A Leap of Faith: Tesla Motors

This article is part of our Leap of Faith series, in which Foolish writers each pick a stock to take a chance on for the long term.

In honor of leap year 2012, I'm piling $5,000 of my hard-earned cash into one stock that holds no guarantee of a soft landing. As investors, it isn't always easy distinguishing the true growth stocks from the duds. And a leap of faith is often necessary in choosing the winners before they peak. The company I'm excited about is an electric-car start-up that's trying to survive in an industry where economies of scale favor traditional automakers. With the odds stacked against success in the auto industry, it'll take a disruptive innovator to turn the game around. Where innovation is concerned, I'm putting my faith in Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA  ) .

Plugging into profits
The Silicon Valley-based company designs, manufactures, and sells fully electric vehicles and advanced powertrain components. Tesla's on schedule to deliver its Model S zero-emission sedan later this year -- one small step for electric cars, and one giant leap year for drivers everywhere. The luxury all-electric sedan aims to be not only the best electric vehicle ever built, but also the best performance sedan in the marketplace. Should Tesla deliver on this promise, revenue would also leap forward.

Weighted down by costs, Tesla has yet to turn a profit. Building a world-class car company is expensive, especially without the resources enjoyed by industry giants such as General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) . In order to compete in an industry that favors economies of scale, Tesla needs to amplify the number of cars it produces. Meanwhile, Ford and GM are producing electric and hybrid vehicles of their own.

Ford plans to deliver its all-electric Ford Focus later this year. However, Ford's electrically powered vehicles only accounted for 1% of the company's output in 2011. Rival GM, on the other hand, is having a difficult time finding buyers for its electric Volt. The automaker is off to a slow start this year, selling just 603 Volts in January. That's off from GM's projected target of around 2,500 Volt sales a month. At that rate, GM will have a tough time recouping the estimated $1 billion it spent developing the car.

So you see, I'm taking a chance on Tesla's ability to maintain demand and ramp up production in a jiffy.

Accelerating demand
The company should generate about $600 million in revenue this year, and analysts predict that number will climb to $1.6 billion in 2013. Tesla recently unveiled its crossover SUV, the Model X, which should further boost profits for the company through 2014. With investors like me buying on future revenue potential, product demand is critical. The Model X collected more than 500 pre-orders on its first day accepting reservations, which isn't a huge surprise for a family vehicle touting a zero-to-60 time of less than five seconds. From a business standpoint, the Model X will be built on the same platform as Tesla's Model S sedan, which will drive down the cost of production.

Demand for the Model S hasn't looked bad, either. Tesla is sold out of the sedan until March of next year, with current orders exceeding 8,000 according to the company's CEO, Elon Musk. After the ramp-up period in late 2012, management expects to increase production to 20,000 Model S cars a year, up from its current rate of 5,000 to 7,000 vehicles. That's an aggressive pace for a company that's revving its engine for the first time.

Luckily, sales of Tesla's powertrain components should bridge the gap to profitability. Supply deals with traditional automakers Daimler and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) continue to be the company's main source of revenue. In addition to income, these deals lend credibility to Tesla's EV technology. Toyota is buying battery packs and motors from Tesla for an electric version of its popular RAV4 compact SUV.

More impressive is Tesla's latest contract with Daimler to build an all-electric Mercedes-Benz vehicle. Under its agreement with Mercedes, Tesla will supply motors, battery packs, electronic control units, and software. I wouldn't be surprised to see similar deals surface in the future as these automakers bring the Tesla product to market.

Risk factors
Betting on the transformation of the transportation industry is not for the faint of heart. As with any new technology, there is no shortage of risks involved. With nearly 90% of Tesla's projected revenue for 2012 expected to come from sales of the Model S starting in late July, the company has a lot riding on the successful launch of its new vehicles. Should Tesla run into delays with its Model S or Model X EVs, the company's revenue and reputation could be negatively affected. There's also the fact that Tesla is one of the most-shorted U.S. stocks in the market, with nearly 65% of its shares sold short as of Jan. 31, according to Bloomberg.

I guess that's why it's called a leap of faith. I've done my homework and weighed the risks, but at the end of the day I believe in the product. Tesla's not building toy cars like the competition. It's paving the way to the future of transportation -- and turning the auto industry on its head in the process.

I'm giving Tesla an outperform rating in my profile on Motley Fool CAPS. Nevertheless, I understand if you're not yet ready to drive off in an EV. Instead, discover another stock that lets you profit from the new technology revolution in this free report from The Motley Fool's top analysts. Click here for instant access to this special free report.

See what other stocks are getting our Foolish writers to swing for the fences; click back to the series intro for links to the entire series.

Foolish contributor Tamara Rutter owns shares of Tesla Motors. Follow her on Twitter, where she uses the handle @TamaraRutter, for Foolish insights and investing tips. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford Motor, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 12:30 PM, SMOKEN42 wrote:

    Tesla will "only-survive" if sold to a major auto company. There playing in a BIG-GUYS ballpark with no chance down the road. Take a guess on how many auto or aircraft companies, for that matter, have come and gone since nineteen-hundred , and how many exist today. Name any small auto company ( Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Land-Rover, Mini) they all survive by takeover by a large manufacture !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 12:42 PM, spectechinvest wrote:

    The are all internal combustion engine companies.... way different from a purely electric vehicle. This is a new market.

  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 1:30 PM, DaveSRQ wrote:

    Eventually, Tesla Motors may be purchased by some other company (Daimler has first right of refusal), but I suspect that would be several years from now. Right now, no other auto company is smart enough to take it over and operate it profitably.

    Although, in several years, it may actually be too expensive to be a takeover target. Right now, Tesla is better off on their own, shaking things up in the sleepy automotive industry.

  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 1:32 PM, JRP3 wrote:

    Yes, it's a new market. How many typewriter manufacturers survived to build computers?

  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 2:29 PM, F2JP wrote:


    Good for you. I'd wait and time your purchase at a dip, to get your best leverage.

    Larger companies (the few smart ones) can buy Tesla components (Toyota, Daimler, and possibly others to come soon) are the only ones yet to exhibit that level of common sense. Others (Nisan,GM, Ford, Renault, Rolls Royce, Fisker, etc.) are not so astute.

    Why would Nisan spend considerably more to develop the leaf, only to have it fall so short of Tesla's well known performance and range? I like the leaf, I drove it over a year ago. It has a lot of hight tech features, handles well enough, and has reasonable performance. I think they should, and could have set the bar higher as to range.

    For much less upfront investment, the Leaf could have been a standout product by using Tesla Tech.

    Why would GM make a huge investment in the Volt only to have a vehicle that still has all the downsides of an ICE vehicle?

    The choice to go hybrid with the Volt is most baffling. Again, for much less upfront investment, the Volt could have been so much more relevant with a Tesla Drive Train. Imagine an EV Volt with the performance of a Porsche 911, and 240, or 300 mile range. It would sell like hotcakes.

    Instead GM chose to encumber the Volt with old technology. A gasoline Engine, emission controls, exhaust system, transition, starter, cooling system, along with all the maintenance and expense that goes with it. What's so new about that?

    Tesla is 100% New Technology! Tesla is bringing to market, vehicles with performance and range that blows the big companies away!

    They'll do fine.

    The bigger manufacturers are not in a cash position to lay down the investment to buy even a small start-up like Tesla. The smart money partners with Tesla, and others settle for less.

  • Report this Comment On February 29, 2012, at 5:16 PM, soflainvestor wrote:

    Good call, Tamara.

    I've been following the Fool's coverage of TSLA for quite a while. Overall, most articles on the company have been negative.

    You are one of the few Fool writers who appears to understand the technology and the company. It's a risky investment, no doubt, but Tesla has developed some of the most innovative and exciting cars on the planet. A 5-seat luxury sedan that goes 0 - 60 in 5.6 sec and gets the equivalent of 106 mpg is pretty astonishing. With 8000 reservations at $5K a pop, it has booked business of about $560 million over the next year. It projects margins of 25%, and even if that slips a bit, Telsa is still profitable in 2013.

    Way too much about EVs has been politicized and much of the negativity has no basis in fact. EVs will become an important automotive segment, and those who say they won't are letting their politics cloud their judgment. TSLA could lead the way.

  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2012, at 1:17 AM, JohnnieBD wrote:

    When Robt Redford and Paul Newman leapt off the cliff in Butch Cassidy it was a "Leap Of Faith" to escape a bad situation. But, then we knew it was a movie. You are leaping into "Reality".....which is....this company burns money and talks big... and burns money and talks big. I expect they will be talking "Big, after they have no more money to burn" and the bankruptcy judge swings his gavel. If you have another 5,000.00 lying around that is of no value to you I'll be happy to e-mail my address. I can use the money.

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