Update: Have Tesla Model S, Model X electric-car sales plateaued?

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Tesla Model 3 teaser image with Model S and Model X, March 2016

Tesla Model 3 teaser image with Model S and Model X, March 2016

Often there seems to be no middle ground in discussing electric-car maker Tesla Motors.

The challenge of reading large volumes of Tesla coverage is that it tends to be either sharply negative or rabidly positive.

And the California company's stock is so obsessively analyzed both by supporters and detractors that sober analysis is often hard to come by.

DON'T MISS: Tesla Model 3 prices: reader makes his guesses, via spreadsheet

Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk are remarkably adept in issuing positive or interesting new developments on top of less favorable news as well.

A single Tesla Model 3 that emerged from its Fremont factory last weekend—the first production car, according to a photo tweeted by Musk—received a huge amount of media attention.

That largely overshadowed news from a week earlier that the company's global deliveries of its Model S and Model X had remained essentially flat for the fourth quarter in a row.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We originally published this story on March 3, 2017. We have revised it four months later to reflect additional data on Tesla quarterly deliveries, along with other updates on recent Tesla developments. The second page contains a further breakdown of recent sales.

2017 Tesla Model 3

2017 Tesla Model 3

Similarly, the headline from the full-year 2016 financial results released in March, was that Model 3 production remained on schedule. The actual numbers released in the company's Q4 Shareholder Letter and accompanying financial results, however, told an interesting story on a different topic.

That would be the pace of ongoing sales for the company's current Model S sedan and Model X crossover utility vehicle—which could well have plateaued.

Looking back at the last two quarters, Tesla's global deliveries were 24,821 from July through September, and 22,252 in October through December.

READ THIS: Tesla's Q2 2017 deliveries fall slightly due to 100-kwh battery shortage

Those deliveries were the final half of a year in which Tesla delivered 76,230 Model S and Model X vehicles, missing its lowered guidance to financial analysts of 80,000 units. (The company also noted that its total 2016 production was 83,922 vehicles.)

In the shareholder letter, the company offered guidance only for first-half deliveries from January through June, estimating it at 47,000 to 50,000 cars—or 25,000 cars each quarter, split evenly.

In fact, Tesla's global deliveries were 47,100, barely achieving the low end of that guidance. In an update to its release, it noted that it also had 3,500 cars in transit, fewer than the 4,650 in transit at the end of March, let alone the 6,450 in transit at the end of 2016.

Tesla Motors, Palo Alto, California

Tesla Motors, Palo Alto, California

That means the four quarters of the delivery pace for July 2016 through June 2017 are now known:

  • Q3-16: 24,821
  • Q4-16: 22,252
  • Q1-17: "just over 25,000"
  • Q2-17: "just over 22,100"

In other words, Tesla delivered about 94,200 cars over the past four quarters. That means its quarterly pace has stayed roughly the same for a year now.

As always, the company had an explanation for its shortfall in the most recent quarter: "a severe production shortfall of 100-kwh battery pack."

CHECK OUT: Tesla Transparency On Orders, Sales, Production Fades: Do Owners, Investors Care? (Jan 2015)

Left unexplained was why many of those rare 100-kwh packs would be dedicated to "fully loaded, newly built cars" the company said it added to its service-loaner, test-drive, and display fleets during the same quarter.

A plateau in sales for the Model S would be far from unusual; the large electric sedan is now in its sixth model year, a time in a model's life when virtually every vehicle's sales fall off.

Today's Model S differs significantly from the 2012 original, having received continual changes to battery capacities and driver-assistance features, but the only exterior indication was a front-end styling update in April 2016.

2017 Tesla Model S

2017 Tesla Model S

In early July this year, Reuters published Model S sales data for California, based on numbers through April obtained from data provider IHS Markit.

They showed that Tesla Model S registrations in the state for April fell 24 percent, to 2,177 from 2,867, while national sales fell almost 10 percent, to 3,911 from 4,334.

Reuters quoted an industry analyst noting that a single month's data was not necessarily an indicator of much.

Separate data reported by Reuters indicates that U.S. registrations of both Tesla models during the first four months of the year rose to 15,288 from 10,937, and registrations in California rose to 6,926 from 5,804.

"In percentage terms Model S growth peaked in February," Reuters wrote, "decelerated in March and turned negative in April in California."

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

2016 Tesla Model X with 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport, photographed by owner Bonnie Norman

In the Reuters report, Tesla responded that its global second-quarter deliveries of 22,000 cars were more than 50 percent higher than last year's second quarter.

That's undeniably true, although since then the pace of Tesla's global deliveries has been flat.

Opaque delivery data

Tesla's sales are especially opaque, because the company refuses either to provide monthly figures or to break out its quarterly delivery figures by country.

It has given various explanations over the years for this practice, from, "Our investors don't care if we release that data" to "The media would just misinterpret it."

The company is widely thought to make a concerted push for completed sales in the third month of each quarter, to get the numbers up for its quarterly results.

A conventional car company would be cuing up an entirely new Model S by now, likely to be unveiled within the next year and launched as a 2018 or 2019 model.

Tesla Motors, of course, is anything but a conventional car company.

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

Priority: Model 3

For the next few years, it must focus on expanding its lineup with far higher volumes of the more affordable Model 3 sedan, followed by a Model Y crossover utility vehicle (which will now apparently be built on different underpinnings, according to Musk). 

Considering the clear evidence of a global sales plateau, however, it's also worth noting that early expectations for the Model X seem to have fallen somewhat short.

Musk once suggested that its electric SUV might come to outsell the Model S, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

In its shareholder letter on the 2016 results, the company offered some positive news: it said its net orders for the Models S and X were 49 percent higher than the same period last year.

The company gave no actual numbers, leaving the claim unsupported. But there's important context missing there.

Tesla Motors production line for Tesla Model S, Fremont, California

Tesla Motors production line for Tesla Model S, Fremont, California

The Model X struggled into production late in 2015, and by early 2016, many buyers who had put down deposits for the electric crossover were faced with a purchase decision.

By that time, full information on Model X features, specifications, and pricing had been released.

The lack of fold-flat second-row seats and various other concerns may well have produced quite a few cancellations among that pool of depositors in the car's early months.

In time, Tesla rectified the oversight: it is now possible to fold the second row of seats entirely flat in 5- and 7-seat Model X configurations, though not in the 6-seat version with individual second-row seats.

Tesla stopped releasing deposit numbers almost three years ago, but its 49-percent year-over-year growth statistic is likely compared to a base number that reflected some or many of those cancellations.

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