Why Elon Musk is willing to bet Tesla’s profits on driverless cars

The billionaire says cars sold at zero profit can bring in immense sums from driverless software

Autopilot features are demonstrated in a Tesla Model S in Palo Alto, California. Reuters
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Elon Musk is years behind on his ambition to render Tesla's cars fully autonomous. He is now saying in no uncertain terms that he is willing to bet the company’s profit margins on making it happen.

Mr Musk said on a conference call that Tesla has the wherewithal to sell cars at “zero profit” and then earn immense sums later off driverless software.

The trouble with that for investors? His predictions since at least 2019 that autonomous Teslas are just around the corner have not panned out.

“We’re the only ones making cars that technically we could sell for zero profit for now, and then yield actually tremendous economics in the future through autonomy,” Mr Musk said on April 19.

“I’m not sure how many of you will appreciate the profundity of what I’ve just said, but it is extremely significant.”

The challenge Mr Musk has had turning driverless visions into reality isn’t stopping him from going forward with markdowns that threaten to set off a price war.

The Austin, Texas-based company has lowered the cost of its top-selling Model Y by 29 per cent in the span of just a few months. That has dented the company’s margins and worried investors who are concerned about deteriorating profits.

The dream of a truly self-driving car has animated the car industry for years, and Tesla’s chief executive has been one of its loudest proponents.

But the company has yet to deliver on promises of robotaxis dominating the roads.

Tesla offers a system it calls Full Self-Driving that, contrary to its name, merely assists human drivers who are fully responsible for operating the vehicle and must keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The company charges customers $15,000 for the optional system and defers some of that revenue because it is not a finished product.

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It won’t be until the feature lives up to its billing — something Mr Musk claimed may happen this year.

“Elon Musk dipped into the well and recycled prior comments around FSD being complete by year-end, demand outstripping supply and vehicles being an appreciating asset over time as full self-driving becomes a reality,” Jeffrey Osborne, a Cowen analyst, said in a note recapping the Tesla chief executive's comments.

“We question all of these assumptions.”

Tesla has begun to recognise some of its deferred revenue, including $324 million in the fourth quarter of last year — by far the most ever.

But even with that bigger-than-usual haul, the car maker has been recognising less deferred revenue than it has forecast in regulatory filings.

At $639 million, its projection for 2023 is the lowest in almost four years.

Tesla did not say in its earnings release or investor call last week how much deferred revenue it recognised in the first quarter. The figure should show up in its 10-Q filing due in the coming days.

Seth Goldstein at Morningstar Research interpreted Mr Musk’s zero-profit comment as “more of a theoretical”, but said the broader strategic goal of making money from selling software services to existing customers makes sense.

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“Elon’s point is that the greater proportion of people you can get in a [Tesla], the more potential software purchasers there will be,” Mr Goldstein said.

“And then over time, that can become a very profitable and valuable business because it’s very high margin.”

Chief financial officer Zach Kirkhorn indicated Tesla had not abandoned the idea of making money on the cars it sells, telling analysts that reinvestment funded by cash generated from product sales is “very important for us”.

However, the company’s cash flow fell to a two-year low in the first quarter.

Other car manufacturers are closely watching the EV market leader’s moves as they increase production of their own battery-powered vehicles.

How far Tesla is willing to go to slash prices — and margins — remains a wild card.

Updated: April 24, 2023, 7:03 AM