Tesla’s 2021 in review: Elon Musk’s EV giant has had a wild ride
Tesla has had another wild year. It dominates the U.S. electric vehicle space, commanding roughly two-thirds market share. Rental company Hertz announced plans to buy 100,000 Tesla cars. And thanks to the rise in the company’s share price, CEO Elon Musk is the richest person on the planet. As 2021 comes to a close, he’s also basking in the glow of being named Time’s and the Financial Times’ “Person of the Year.”
When you cover Tesla as a full time beat reporter—as I do—the sheer firehose of chatter about the company is astonishing. Musk’s tweets alone generate enormous news cycles; on Tuesday he was going after Senator Elizabeth Warren. Every car crash generates headlines and a cycle of questions: was Autopilot involved, or not? Is NHTSA or the NTSB investigating? Musk just tweeted again—how is this impacting cryptocurrency markets? It can be hard to separate the important from the distraction, the real news from the smoke and mirrors.
Amid the deluge, there are some stories that have staying power and should be revisited or read now if you missed them the first time around.
Automotive still accounts for about 88% of Tesla’s revenue, and the energy side of the business has long taken a back seat to the challenges of making and delivering cars. In March, I followed a trail of bread crumbs via public documents to break the news that Tesla was building a massive battery project south of Houston. We don’t hear much from Tesla about the energy business, but the Megapack is a product worth keeping an eye on. Growing the Megapack business will, in part, come down to battery cells — can Tesla get enough of them from its existing suppliers? Is there a storage application for the 4680 battery cells that Tesla is trying to make in-house?
Tesla has been in the pole position when it comes to EVs for quite a while. But scores of former Tesla executives who helped launch the Model 3 are now at Rivian, which has big backing from Amazon. If I were Tesla, I would pay close attention to the electric truck startup—it is, based on a lawsuit accusing Rivian of poaching.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature is a beat in and of itself. Musk, who said lidar is a “fool’s errand” during Tesla’s “Autonomy Day” for investors in 2019, has a contract to use such sensors from Luminar Technologies Inc. for testing and development. CJ Moore, who led Autopilot software, is now at Apple. We know that NHTSA has opened a defect investigation into Autopilot that is narrowly focused on crashes involving first responder vehicles. Where does that investigation stand? Finally, a word of caution: be skeptical of initial reports. In the spring, a fatal Tesla crash that killed two occupants in Texas got enormous coverage because the local authorities said the car was “driverless.” After filing a public records act request, I got a copy of the police report and the autopsies. The driver of the Tesla was behind the wheel at the time of the crash, and had almost twice his state’s legal limit of alcohol in his system.
Racism and Sexism
Tesla has long been accused of having a culture where racism and sexism thrive at its factory in Fremont, California. Why investors—in particular, the ESG crowd—seem so willing to turn a blind eye to this is baffling, but this year has been a fascinating one on the legal front. This summer, we broke the news that Melvin Berry, a Black former worker, won a rare $1 million award in arbitration. More recently, a federal jury awarded Owen Diaz a staggering $137 million, which Tesla is appealing. Now a San Francisco law firm is handling several cases from women accusing Tesla of “rampant” harassment, with six additional cases filed Tuesday.
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