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Elon Musk insists Tesla isn’t a car company as sales falter

If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation. That's advice Don Draper of "Mad Men" once gave. And it appears Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk is taking it.

By the numbers, Tesla painted a dismal picture through its latest quarterly results. But the stock told a different story: excitement. New models are on the way, Musk said. And beyond that, Tesla will prosper as a pioneer in autonomous ridesharing. Shares jumped following the earnings release, and the momentum carried over into morning trading Wednesday as the stock surged as much as 14%.

As Tesla car sales faltered, Musk delivered an optimistic pivot: Tesla isn't a car company.

Sales fell 9% from a year ago in the most recent quarter, the first drop in four years. Operating profit tumbled more than 50% from the same period last year. Guidance, too, was a drag, as executives foresee "notably lower volume."

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But the market loved Tesla reassuring the world that, actually, cheaper cars are coming. As Jefferies analysts said in a note after the report, "first impression for us is CEO Musk appeasing the market by accelerating new product launches."

And Musk emphasized over and over again on the earnings call that investors shouldn't view Tesla as an automaker but rather as a digital platform akin to Uber (UBER) and Airbnb (ABNB) for an autonomous fleet.

During the call, when vice president of vehicle engineering Lars Moravy dodged a question about the specific timeline for a mass market $25,000 vehicle, Musk interjected to say that more details will come at Tesla's Aug. 8 robotaxi unveiling. But he added his patented visionary flourish: “The way to think of Tesla is almost entirely in terms of solving autonomy and being able to turn on that autonomy for a gigantic fleet.”

But there's a tension in Musk's auspicious goal-setting. Call it market dissonance. Musk is enthusiastically trying to convince shareholders that Tesla can leapfrog dedicated autonomous car companies like Alphabet's (GOOG, GOOGL) Waymo and swiftly “solve autonomy,” even as the market flashes strong signals that investors want Tesla to deliver cheaper EVs.

"If somebody doesn't believe that Tesla is going to solve autonomy, I think they should not be an investor in the company," CEO Elon Musk said on the earnings call Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
"If somebody doesn't believe that Tesla is going to solve autonomy, I think they should not be an investor in the company," CEO Elon Musk said on the earnings call Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As Citi analysts wrote in a note after earnings, "We like Tesla's product pivot that appears to prioritize speed and launch/redesign on existing capacity."

But in his shift of focus, Musk is de-emphasizing the thing people are clamoring for, moving on to Tesla's next big thing, and shifting the valuation goalposts and ultimate vision for the company.

Musk elaborated later on the call: “We should be thought of as an AI robotics company. If you value Tesla as just an auto company — it’s just the wrong framework. If you ask the wrong question, then the right answer is impossible.”

He went on to encourage the autonomous nonbelievers to get lost.

"If somebody doesn't believe that Tesla is going to solve autonomy, I think they should not be an investor in the company. And we will. And we are."

Even as Tesla's quarter jolted the stock, market observers expressed some skepticism over the company's ambitious plans. "Commitment to robotaxi is unwavering, still without providing clarity on timeframe and business model," the Jefferies note said.

A note from UBS analysts referring to Tesla's Full Self-Driving technology, or FSD, was even more critical. "We don’t doubt that FSD is making progress, but TSLA has talked up autonomy before, and we are skeptical that TSLA will have a 'cyber-cab' or ride-hailing service this decade," analysts at UBS wrote after earnings.

Musk sees the day Tesla switches on unsupervised full self-driving as possibly “the biggest asset value appreciation in history.” That day might be farther than Musk hopes, and it may never arrive. But saying so is its own kind of value appreciation.

If your company isn't making enough money from the products it sells, it can be helpful to change the idea of what success looks like.

Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.

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