Tesla's Second Wind: California's Green Stickers Running Out

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Tesla (TSLA) is about to get a strong jolt in its California sales numbers within the next few months.  And it's all about a regulatory knife in the back of General Motors (GM), BMW, Toyota (TM) and Ford (F).

Let's get straight to the point:  Many people in California buy some form of a plug-in electric car because they want a sticker to drive their car solo in the carpool lane during rush hour.  Anecdotes suggest close to half of buyers cite this as their top reason.

There are two kinds of carpool stickers in California. First, the white sticker: This one is for zero emissions cars such as all-electric cars and natural gas for some reason (Honda's (HMC) Civic is pretty much the only natural gas car sold, and in tiny quantities only).

Second, the green sticker: This one is for plug-in electric hybrids. The best-sellers in this category are Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In and two models from Ford. This category will be filled with many more cars in the next couple of years, including a long list from VW/Audi, Volvo, BMW and many others.

Here is the crux: California has said it will only issue 40,000 green stickers. As of Nov. 8, 2013, 24,452 stickers had been issued.  As of Dec. 31, 28,739 stickers had been issued.  That's 4,287 of them in under two months.

Assuming this pace continues, the 40,000 number will be filled some time before the second quarter is over.  At that point, we can relatively safely predict that California sales of Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In and the two relevant Ford models will plummet as a result. There are a few other lower-volume cars from makers such as Cadillac and Honda, but I'm talking about the cars that sell a lot more units.

There are many all-electric cars available for the white sticker, which is not up against any 40,000 sticker limit. This includes in particular the Nissan Leaf, which is selling well. However, the reason many people pick a Chevy Volt, Ford or Toyota over the Nissan Leaf is that the Nissan's sub-90 mile range just doesn't cut it.

Many people simply don't want to worry about so-called "range-anxiety." They don't have the time or patience for thinking about where to charge during the day, or if they will make it on that unscheduled detour or other trip.

So what has been the solution? Buy a Chevrolet Volt, Ford or Toyota that gives you anywhere between 6 miles and 38 miles on wall-plug electric power, and then you run on gasoline after that. Problem fixed!

With these cars no longer getting the carpool sticker some time before mid-2014, the only game in town for longer-range cars is Tesla. The Model S comes in two versions; one rated by the EPA for 208 miles and the other rated at 265 miles.

Clearly not everyone can afford to buy a Tesla. The car costs tens of thousands more than the competition. But some can, and now they must.

GM, Ford and Toyota will lose sales as a result of these green stickers running out by mid-year. Some of these will go to Tesla.

BMW will enter the market with the i3 with range-extender in the second quarter as well, just in time for the green stickers to run out, it appears. Ouch. I've driven the i3 and it's in many ways the most exciting new car to hit the market, but the i3 version with range-extender looks like it will not get the benefit of the the relevant California carpool sticker situation.

Clearly, the 80- to 100-mile all-electric cars will continue to sell in whatever quantities they have already been selling -- such as the Nissan Leaf and the upcoming BMW i3 without range-extender.  But the cars that can compete with Tesla in range -- Chevrolet Volt, BMW i3 with range-extender, Toyota Prius Plug-In and the two relevant Ford models -- will have a big comparative problem starting next quarter.


Some people will ask: What if California raises the limit on the 40,000 stickers, to issue another 10,000 or 20,000 or whatever?  Oh sure, then the story changes.  But I have no knowledge that they will do this. Where are the signs? Has anybody in the government actually proposed this? So we can't just assume that the law will change without any signs that it will.

This puts pressure on the other car companies to develop all-electric cars that can compete with Tesla. As I have written many times before, I think GM and BMW are first in line to launch such cars in the 2016-2017 timeframe, with Nissan following.  Other car companies?  Probably, but there are no clear signs.  They seem focused on mild plug-in hybrids, such as what Ford is offering right now, today.  This is basically the VW-Audi strategy for most of what they will be offering in 2015 and beyond.

Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are focused on hydrogen fuel-cell car development for launch in the coming quarters and years.  Mercedes, too, but with less specifics on deck.

In the meantime, already now starting in a few months, Tesla gets a jolt from the California green carpool lane stickers running out, sticking it to the competition.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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