Tesla Update: Model S On Track, Reservations Good, Don't Worry

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2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

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After news on Friday that two of its executives had departed, the stock price of Tesla Motors plummeted. 

Reporters and the many, many commenters on all things Tesla raised questions about whether undisclosed problems had resulted in the resignation of Peter Rawlinson, chief body and chassis engineer.

According to a quickly organized conference call this morning at 8 am, CEO Elon Musk and other executives reiterated Tesla's core message: We're on track, meeting our deadlines, continuing to test increasing numbers of Model S electric sedans, and getting our Fremont, California, assembly plant up and running.

Personal reasons "not a euphemism"

Specifically, Musk said emphatically that Rawlinson had departed Tesla Motors for personal reasons--"that's not a euphemism"--after which Musk "looked at Nick Sampson's role," and concluded the organization "wasn't a good fit for Nick" and "accepted his resignation."

Speaking broadly of Sampson's role, Musk noted that different skills were required to run a team of 15 people than to run one of 200 people. Rawlinson's departure one week got conflated with Sampson's later on, he said, apologizing at the start of the call for the mismanaged delivery of news.

Those departed engineers actually arrived at Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] after the first Model S prototypes had been designed, Musk noted parenthetically, and their expertise was in "mass reduction and optimization"--a task largely complete for the Model S.

He noted that a separate, "relatively young" team had developed the upcoming Model X crossover, which will be revealed on February 9. That event, complete with "test rides," is to take place at the company's design studio in Hawthorne, California.

Meeting deadlines

In his introduction, Musk said he was "highly confident" that Tesla would:

  • "do better" than the third-quarter delivery date for the first Model S deliveries
  • deliver at least 20,000 Model S vehicles during 2013
  • achieve gross margins next year of "better than" 25 percent, based on precise understandings of Model S costs
  • unveil a "revolutionary" Model X crossover next month that will be "extremely well received"

Other highlights from the call:

  • A Model S Performance prototype has achieved 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 4.4 seconds on the road, according to executive JB Straubel
  • Another prototype has also exceeded a top speed of 130 miles per hour
  • Have produced "most of a car" from start to finish, with body and vehicle assembly and paint, at Fremont, according to the recently promoted Jerome Guillen
  • Two separate Model X platforms are being tested (with the mention of a different platform perhaps indicating that the Model X will offer all-wheel drive)

During a Q+A session with stock analysts, several questions arose around the public perception of electric-car safety in light of publicity around the battery-pack fire in a Chevy Volt three weeks after that car was wrecked in a NHTSA crash test.

No Volt effects

Musk said the company had seen no effect on sales from the Volt publicity. And he described a particular complex accident involving a Tesla Roadster, a Volkswagen Touareg, and a Toyota Prius, in which the Roadster ended up underneath the Touareg Prius landed on top of the Roadster with no ill effects to the battery pack.

And he said the Model S was already projected to achieve five-star safety ratings in "most" test categories, with the goal of achieving it in all categories.

George Blankenship, vice president of sales and consumer experience, noted that the company had 299,000 visitors to its six "new design" Tesla stores in December alone.

Reservations accelerating

More crucial to its bottom line, it also received 1,500 more Model S reservations during the fourth quarter, after 1,150 in the third quarter, giving it more than 8,000 total reservations.

In response to a question about how a startup company manages bad news, Musk said "we really don't have a demand problem" and the company was "continuing to see sales accelerate."

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