I like to look at Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) using the hardware, software, and services framework that's commonly employed in the tech world. Tesla has a greater focus than traditional automakers on integrating all three of these areas, which is probably the most-compelling argument for how Tesla is as much a tech company as it is an auto company.
On the services side, most traditional automakers have little to speak of beyond a few subscription services that are available, such as GM's OnStar. But the subscriber bases of most of those services are fairly limited. Vehicle service is also always performed by dealers, and not the manufacturer.
As consumer appreciation for hardware, software, and services integration has grown in recent years, evidenced by the popularity of a particular smartphone maker, it makes sense for Tesla to continue expanding each of these areas.
Tesla has already hinted that it may consider adding more types of financial services to the mix in the coming years. In no uncertain terms, Tesla's 10-K states: "We intend to broaden our financial services offerings during the next few years."
Right now, the vast majority of its financing options are through third-party lenders. This is necessary because lending businesses require a lot of capital, and severely inhibit near-term cash flow. Cash flow is currently of paramount importance to the company to fund capital expenditures.
But over time, as Tesla continues to grow, and cash flow eventually stabilizes, it will make sense to expand into the high-margin lending business. To be clear, this is already an area where incumbent automakers play, and lending is consistently among their most-profitable segments. Tesla wouldn't need to provide wholesale financing to dealers like traditional automakers do, because it has no dealers. This would purely be a consumer-oriented business.
In fact, there is even some potential to disrupt here, too. Strategically, Tesla does not seek to profit on service, and if the company took the same approach to lending and minimized its interest spread -- the difference between its cost of capital and the interest rate it charges -- it could offer extremely compelling loan products to customers, essentially close to cost. Tesla could hedge its interest-rate exposure with derivatives to accommodate for fluctuating interest rates.
Perhaps it maintains an interest spread wide enough only to cover lending operating expenses, and compensate for credit risk and interest-rate risk (because you can never fully hedge against interest-rate risk). That would help drive demand for its vehicles even further, bolstering unit growth.
Bill me later
Elon Musk has also hinted that Model 3 Supercharging will include pay-per-use, as well as lifetime-access options. At the recent annual shareholder meeting, Musk suggested that Model 3 Supercharging will cost extra, yet be far-more affordable than gasoline, unless you purchase the lifetime-access option. I tend to think that the pay-per-use model should be based on actual kWh delivered to the vehicle -- adjusted for regional differences in commercial electricity prices -- instead of charging time, because Supercharging rates fluctuate depending on various factors.
Tesla vehicles can easily track this data, and then beam that information back to the mothership. Then Tesla turns around and charges the customer accordingly. Customers already have My Tesla accounts with the company, so it would just be a matter of implementing a recurring billing system.
The Supercharging experience would still remain just as simple as it is today -- you pull up and plug in. You wouldn't need to deal with paying at the "pump," or going inside to pay a cashier. You just unplug and drive away when you're done, and Tesla bills you later through your account.
I have a dream
If Tesla were to implement both of these ideas, it could build meaningful financial relationships with customers. Maintaining direct customer relationships is already one benefit of Tesla's direct-sales model, so it could be a natural extension.
Imagine customers logging into their My Tesla accounts, viewing their vehicle profiles, reservations, and orders, while easily managing loan payments and paying Supercharging bills. All in one place.
Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Tesla Motors. Evan Niu, CFA 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.