First, lets start with where the numbers come from. Last week, Tesla announced its second-quarter earnings, and in that release, it said that it delivered 11,532 cars in April, May and June of 2015. In that time, it also had an operating loss of around $47 million. A little bit of math later, you find that that comes to about $4,000 per car. So far, so good.
The issue is that all that money, all $47 million (and then some), was not spent just on building and delivering Model S vehicles. As the main source of this number (Reuters) points out:
Reuters also said:
Automakers consume cash to pay for assembly line equipment, including metal dies and plastic molds, as well as testing to meet safety and emissions standards. A typical new car can cost $1 billion or more to engineer and bring to market.
In other words, at least some of that $47 million was "lost" by spending money for the future. Tesla spend $359 million last quarter alone as it works on things like the Gigafactory and getting its plant ready to build the Model X this fall.
[Tesla] said it plans $1.5 billion in capital spending this year, mainly to launch its Model X, battery powered sport utility vehicle with eye-catching, vertical-opening 'falcon wing' doors. Tesla reported $831 million in capital spending during the first half of the year, indicating it will spend roughly another $700 million.
We saw a similar bit of, shall we say, interesting math when the Chevy Volt first arrived. There were articles that claimed each Chevy Volt cost $250,000 to make, and then $80,000. Of course, these numbers used the same faulty "take all the money and divide by the number of vehicles sold" math. This is great for headlines, but not so much for understanding what's going on. Given that automakers guard the actual numbers of how much it costs to build cars the same way Fox is hiding the real history of how the new Fantastic Four movie got made, don't take that $4,000 number too seriously. Or, if you want to operate using this sort of methodology, then just take a look at the first quarter of 2013, when, wow, each Model S made Tesla a profit of $3,061 ($15 million in profit divided by 4,900 EVs delivered. Presto!).
Now, given that Tesla does has an operating loss, it is true that Tesla is not making money on each Model S. At least, in the aggregate it's not. Whether or not each individual EV makes money – if you simply take the cost of materials, employee hours, warranty and so on and see if that's more or less than the driver paid for it – is something we don't yet know. If we ever get to peek at Tesla's account books, we'll share that with you.