wednesday was a significant shift in the expected release schedule – and even capabilities – of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving features. Thousands of Tesla customers have already paid substantial deposits for the technology, which Musk said as recently as October he hoped could be released in 2019.

That goal wasn’t met, and Musk’s statements about a new date of availability were somewhat vague.

“We got pretty close,” said Musk. “It’s looking like we might be feature complete in a few months,” suggesting that Tesla drivers shouldn’t expect the feature during the current quarter, and that investors shouldn’t expect its associated revenue.

Musk also downplayed the near-term functionality of FSD, which despite its name, is not synonymous with fully autonomous driving. “Feature complete just means [the car] has some chance of going from your home to work without intervention. That doesn’t mean the features are working well.” Musk further specified that the FSD software will provide an “above zero” chance that your car can successfully guide itself from one place to another.

The New Year could be rocky

Kirkhorn was surprisingly direct in warning that Tesla’s results for the first quarter of 2020 could be underwhelming compared to the second half of 2019. “For Q1, keep in mind that the industry is always impacted by seasonality,” the CFO said.

This could be read, at least partly, as confirmation of analyst warnings that the expiration of tax incentives in key markets helped boost fourth-quarter results, at some cost to the current quarter.

Profits will also be impacted by continued spending. Kirkhorn highlighted continuing heavy investment in increasing production capacity, such as a new factory in Germany. Musk and Kirkhorn also emphasized Tesla’s efforts to increase its battery production capacity, which they framed as a limiting factor for overall vehicle production.

“We’re spending money as fast as we can spend money in sensible ways,” said Musk.

A challenging first quarter in 2020 would continue something of a trend for Tesla, which also posted disappointing results in the first half of 2019 – and despite its two banner quarters, finished $775 million dollars in the red last year.

China may not save the day

Finally, Kirkhorn revealed that Model 3s being produced in a new Shanghai factory may not have a huge impact on Tesla’s profitability overall. There has been some expectation that lower costs in China would translate to the bottom line, but Kirkhorn reminded investors that the sales price of Chinese Model 3s will also be lower. That, Kirkhorn said, means the profitability of Chinese-made Teslas will be about the same as those produced in the U.S.

Finally, the call revealed that the coronavirus outbreak in China will likely have a material impact on Tesla. Kirkhorn said there will be at least a one-week or one-and-a-half-week delay in the ramp-up of Model 3 production in Shanghai because of a government-mandated factory shutdown. That, of course, could become more serious depending on conditions on the ground. And with growth in the U.S. slowing, China is increasingly vital to Tesla’s overall growth trajectory.

Read More

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward