How Tesla's price cut almost pushed Elon Musk's friend to the brink

While electric car sales continue to grow, the pace has slowed

A man walks by Tesla Model 3 sedans and Tesla Model X sport utility vehicles at a showroom in Shanghai. Reuters
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A year ago, a serial entrepreneur who has tried again and again to disrupt car retailing announced he was taking another swing.

Scott Painter – the founder of auto-FinTech start-up Fair, car-pricing service TrueCar and shopping portal CarsDirect – said his latest venture would shell out $1.2 billion to order electric vehicles from the likes of Tesla, General Motors and Volkswagen.

The company, called Autonomy, would offer subscriptions to models including the Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt, giving consumers an option between a short-term rental and a multiyear lease or loan.

There was only one problem: months into Mr Painter trying to get Autonomy off the ground, Elon Musk – his friend and occasional confidant – started slashing the prices of Tesla’s EVs.

“Instead of having an $85 million fleet, we suddenly had a, say, $56 million to $57 million fleet in one day,” Mr Painter said in an exclusive interview.

The combination of Mr Musk’s price cuts and Tesla’s accumulation of more inventory than it has ever had before – meaning it is easier than ever to quickly get a Tesla – pushed Mr Painter’s start-up to the brink.

“We were very vulnerable to our lenders in that moment,” Mr Painter said. Autonomy ultimately went through a forbearance process while he worked to recapitalise the company with a new $12 million round of funding.

He also had to pare back operating costs, which included shrinking Autonomy’s staff to only 45 employees from about 120.

Suffice it to say, this brush with depreciation risk has left Autonomy well short of the goal Mr Painter announced in August of last year to order 23,000 EVs from 17 different car makers.

It is at about 1,300 cars and the chief executive believes the service will require about 3,000 to break even.

To get there, Mr Painter thinks Autonomy will need $20 million or so more in funding, which he believes will be enough to unlock the roughly $100 million borrowing capacity required to expand the fleet.

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While Autonomy’s pool of cars is still fairly small, Mr Painter said the service is operating well. A new partnership with American Express has brought in more than 1,000 reservations.

He is optimistic that the US Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame inflation by raising the cost of borrowing could benefit Autonomy.

“As interest rates go up, it makes a car loan less and less of an option,” he said.

“Anybody who makes greater than $100,000 a year is going to be OK, but anybody who is at that $100,000 or lower mark is just simply not going to have access to an EV.”

Of course, companies such as Autonomy may not be out of the woods yet with respect to their vehicles losing value.

While electric-car sales continue to grow, the pace has slowed. And Tesla is not the only one with inventory issues: Cox Automotive estimates there was 103 days’ supply of new EVs available at the end of June, compared to 53 days for the overall industry.

“Market supply remains heavy, so we would expect to see continued incentives in the future,” said Jeremy Robb, Cox Automotive’s senior director of economic and industry insights.

Updated: July 14, 2023, 3:00 AM