As if funding and production capacity weren't big enough concerns for Tesla (TSLA) in 2017, September auto sales numbers seem to paint an even more challenging picture for the electric vehicle maker.
In the U.S., Tesla sold only 115 Model 3s in the month of September, whereas GM (GM) , which just truly entered the market in 2016, sold 2,632 Chevy Bolts. For the entire third quarter, Tesla sold just 220 Model 3 units, while Chevy cruised to the sale of 6,000 Bolts.
Overall, Tesla delivered a record 26,150 vehicles in the third quarter, with the company's legacy Model S selling an impressive 5,000 units in September alone.
But with just 5% sales growth sequentially and a big miss on both the sales and production targets for the Model 3 -- a unit that MSRPs at a markedly cheaper rate than Tesla's other models in an effort to reach a broader consumer base -- it appears Tesla may have some new growing pains to contend with.
For a company that has been working with a double-digit negative operating margin long before any significant competition entered the electric vehicle market, there isn't much room for a bit of healthy rivalry.
Of course, Tesla bulls would argue that comparing the Chevy Bolt to the Tesla Model 3 is not exactly apples to apples. After all, with the Model 3, for $35,000, you wind up in a much more stylish vehicle, likely boasting far more advanced features (including some form of autonomous driving capability), than you would paying $36,620 for the 2017 Chevy Bolt.
But the early success of GM's Chevy Bolt, sales of which grew 49% sequentially, does hint at a dilemma for Tesla: Traditional U.S. automakers may be preparing to go full-swing on EVs, and in theory, they have the production capacity, U.S. sales channels and infrastructure to quickly derail Tesla's hopes for success on a broader scale.
Indeed, GM on Monday announced plans to introduce two more electric vehicles in the U.S. in the next 18 months and 20 globally within six years. Meanwhile, Ford (F) last week announced a three-year partnership with Indian auto maker Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. to explore potential areas of collaboration on new technologies and retail sales, including co-developing electric vehicles, as well as cooperating on new mobility ventures and connected-car services.
Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) , on the other hand, has not yet entered the fray in a meaningful way with an extended range electric vehicle. The automaker has seemingly headed in the opposite direction, using its Dodge platform to dive head on into gas-guzzling muscle car production in the face of the looming electric vehicle craze (witness the Dodge Demon). But considering the size and style of many of Fiat's staple models, it doesn't seem a far leap to imagine an extended range Fiat 500 EV in the near future.
The move from the country's largest automakers to fully invest in electrification comes as major world powers have called for an end to the sale and production of fossil fuel-burning vehicles. France and the United Kingdom have both set hard timetables for the end to traditional auto sales in 2040, and China -- the world's largest automotive market -- is entertaining the possibility as well.
Fortunately for Tesla, they're the most experienced player on the field when it comes to electric vehicles, and the game is still in its early innings. According to Efraim Levy, an analyst at CFRA Research, it's not quite time to call Tesla's Model 3 production plans a total bust. Still, the firm is clearly bearish on the tech behemoth's long-term future.
"We view how close they are to producing 5,000 Model 3s vehicle per week at Q4 end to be more critical for signs of progress towards objectives," Levy wrote in a Tuesday note. "That said, we do not view TSLA's outlook for sequential second half deliveries growth of just 'several thousand' Model S and Model X vehicles as exciting acceleration."
With Tesla's third-quarter earnings call expected sometime near the end of this month, it will be up to Tesla's unrelenting leader, Elon Musk, to quiet the whispers. Convincing reporters and analysts that the company will hit the 5,000 unit mark in the fourth quarter, after failing to produce even 1,500 Model 3 units this frame, could be a hard sell, however.
And convincing the market Tesla will hit 500,000 units in 2018 before burning through the proceeds of its latest fundraising efforts, or before other automakers make up even more lost ground, is another matter entirely.
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