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Of all the challenges facing luxury electric-car maker Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) , none are so daunting as a lack of infrastructure. Gas-powered cars have gas stations; electrics have washing machine outlets. Charging stations? Try finding one sometime.
So long as electric-car owners need to take extra steps to "fuel up," Tesla will have a hard time growing out of a niche market composed of early adopter enthusiasts and those with enough money to buy the status that comes with driving green.
Yet there are signs Tesla may be overcoming this obstacle via a novel revenue-generating strategy. Co-founder Elon Musk and his team are selling fully electric powertrain systems to Toyota Motor (NYSE: TM ) . A new agreement with Daimler AG will bring electrics to the legendary Mercedes-Benz line.
So far, it's a small business. Powertrain development sales have brought in more than $85 million in revenue from 2010 through this year's first quarter -- not quite within spitting distance of the $148.6 million Tesla booked in auto sales last year.
While that equation won't reverse soon, there is a growth story here. The Daimler deal alone has the potential to turn powertrain development into much more than a side business:
"We recently signed an agreement with Daimler to create an entire electric powertrain for a new Mercedes-Benz EV, thus formalizing the joint effort kicked off in Q4 last year. This program is expected to exceed in value the sum of all powertrain agreements signed in Tesla history," Musk and Chief Financial Officer Deepak Ahuja wrote in Tesla's first-quarter letter to shareholders. (Emphasis added.)
Think about what this means. Do you really believe that Mercedes and Toyota would commit to building electrics without also committing to helping create an infrastructure to support fueling and maintenance of their vehicles? At the very least, both companies could encourage dealer networks to install charging stations -- which, in turn, could draw in profitable maintenance work. (Think tune-ups, component changes, wheel-to-wheel inspections, etc.)
To be fair, supplying dealers with charging stations is only a small step. Petroleum-fueled vehicles benefit from a national network of gas stations that refiners such as ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) have spent decades putting in place. Clean Energy Fuels (Nasdaq: CLNE ) hopes to replicate this idea, but for natural gas vehicles. It'll take years and millions more worth of investment to see it through.
Tesla faces a similar issue with its electrics, and enlisting deep-pocketed partners to help solve the problem only makes sense. To my mind, generating revenue from the effort is an added stroke of genius -- and I've backed up my take with an outperform CAPScall on the stock.
I could be wrong, of course. Tesla also benefits from government subsidies, which means the forthcoming presidential election could change its fortunes every bit as much as it could affect the prospects of these four multibaggers in the making. What do you think? Weigh in below.