For those who view Tesla Motors (TSLA) as a typical Automotive/Technology company, there is reason to reconsider upon doing some due diligence about the company and the forces behind it. One such force is Elon Musk, a naturalized American citizen of South African origin. The 42-year-old is the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. With his gaze set onto the stars, Musk began an improbable initiative to advance the realization of the aspirations for human multiplanetary existence. And within barely 1 year of starting SpaceX, Musk co-founded Tesla Motors, believing in the possibility of a better transport system powered by sustainable energy sources that are less harmful to our environment.
By any measure, Musk's visions are lofty, and to some, outright lunacy. Therefore, it is useful to gauge some of the accomplishments of both initiatives, the focal point being Tesla Motors. Born around the same time that major automotive companies (GM (GM), Ford (F), Toyota (TM), and others - See Who Killed the Electric Car) were cannibalizing their own electric vehicles (EVs), Tesla set out to demonstrate that EVs could be desirable, reliable and sustainable. Its approach was calculated - start with a high-end racecar targeting a specific market to achieve notoriety and early buy-in. That was a success with the Roadster. Next is to produce a sizable high-end Sedan - the Model S. Early indications are pointing towards success - range, design, technology features, supporting infrastructure, demand and sales. In its pipeline are the Model X, which would be shipping next Fall, a smaller S for the mass market and there are talks about a Truck. This approach is calculated and is nothing short of methodical disruption.
Some of the key indicators of the prospects for success and sustainable growth for a new entrant like Tesla are desirable and reliable products, innovation, industrial scalability, market reach, a pipeline of future products, and the ability to be proactive, and nimble. On the first mark, it is almost needless to point out that the Roadster and the Model S are great products, both demonstrating range and performance that are unmatched by their respective peers. It is worth noting that among the recent accolades the Model S scored, Consumer Report's award of 99/100 had never been attained by an American automaker (irrespective of age or market cap).
Tesla's brilliance and continued innovation have earned the young automaker respect even among industry bigwigs. Today, it supplies Toyota and Mercedes (DDAIF.PK) electric powertrains. On a flattering note, within the last two weeks, Bloomberg reported that the CEO of GM had commissioned a team to study the threat that Tesla poses to the auto giant. These companies recognize that they dropped the ball on a great opportunity a decade ago. It is, however, not a strange occurrence in commercial history - Western Union (WU) notoriously scoffed at Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in the 19th century saying, "the device is inherently of no value to us." AT&T (T) mocked the cellular phone as limiting, not seeing beyond 900,000 in market uptake. Western Union lost out on one of the most transformative technologies of the last 200 years and AT&T had to pay through its nose to buy into the cellular market.
On the question of industrial scalability, Tesla's Fremont factory is about 5.5 million square feet of which only about 1/3 is currently being used. Even at that, current production at Fremont is one of the most advanced industrial operations in the world, incorporating robotics and human labor (see National Geographic's special on Tesla's MegaFactory). The company has noted its plans to scale production as it continues to grow - for current and future products. With the planned production and shipment of the Model X within the next 14 months, it is clear that Tesla has some of the necessary assets to execute.
In this age of global interconnectedness, it is no surprise that key markets across the world are picking up on Tesla. From North America, Europe, and the Middle East to Asia, Tesla is seeing growing demand for the Model S. The second quarter reports should provide updates on current and continued uptake across the globe, as well as the company's strategic approach to providing supportive infrastructure. Worthy of mentioning is that Tesla has spent very little on mass marketing, even to the local market in the United States.
A major boost that will drive continued local demand in the USA and Canada is the proliferation of Supercharging Stations. Tesla's Supercharging Stations' interactive map shows that by the end of 2013, much of the major metropolitan areas in the United States and southern Canada will be covered. These stations are planned to be powered partly by solar energy, relying on yet another Muskian venture, SolarCity (SCTY). Charging at supercharging stations takes about 30 minutes. And according to the company, it is and will always be free to Tesla owners. In a show of leadership, the company invited other EV makers to leverage these stations, copy them or do something totally different or better. Only a month ago, Tesla announced that hot swapping of batteries within 90 seconds would be available at some of its Supercharging stations. This commitment to continued innovation and leading at the edge is both audacious and disarming.
Like any other initiative, Tesla does not lack challenges. For starters, it faces entrenched market incumbents that are not particularly welcoming to newcomers. Furthermore, other industry stakeholders such as major energy players and auto-dealerships have either started an onslaught of negativity and objections against the company or are working arduously to repeat their successful stifling of EVs several years ago. It remains to be seen how this unfolds.
Nevertheless, Tesla's thrust is rendering much of the arguments of naysayers null and void from the outset. It has and continues to demonstrate a remarkable capacity to execute with the kind of finesse and exactitude the big players lack. The team behind Tesla has led the company to achieve a psychological breakthrough that is only beginning to reverberate across the energy and transport sectors. What makes it stand out is the uniquely gifted and battle-tested team that stands behind the company. Their outstanding achievements at SpaceX should provide a fair degree of confidence in the design and engineering of Tesla's products.
Looking at Musk's SpaceX, it is remarkable to note that the company is the only private enterprise that has successfully delivered and retrieved significant payload to and from the International Space Station twice within the last calendar year. There is none other and certainly not with the only working rockets designed and built in 21 century America. A quick glance at SpaceX's Launch Manifest reveals both their past accomplishments and a pipeline of missions that will keep the company busy in the coming years. NASA, being one of its major clients, will for the foreseeable future be relying on SpaceX for some of its missions into Space.
Elon Musk is certainly one of the most remarkable minds of the 21 Century. His simplicity, poise, audacity, imagination and infectious sense of optimism and can-do spirit are inspiring. With Paypal (EBAY), Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and the coming Hyperloop, this young man has demonstrated an untiring capacity to advance human civilization and a commendable commitment to bringing about a better future for our children and generations yet unborn.
For those who evaluate these initiatives from the typical market prisms, Musk and his team may not fit the exact profiles of safe investments because their approach is neither typical nor with much precedents. However, what they set out to do and have collectively achieved at SpaceX and Tesla is astonishing. More consequential yet are the goals they are working to meet in the years ahead. Both of these initiatives are testament to an American rebirth and fitting for its designation as the home of the brave and a land of opportunity.
Additional disclosure: I eagerly await the IPO of SpaceX.