Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) delivered 22,477 vehicles in 2013. But by the end of 2016, it's likely that Tesla could be delivering cars at a rate of 150,000 vehicles per year thanks to a global rollout and, importantly, a 2015 launch of the Model X, Tesla's electric SUV. This estimate isn't arbitrary; it's based on two comments from management.
Management has greater visibility
Thanks to detailed knowledge product plans, operating data, existing orders, the rate at which the company is taking orders, and a host of other factors, Tesla's management has far greater visibility into the future than investors do. For that reason, I'm always on the lookout for clues from the company about how it feels about the future.
For example, previous comments from management showed that Tesla's target for an automotive gross profit margin of 25% by the end of 2013 was already in the bag when Tesla reported second-quarter earnings, despite a reported 13% profit margin on its auto business at the time. And the fact that Tesla has confirmed with The Motley Fool that it has "no plans to initiate any paid advertising" also serves as a nice indicator of management's confidence in demand for the foreseeable future.
Insight into Tesla's potential demand
Now, the combination of Tesla's fourth-quarter letter to shareholders and its fourth-quarter conference call provides a nice clue about how management could view demand all the way out to the end of 2016.
First, let's look at a comment from the Q4 letter: "The potential in Europe and Asia is even more significant. Towards the end of the year, we expect sales in those regions combined to be almost twice that of North America." Assuming Tesla's current supply limited rate of deliveries in North America holds strong, that could mean Tesla is delivering vehicles at an annualized rate of about 70,000 vehicles by the end of 2014.
Next, Tesla CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of just how bullish the company is about its next big project, the Model X, in the fourth-quarter conference call.
[T]he Model X demand is very high. ... Even though there is zero marketing for the Model X ... demand seems to be remarkably high. ... In relative terms, it appears that the X will see at least as much as demand as the S. And if I were to guess -- and this is just a guess -- I think the X demand will exceed S demand. ... That's my best guess.
Of course, Tesla management has far greater visibility into Model X demand than investors, so if there's any guess that's worth listening to, it's probably Musk's.
Assuming Tesla can continue to ramp up production every year, it's reasonable to assume Tesla could be selling its two luxury models at a combined rate of about 150,000 vehicles (slightly more than double the projected annualized rate of 70,000 Model S deliveries by the end or 2014) per year by the end of 2016, considering that it will begin volume deliveries to customers in the spring of 2015.
It's also worth noting that someone I know who recently reserved a Model X has a reservation sequence number of 8,356.
Tesla's customer email correspondence says that the "Reservation Sequence Number indicates your place in our reservation queue and the order in which you'll be invited to finalize your Model X configuration, options, and packages." If 8,356 really is the number of reservations for the vehicle, that's a considerable number -- more vehicles than Tesla has delivered in any single quarter so far. Further, if it does indicate the exact number of orders, it's likely a reliable figure; customers (at least in the U.S.) have to make a $5,000 deposit to reserve their vehicles.
The big takeaway for Tesla investors is that if it's easy to see a clear path to an annualized rate of demand for 150,000 luxury vehicles per year by the end of 2016, Tesla's aspiration for 500,000 vehicles per year doesn't sound so crazy -- especially with the help of a car that will be priced at about half of what the Model S is to be launched in 2017. Of course, Tesla's plan to build the world's largest factory for lithium-ion batteries should help, too.