Company / division: Tesla
The Wall Street Journal, which this article acknowledges has had a somewhat adversarial relationship with Elon Musk and Tesla, reports that at least some Model 3 cars being produced in the company’s factory last month were still being assembled by hand rather than on the automated production line built for that purpose. That’s indicative of problems finalizing the automated line, which may be what Elon Musk’s comments about production bottlenecks referred to earlier this week in reporting low Model 3 production and deliveries. That, in turn, is indicative of the rush to get the Model 3 out the door at Tesla to meet overly ambitious targets. One of the reasons Musk has criticized the Journal is arguably that it’s one of the few publications that has regularly called out his failure to meet targets even as others fawn over Musk and Tesla’s notable achievements. Tesla refused to respond to the specific reporting in the article, and certainly didn’t deny its core assertions, suggesting that it’s likely accurate. I continue to be very skeptical that Tesla will get anywhere near its target production for the Model 3 anytime soon. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has been tweeting about various other things, including scheduling the Tesla Semi launch event for November 16th, and sending batteries to Puerto Rico.
Tesla today released its customary quarterly update on car production and deliveries, for Q3 2017. The overall number of cars produced was 26 thousand, just 5% up on last year’s total for the quarter, with just 220 Model 3 cars produced relative to the 1500 the company had projected. The company delivered to customers slightly fewer cars, including 260 Model 3s, indicating that it’s still a very long way from the mass production of these cheaper cars which it’s been forecasting. Tesla’s statement on the lower than expected Model 3 production is worth quoting in full: “Model 3 production was less than anticipated due to production bottlenecks. Although the vast majority of manufacturing subsystems at both our California car plant and our Nevada Gigafactory are able to operate at high rate, a handful have taken longer to activate than expected. It is important to emphasize that there are no fundamental issues with the Model 3 production or supply chain. We understand what needs to be fixed and we are confident of addressing the manufacturing bottleneck issues in the near-term.” All of this is classic Tesla – in effect: we fell short of our targets, unexpectedly, but we’ll still be able to meet our previously stated targets in the end. Past experience shows Tesla does generally recover from such setbacks, but not usually enough to deliver on original goals – something that’s been pointed out repeatedly by me and by others, but which still seems to engender remarkably little skepticism about its public pronouncements by many investors.
CNBC reports that Tesla is using AMD “intellectual property” in its work on chips to power the autonomous driving systems in its cars. Though investors seem to have taken that as a sign that AMD is supplying Tesla with chips, the CNBC report doesn’t explicitly say that, but does quote the CEO of AMD foundry spinoff GlobalFoundries as saying it’s working directly with Tesla on chips, which may suggest AMD isn’t totally in the loop. The CNBC and other coverage has noted that former AMD chip engineers are now abundant at Tesla, though the company has used Nvidia rather than AMD chips in the past. It’s also interesting to see Tesla contemplating such an architectural shift when it’s claimed that the innards of cars it’s selling today based on its existing architecture are capable of running full autonomy in future. The idea of Tesla increasingly designing its own chips would certainly be in keeping with the work led by Autopilot head Jim Keller when he spearheaded the A-series chip initiative at Apple – companies truly serious about software need to design their own hardware right down to the chip layer, an idea reinforced by this week’s iPhone 8 chip performance benchmarks. But the news also makes clear how unsettled the chip vendor picture still is in the automotive space, with Intel clearly finally gaining some traction alongside others who have done better in the early running.
Tesla has just announced plans to add Superchargers (its rapid car chargers) in dense, urban locations in order to assist owners of its cars who live in cities and in many cases don’t have places to plug in their cars at home. Tesla’s own blog post does a good job of explaining the various charging options available today to owners both at home and away from home, but the post from Jalopnik linked below does a fantastic job of explaining the significance of the move. Essentially, if you’re an urban Tesla owner you have to explicitly go find somewhere to charge your car from time to time, which might well be inconvenient, especially because even the Superchargers take 45-50 minutes to charge the car. What Tesla is offering now is Superchargers sited in locations where those customers might already be spending time – e.g. at supermarkets, malls, or shopping or office areas within cities – so that their cars can charge while they’re busy doing other things. That potentially solves one of the biggest challenges for would-be urban owners of Tesla cars, and reinforces the challenge that still faces pretty much all of the other electric carmakers: the lack of widespread charging infrastructure. Though Tesla’s total scale in terms of car production remains tiny relative to the bigger manufacturers, the one area where it has a massive lead is in building out that infrastructure to enable charging while traveling and elsewhere, and adding Superchargers in cities will give it a further lead.
Tesla On Track to Deliver First Model 3s by End of July, But Q2 Production Falls Short (Jul 3, 2017)
Update: following another release from Tesla on Monday, I’ve amended both the headline and content on this piece significantly from the first version published Monday morning.
Overnight, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had tweeted that Model 3 production would begin shortly, with the first deliveries happening by the end of July, with production ramping up slowly from there. Hitting the launch milestone is something of an achievement for a company that’s often missed its own self-imposed deadlines, but the real test is ramping production enormously above past levels, and that continues to be the achievement I’m far more skeptical of. The new numbers provided today suggest far lower total production than Tesla has promised in the past, at least in the second half of this year and first half of 2018. Later on Monday, the reason for getting that news out overnight became a little clearer, as Tesla released its production and delivery numbers for the June quarter, including a shortfall in both due to battery shortages. That’s bad news for Tesla, and more evidence of its inability to plan and execute on production in predictable ways, and therefore to meet the targets it sets itself. None of this gives me any more confidence in the longer term projections of Model 3 production.
Ex-Apple Engineer Chris Lattner Leaves Tesla After 5 Months (Jun 20, 2017)
This comparison leaked earlier in the week but Tesla has now made it official by posting it on its website (and Elon Musk pointed to it in a Tweet overnight). The only reason I’m including it is here is that it’s a great illustration of the hole Musk dug for himself with his puerile naming strategy for the Model 3 (he originally intended to name it the Model E, making the three current models the S, E, and X, but Ford objected so he flipped the E to a 3). That strategy has led many people to believe the Model 3 is the third iteration of the Tesla and therefore better than the other two models on offer, something Musk has been somewhat frustratedly trying to rectify for the last few months. This comparison, therefore, which is coming out months if not years ahead of the actual availability of the Model 3 to new buyers, seems almost entirely designed to clarify that confusion. Even the introduction makes the point Musk has been hammering home via Twitter recently: “Although it will be our newest vehicle, Model 3 is not “Version 3” or the most advanced Tesla”. All the specific side by side comparisons make clear that the Model 3 is indeed substantially inferior to the Model S – slower acceleration, shorter range, paid versus free supercharging, smaller passenger and cargo space, and so on. Again, this problem is entirely of Tesla’s own making, but also reflects an old problem in the tech industry: the Osborne effect, in which announcing a new version of a product while still trying to sell an earlier one reduces sales of the one currently available. This is just a unique spin on that particular problem given that the Model 3 isn’t actually a successor to the Model S.
I’m on record as being very skeptical that Tesla can achieve its production targets for the Model 3, given both its patchy track record on meeting such targets in the past and the massive ramp the Model 3 production schedule entails. This report from Reuters suggests that Tesla is banking in part on an unusual strategy for manufacturing, under which it will move straight to ordering and installing the final assembly line tooling, rather than testing the manufacturing process with “soft tooling”, which is easier and cheaper to replace if something’s not working. That skips a stage in the production ramp, which should accelerate things, but will only work if Tesla’s computer modeling is effective in helping it get the tools order right first time. So it’s definitely a gamble, and one which could either pay off in a big way and allow Tesla to get to its target production more quickly, or actually delay production or lead to defects in the cars. Even with this approach to manufacturing, it’s still not clear to me that Tesla can accelerate its output fast enough to meet its targets. So while there’s some upside in that it may get somewhat closer to meeting its goals, the downside is potentially much bigger if things go wrong. What’s crazy here, of course, is that all these challenging deadlines are entirely self-imposed – it’s Tesla that insists on promising so much and then underdelivering.