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The Tesla Semi could create a dangerous situation for the company (TSLA)

Matthew DeBord
tesla trucks semi

Tesla


  • The Tesla Semi has been racking up high-profile pre-orders since it was unveiled.
  • Those deep-pocketed customers are going to want their trucks — they'll be less patient than Model 3 buyers.
  • Tesla might want to think about prioritizing the Semi.


The Tesla Semi reveal at SpaceX headquarters near Los Angeles in November was easily the most bonkers Tesla event I've ever attended. Elon Musk jumping out of an all-electric big rig, bathed in red light, with private jets taking off in the background, crowd screaming, and then one more thing: the new Tesla Roadster rolling off the back of one of those rigs, to the thunderous strains of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage."

For good measure, designer Franz von Holzhausen made a couple of speed runs in front of an audience of Tesla enthusiasts who, as Musk accurately predicted, had just had their minds blown out of their skulls.

So the new Roadster upstaged the big rigs. But since the unveiling, the big rigs have generated more buzz, although it's been a bit below the radar. Companies such as Walmart, Anheuser-Busch, DHL, Sysco, and Pepsi have placed notable pre-orders for the Semi, which will be priced at $150,000 to start when it eventually goes into production.

Emphasis on eventually. Tesla has minted a $50-billion market capitalization by serially overpromising and underdelivering — and that's actually OK — so we shouldn't expect the Semi to hit the road anytime soon. 

But things could be different for Tesla this time around. 

tesla semi

Alexis Georgeson/Tesla

Tesla Semi customers will be completely different from Tesla car buyers

Musk is committed to overpromising and underdelivering for strategic reasons — he gains nothing from living up to expectations and everything from resetting them — but with the Semi he's trying to apply his Jobsian reality distortion field to a new set of customers.

Tesla's core business — expensive, all-electric luxury vehicles — has grown dramatically since 2013, but it remains niche in the larger scheme of the auto industry. Buyers are affluent early adopters who embrace Tesla's mission. 

With over 400,000 pre-orders booked for the cheaper Model 3 sedan, Tesla is working to extend that brand enthusiasm to the mass-market (or at least the upper end of the mass-market), with the understanding that more budget-sensitive buyers might not be as infinitely patient with Tesla's quirks.

The Semi is a whole other ball game, though. 

Tesla Model 3

Timothy Artman/Tesla

Semi customers are big companies that will want to see a return on investment quickly

The electric-semi value proposition is convincing enough for major freight haulers to consider Tesla as a way to outsource some risky R&D and experiment with alternative means of heavy-duty over-the-road propulsion. My view is that these folks are going to be the least enthusiastic about Tesla's overpromising and underdelivering mojo. They're going to want their trucks delivered when promised and they are going to be a lot more demanding than the Model 3 buyers. 

And that could be a good thing, putting pressure on Tesla to deliver. Except that Tesla is currently mired in what Musk has called "production hell" for the Model 3, with far fewer vehicles rolling off the assembly line than predicted (the year could finish up with just a few thousand in total, optimistically, versus thousands per week).

In the big picture, the Model 3 is driving Tesla's valuation, and failing to come through with the car on schedule could undermine the company's all-important access to easy equity capital in 2018. That's a real problem, as Tesla doesn't have enough cash on hand to ride out the coming year at its current burn rate.

elon musk

Reuters/Mike Blake

Tesla's weird new reality

Here's where things get seriously weird. Tesla has on paper a solid core business with the luxury vehicles: 100,000 units annually, with a tasty profit margin of something like 15%, conservatively. That business is probably now sustainable. 

The Model 3 business is obviously up in the air, as Tesla attempts to add another 400,000 vehicles in yearly production — and sell a car with a base price of $35,000 at a profit similar to the Models S and X. The coming 12 months will be a test, or maybe even an ordeal: Can Tesla be both Ford and BMW?

Meanwhile, the Semi has exerted a powerful pull. Tesla doesn't need to manufacture 400,000 of them, either. And it can sell them for ... oh, about $120,000 more than the Model 3. If you were trying to make the most of Tesla's capital, which orders would you prioritize?

Tesla does start to look sort of like Daimler in this conundrum: a good business in large trucks and, with Mercedes-Benz, a good business in luxury cars. (AND, guess what: Daimler once owned a chunk of Tesla, back when the German company was invested in Tesla's powertrain business.)

FILE PHOTO - The logo of Tesla is seen in Taipei, Taiwan on August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

Thomson Reuters

The Semi could be Tesla's salvation

So the Model 3 is certainly cool, setting off a crazy cycle of desire that's akin to what Apple has achieved with iPhones (though not at all the same when it comes to purchasing the Tesla vehicles). But as the pre-orders roll in and Tesla gets the benefit of a rallying stock price on the news, the question arises: Why waste time on a low-margin car when you could shift to Semi production and satisfy some very deep-pocketed customers?

The question is important because it implies another: Where will Tesla build the Semi? Production is supposed to begin in 2019. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Tesla will need a new factory to handle Semi manufacturing.

Or ... dial Model 3 way back, take the hit — and it would be a big hit — and go all-in on the Semi.

I don't seriously think this will happen, but that's why the Tesla Semi puts the company in dangerous territory. I used to consider it a distracting folly. But now it looks more like Tesla's salvation.

NOW WATCH: Watch Elon Musk show off Tesla’s first electric semi — which can go from 0-60 mph in five seconds

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