• Jul 2nd 2010 at 12:00AM
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Tesla Roadster 2.5 (Tesla).

Shares of Tesla Motors, maker of the exotic electric sports car, soared more than 40 percent from its initial public stock offering price of $17 on June 29 as if the company's lithium-ion batteries were booster rockets on the new TSLA NASDAQ stock ticker symbol. But after day-traders ran the stock up to above $30 the next day, it started its descent back to earth, closing at $19.18 on Friday.

The market had hardly seen a stock this hyped and loved by day-traders since the likes of Google, though some might instead compare Tesla's IPO to eToys or the infamous Pets.com. America loves the car business, and investors haven't been able to buy into a car company on the ground floor since Ford Motor Co. went public in 1956.

Another chance might be coming soon with the new GM's much-anticipated IPO, perhaps before the end of the year. This would set the stage for an interesting battle, with the markets deciding which company -- Tesla or the one Tesla CEO Elon Musk frequently criticizes -- is the better investment for the 21st century.

The big question this week is whether the early buyers of Tesla stock are romantics who see Musk as a 21st Century Preston Tucker? (Or the idealized version of the maverick automotive entrepreneur played by Jeff Bridges in the 1988 film Tucker: The Man And His Dream.) Is there something in the company's actual business model that makes Tesla look like a better buy than, say, staking a position in Apple, taking advantage of a recent decline in Ford shares, or even waiting for GM?

"It's a very risky investment, there is no question about it," says Joseph Phillippi of Short Hills, NJ, based AutoTrends, who spent most of his career on Wall Street as an auto analyst. "The automotive industry is a very complex thing, and a business that will suck capital like no other. They have yet to prove they know how to sort it all out."

There is no question that the hype and lure of the auto business drew star-struck investors. "Tesla brought in people who wouldn't normally invest, a lot of inexperienced IPO buyers," said Francis Gaskins of IPOdesktop. Just how many of the buyers were institutions versus individuals is very closely guarded information at the banks who handled the IPO for the upstart automaker.

A browse of the prospectus Tesla put out ahead of its offerings shows pretty clearly what the company believes are the speed bumps to realizing success and profit. First is that its future is heavily dependent on the timely launch of the "Model S," a four-door electric sedan it says will be ready in 2012. The U.S. Department of Energy decided to lend Tesla $465 million for the Model S, of which the company has already drawn down $45 million. According to Tesla, the goal is to eventually sell 20,000 Model S sedans per year at between $57,000 and $85,000 each. The more you spend, the greater the range of the car you get: The base model will go about 160 miles on a charge while the top-of-the-line should be able to do 300.

But Tesla, by its own admission, is behind on development. It has but one prototype. Car companies typically need several prototypes in order to undergo crash testing, a process that can easily take more than six months. Tesla also does not have its network of suppliers lined up, a process that can take more than a year. According to Jim Hall of Group 2953 Analytics in Birmingham, MI, there are molds needed to make certain body parts that can take 24 months to get right and validated. "I just don't see that they have the time or enough money to do what they say they are going to do," says Hall, who believes Tesla's endgame is not to build cars on its own but rather to sell the company and brand to another, bigger car company.

To take some eyes off the likely delays associated with the Model S, Tesla this week announced upgrades to the existing Roadster including a new front fascia, rear diffuser, improved seat comfort and internal finishes, sound dampening and a large touch-screen navigation system. "Although development of the Model S is our main focus, this shows that we still care a great deal about improving the Tesla Roadster," said Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a statement. "These improvements are a direct result of customer feedback and come only a year after release of Roadster 2.0, showing an exceptionally rapid pace of innovation. Where feasible, we will also offer existing customers the ability to purchase the upgrades now available in version 2.5."

Per the agreement with Lotus, the Roadster will only be built through 2011 and poten tially into early 2012. Tesla's Model S, set to debut "in 2012," could leave a gap of many months to a year if a new contract with Lotus isn't signed to backfill more Roadster sales. In any event, Lotus and Tesla won't be hitched forever: the recent SEC filing revealed that the next-generation Roadster will be built in-house by Tesla, meaning the company is going to have to parallel path its Model S development alongside building an all-new Roadster. That's difficult to do for a company the size of Tesla.

The true value of Tesla is hard to calculate. The company lists $145 million in total actual assets, but that has little to do with Tesla's appeal to investors. "It is essentially an 'intellectual property,' IPO, says Hall. "The company showed a lot of cleverness in taking an existing car chassis from [British boutique car builder] Lotus and integrating their electric drivetrain." But it doesn't have hard assets or even brand value yet to support the market value of the IPO. Tesla has a lot of possibilities that will be extremely hard to make happen in a very difficult economic environment."

CEO Musk has done an excellent marketing job of building up the Tesla brand in a short period of time, despite selling just a little over 1,000 electric roadsters at six-figure prices across 23 countries. "There are other electric car companies out there like Think, Fisker and Coda, but they haven't captured the imagination of Hollywood or Silicon Valley yet," says Los Angeles-based marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "Musk emanates the idea that he is out to change the world, and he is a good salesman."

Stardust around Tesla has been supplied by early investors like Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Musk himself is the founder of PayPal. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, actor George Clooney and former vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore have been boosters.

AutoTrends's Phillippi, who saw Tesla's investor "road show," says Musk did a good job of contrasting his business plan against "Old Detroit."

Not to take it lying down, General Motors pulled together a hasty "business update" for investors on the same day as Tesla's IPO. On July 1, GM CEO Ed Whitacre Jr. appeared to the world via an Internet webcast from Austin, Texas, announcing that the Texas capitol would become one of the markets for the Chevy Volt launch later this year. GM kicked off a Volt drive between Austin and New York City that will conclude on July 4, a journey of exactly 1,776 miles to commemorate the nation's birthday.

Musk's case to investors for the IPO was assisted by both German automaker Daimler and Japanese titan Toyota taking minority stakes in Tesla in the last year, boosting the company's credibility. It is a testament to Musk's salesmanship that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, according to industry sources, pledged a $50 million investment after just 45 minutes with the South African-born chief executive.

Still, Musk has had to contend with a spate of troubling publicity, including stories related to his own cash problems and a messy divorce. Just about every news article leading up to the IPO pointed out that Tesla has never made money, cumulatively losing $290 million since its beginnings in 2004.

To make Tesla into a going concern that will continue to attract investor interest, Musk will have to keep up a steady flow of positive publicity and show progress on the Model S. Perhaps his biggest rival from here, though, is the established auto industry he so frequently bashes. "GM, Nissan, and Ford have EV's coming and awfully big marketing budgets," notes Keene.

GM is scheduled to launch the plug-in hybrid Volt by December. Nissan starts delivering the Leaf electric to customers in the fourth quarter. Ford will begin selling an electric version of its soon-to-be redesigned Focus. BMW has been testing a Mini EV in advance of launching its own electric that could get wider distribution before the Model S is even due to hit the market. Audi is similarly road testing an electric version of its R8 sports car in Germany. With the market for EV's unknown, especially in the U.S., that's a lot of competition for a potentially small pie.

The established automakers have made plenty of mistakes. GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Ford has posted almost a decade of annual losses before seeming to come out of it this year. Toyota is in the midst of a string of ugly recalls of both of its Toyota and Lexus brand cars and trucks.

But all these companies will have an advantage over Musk in the EV wars. While Tesla struggles to cobble together a network of some 50 company-owned stores around the world to sell and service its cars, the established companies have a vast network of dealers and service departments. And if their initial EV vehicles don't sell well, they can all afford to keep selling them while their "old fashioned" internal combustion engine models rake in the cash. Musk doesn't have that luxury or diversity of business.

There just isn't a lot that Tesla can do that is better or more efficient in electric vehicle development than what Detroit, German and Japan can produce. The main reason those companies haven't put EVs on the road yet is that they haven't seen a viable market for them while gasoline has remained below $3.00 per gallon throughout the U.S.

Musk hasn't proven yet that he knows what is at the heart of every company selling a consumer product, let alone something as expensive and complicated as an automobile: Knowing what the public wants and when they want it. A little over 1,000 vehicles in seven years spread across wealthy actors, hedge-fund managers and oil barons is a long way from selling 20,000-plus cars a year. At those sales volumes, Tesla, if it reaches its goal, will lose the very exclusivity that appealed to many of those well-heeled buyers who also browse around Bentley and Mercedes-Benz showrooms.

Musk gives the impression he is out to change the world. But he better keep his eye on his business plan first, or watch his share price sink below its first-day offering price.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      The Volt is comparibly OLD TECH, Its outdated and underclassed even before it comes to market. The TESLA has more range.. way better performance #'rs way better styling and refinement, not just better than the volt, but better than any of the offerings of the big auto makers. I say show us what you can do TESLA. If you can get me a $30k commuter car I will sign up right now.
      • 8 Months Ago
      And I agree. Bush was a damn stupid Liberal..and Obama is just a another Bush with the speech of a used car saleman. And one lazy President to boot. Only thing he seems to want is TV times to hear himself speak. Reminds me of Chavez. The Republican party and the Democrat party are like two old ladys loaded with their husbands Credit cards (who they just caught cheating on them) and they are headed to Vegas. They are both going to the exact same place..And will both come home broke. They are just bitching about which road will get them there faster. At least the Tea Party shows signs of hope for Spending Control.
      • 8 Months Ago
      America can make a better car for less money then any other country, if they want to.. The CORVETTE is proof.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'm telling you if GORE is involved you (the taxpayer actually funding this fiasco) is going to get BURNED TO THE GROUND!!!! Hell, the stock market is nothing more that LAS VEGAS gambling that you can do from you "puter"!!!
      • 8 Months Ago
      All electric vehicles simply are not practical and cost effective for the vast majority of Americans. Whether they have a range of 40 mile or 270 miles, the "recharge time" is simply an impractical aspect of these vehicles. Even for the vehicles with the higher range of 200 + miles, a 3.5 hr re-charge time is not compatible with our life styles. Hybrids are the only practical solution; and even then, the costs of the batteries is something like $10K once the arranty is expired. That makes those cars basically throw-away vehicles once the warranty has exspired and the batteries fail. (Who is going to invest $19K in an older vehicle?) Unfortunately, Tesla is more than a high risks; it is aparently doomed to eventual failure because of the impracticalities of the all electric car that requires over 3.5 hours to recharge. Hybrids are the only practical solution; but the cost of batteries must be substantially reduced to make it truly practical. And even then, the ppollution caused by the electric power plants and the production of batteries still adds to the pollution from automobiles; it just diverts those pollutants to the power plants and battery factories. There is STILL a long ways to go to get a practical, energy efficient and pollution free vehicles.
      • 8 Months Ago
      GM stock worthless paper is like White Cloud complaining about toilet tissue once it's been used ? Haven't ever heard of recycling ?
      • 8 Months Ago
      remember that potato skins will clog the garbage disposal !
      • 8 Months Ago
      If tesla would have talked to me at the Detroit NAIAS they would be the #1 electric car in the world! Im now in talks to a company in japan for my idea. They will put all others to shame. GM might as well not build the volt.
      • 8 Months Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      Wow.Apparently most people here do not know anything about Nikola Tesla somewhere around the 1890's.Where previously Thomas Edison came out with DC current and Westinghouse came out with alternating current.I won't expound on the subject because most people have no knowledge of electricity.But Tesla was taking the AC current a step further.Instead of using wirelines to connect from pole to pole,he tried to achieve the tesla coil to do that wireless.His invention resulted in many other breakthroughs.You remember those little black doodads that you used to hook your antennae wire up to that connected to your tv or playstation systems?Those were all miniature tesla coils.They were signal amplifiers,radio frequency modulators or stunts for radio frequency bursts from Solar flares and such.His original attempts was to transfer electricity from one pole to another replacing wires.The live demonstrations I seen showed a man in a mesh outfit of metal which would steer the electricity out around him to ground instead of through him to ground if he wasn't wearing it.Depending upon the applied voltage and the unlimited amount of amperage,a human would be vaporized walking through the field, the same as if you touched one of the 180,000 volt powerlines crossing our country and then grounding yourself.Even our defense ministries looked at this as a viable option for border patrol as many of our computer wargames did to.The lithium ion battery has already been tested by NASA.Our last probe that landed on an asteroid and returned to earth used it along with ion engines.The downfall to this car is the charging stations around the US.There are only a few.To make these cars charge off of 110 means more amperage and electricity.The higher the voltage,the less amps used.That is why the other countries in the world use 220 volts on up.When dealing with these batteries,the voltage and the rate of charge is what is a standard for them.Apparently the battery put out by GM has surpassed the last battery put out by China.For the moment GM has the upper hand as far as batteries go.I am sure that will be shortlived.
      • 8 Months Ago
      bcoburnree is wrong. The downfall of the successful EV-1 was not due to low lease numbers. Hell, there was a waiting list of people looking to lease/buy the thing. There was heavy pressure from oil industry and the congress they bought to end the electric car.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Until an electric car is manufactured that gets a minimum 100 mile range and sells for under $25,000, no one will buy it.
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