Musk Earth Hi Res

As Steve Jobs said, "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do." Tesla CEO Elon Musk at a presentation. Image source: Tesla.

Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) loses a lot of money. It's true.

A cursory glance at its most recent balance sheet will show an accumulated deficit of $2.6 billion, with $3.6 billion in additional paid-in capital that investors have had to invest in the company over the years to help support its mission. That additional paid-in capital figure does not include the $1.7 billion that Tesla raised after the close of the quarter. So yes, Tesla has indeed burned through quite a bit of cash in the 13 years since it was founded.

But it's worth it.

Tesla cumulative net losses: $2.6 billion

What has Tesla accomplished for that amount of money over that time frame, and what do investors have to show for it?

Tesla has helped catalyze the auto industry's transition to electrification, after traditional resource allocation and profit-seeking methodologies led legacy automakers to pull away from electrification programs in the late '90s. The company has shown that EVs are indeed viable as a product category, and that there is demonstrable demand provided you make a compelling EV that meets people's real-world needs. Tesla is spurring the industry into electric action.

Generally speaking, nearly all new technologies throughout the course of human history have been extremely expensive to develop and subsequently commercialize at first. EVs are no different, except that the financial implications are exponentially magnified in the context of the capital-intensive auto industry. Even today, after over a century of technological refinement, an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle program costs a minimum of $1 billion.

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Making a category-defining car costs a ton of money. Image source: Tesla.

"Tesla loses lots of money" is a common bearish argument, but it's worth putting those losses into the context of the broader auto industry, which generates around $9 trillion in annual revenue, according to IBISWorld. Remember that all automakers will lose billions of dollars combined in EV programs as well, due to research and development expenditures; they're just able to absorb and subsidize those losses thanks to large ICE businesses. Over time, EVs can become profitable as costs come down and operating leverage kicks in.

U.S. auto bailout: $9.3 billion

Another common criticism is that Tesla relies on government support, which it doesn't. These misplaced criticisms are even more ironic when you recall that two of the Big Three U.S. car companies received quite a bit of direct government support at the depths of the Great Recession. It doesn't get more direct than this.

During the auto bailout, the U.S. government invested a total of $79.7 billion into GM, Chrysler (which subsequently became Fiat-Chrysler), their respective financial services divisions, and industry suppliers in order to prevent (an even worse) macroeconomic calamity. Taxpayers recouped $70.4 billion, translating into net losses of $9.3 billion, according to the U.S. Treasury.

To be clear, the government's intervention was necessary to avoid further disaster, but it was also the result of many years of complacency on the part of some automakers. Many were also overly burdened with legacy costs such as pension obligations (pension accounting is an absolute nightmare). GM once posted a net loss of nearly $40 billion in a single year ($38.7 billion in 2007). That's more than Tesla's entire market cap today.

Dieselgate: $18.3 billion

Just a couple of months ago, Volkswagen posted its own largest annual net loss in its 79-year history after taking an $18.3 billion charge related to its now-infamous Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal. Climate change is very much a global issue, so let's think of the bigger picture.

What do we get, as a global society, for $18.3 billion? An undeniable sense that traditional automakers are struggling so much with climate change and tightening emissions regulations that many simply cannot comply. They'd rather cheat because it's cheaper than the cost of compliance, particularly in the pursuit of growth in Volkswagen's case. Well, unless they get caught.

Furthermore, VW is just one among many. Mitsubishi also admitted to falsifying its efficiency data and mileage estimates for hundreds of thousands of vehicles sold in Japan. Daimler Mercedes-Benz is now under investigation by U.S. regulators regarding diesel emissions, though the German OEM maintains its innocence. That's just the last few months' worth of emissions scandals. These types of scandals have been occurring for decades (Mitsubishi's transgressions date back 25 years).

Additionally, you can imagine that whatever regulators around the world collect in the form of fines and other punitive measures will likely end up merely supporting continued tightening of regulations. Emissions regulations are getting harder before they're getting easier. This will not stop.

Fighting climate change: priceless

What do we get, as a global society, for $2.6 billion? Almost 15 years of a company that was built for the specific purpose of tackling climate change head on, with the fortitude of its convictions that this is not an insurmountable challenge. A company that is inspiring a new generation to be truly excited about the future of sustainable transportation (my 3-year-old son thinks all cars run only on batteries).


Model 3 has always been the goal. Image source: Elon Musk social media accounts.

As a society, we can turn the tide against carbon emissions, despite the fact that progress is nearly imperceptible. We must because our survival (or at the very least, a large number of us and our children) almost certainly depends on it. For a while there, the damage was imperceptible, too, but now the long-term scientific evidence is in. It's bad.

This is why Tesla is a company that's worth supporting and investing in. Fighting climate change will take many decades, but we have to start somewhere -- and Tesla is as good a place to start as any. Come to think of it, $2.6 billion is starting to sound like a deal.

Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Tesla Motors, and has the following options: long January 2018 $180 calls on Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. 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.