Shares of Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) didn't do too badly in 2011. The upstart electric-automaker's stock was up about 5.3% for the year through Tuesday. That's a solid result in a year when giant rivals from Ford (NYSE: F ) to Toyota (NYSE: TM ) were down sharply, though it trails the Dow Jones Industrial Average's 6.2% gain over the period.
Still, for a company that has yet to show a profit and is months away from bringing its bread-and-butter product to market, that's a fine result, a testament to rising revenues as the company continues to execute well on its plan.
But if 2011 was Tesla's year of anticipation, 2012 is shaping up to be the company's make-or-break moment. How will it go?
Coming soon: the moment of truth
Early signs suggest that it could go quite well indeed, though some potential wrinkles have recently appeared. Tesla confirmed last week that it is on track to deliver the first of its Model S sedans on schedule in "mid-2012" (a phrase that allows for a bit of fudging, but at least Tesla has been using it consistently all along), another sign that the company is on plan. The widely anticipated Model S has long been seen as Tesla's first mass-market car, though the first units will be anything but: Although a $49,900 price tag ($57,400 minus a $7,500 federal tax credit) has long been promoted for the Model S, that price applies to a base-level model that won't be built in the initial production run.
Instead, the first 1,000 cars produced will all be "Signature" models, with prices ranging from $87,900-$97,900 after that tax credit, a good bit higher than many (including many potential customers, I suspect) had anticipated. Tesla now says that the lower-priced models will arrive in "Fall 2012," when that $49,900 will buy you a Model S with a 40 kWh battery pack, giving an estimated range of 160 miles at 55 mph.
That's more range than the 100 miles or so that you'll get from a Ford Focus Electric or a Nissan Leaf, though those cars are priced considerably lower -- as many observers have noted, range costs money, plain and simple. And along those lines, if you're willing to spend more (think $70,000-plus, even after that tax credit), you can option your Model S up to an 85 kWh battery pack that will give you a full 300 miles – which should be the best in the business for a pure electric car.
For the well-heeled gadget geeks and early adopter types -- over 7,000 and counting, enough to sell out 2012's entire expected production -- who have already plunked down $5,000 deposits to order a Model S, all of that adds up to a compelling story.
The big question for Tesla: What happens next?
What Tesla needs in 2012
What Tesla needs in 2012, plain and simple, is a successful launch of the Model S. It needs to deliver the cars on time and as promised, it needs its initial buyers to be very happy, and it needs the production version of the Model S to get great reviews and stir up interest among potential buyers outside of the Tesla-fan clique -- the buyers the company will need if it is to get to the next level.
All of these things are more or less within Tesla's control, all of them appear -- at least as far as outsiders can know at this point -- to be on track, and the company's chances of success on those fronts now look pretty good.
But that's not the whole list.
Tesla also needs to avoid the kinds of teething troubles that are common with new technology and all-new cars, the kind General Motors (NYSE: GM ) has encountered with its Chevy Volt. A safety flaw or other quality issue that might be an expensive nuisance for a global automaker with 50 different products could be a crippling blow for Tesla, where the company's future is largely dependent on this one new model's success. Tesla's engineers will surely do the best they can, but this is an untested company in uncharted waters: Building cars is hard, and the possibility of a problem is not remote.
Tesla also needs to avoid, at least until its products are well-established, exactly the kind of competitive disruption it has long hoped to inflict on the global auto giants. Most automakers do not announce groundbreaking products years in advance, as Tesla has done (for good reasons) with the Model S. It's possible that one or more of the global giants (keep your eye on Nissan (OTC: NSANY) and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) ) is hard at work -- in deep secret -- on a new car that will take the wind right out of Tesla's sails. Tesla enthusiasts tend to discount this possibility, but the truth is that the Silicon Valley upstart's technology is not that far ahead of everyone else's, and huge sums are being spent to close the gap swiftly. If Tesla finds success, strong competition will appear.
There's only so much Tesla can do to head off those last two possibilities. As with most startups, Tesla's excellent execution so far will need to be accompanied by some good luck if the company is to get to sustainable profitability. Will that luck be forthcoming? We'll find out.
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