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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Toyota-Tesla: less than meets the eye

VentureBeat has analyzed the latest Tesla S-1 filing about its recent deal with Toyota, and found some interesting tidbits:
  • Toyota has not yet agreed to partner with Tesla to build a car;
  • Toyota made only a conditional promise to buy Tesla stock after an IPO;
  • Tesla did not buy any NUMMI production equipment.
Some excerpts of the story:
…the newly revised S-1 states very clearly:

“In May 2010, Tesla and Toyota announced their intention to cooperate on the development of electric vehicles. This may involve the production of vehicles or powertrain components. However, we have not yet entered into any agreements, including any purchase orders, with Toyota for such arrangements and we may never do so.”

This is surprising, considering that Musk is already enthusiastically talking about not just one joint Tesla-Toyota vehicle — due out in the next four to five years, he says — but multiple tandem projects using Tesla’s powertrain technology and Toyota’s components.
For now, all that is tying the major Japanese automaker to the venture-backed startup is an agreement to buy a $50 million stake in the latter if and when it goes public.… [However,] if Tesla doesn’t have a successful IPO by Dec. 31 of this year, Toyota is no longer obligated to the buy these shares. This puts even more pressure on the company to make it to an IPO at all costs.
The conclusion of reporter Camille Ricketts:
Tesla and [CEO Elon] Musk have a history of making announcements that sound sweeter than they really are upon closer inspection. Last July, when the company declared profitability — with a margin of just $1 million — a number of reports said the claim was all smoke and mirrors. And when Tesla first filed to go public at the end of January, it conveniently provided financial reports only through the end of 2009’s third quarter, omitting the fourth quarter’s dismal sales. That data has since been included, but there’s a trend here.
Update 9pm: If that’s not enough, Venture Beat reporter Owen Thomas also reports Thursday that due to personal liquidity problems — tied in part to his inability to stay married — Musk has been broke for more than six months. Musk once used his personal fortune to keep the company afloat for the first five years, but now it appears he no longer cover a negative cash flow exceeding $100 million/year. Thomas concludes that even with government loans, the Model S is unlikely to begin production unless Tesla completes a successful IPO in the next seven months.

(Most of the divorce story is already several weeks old, having been covered by Edmunds, Divorce Saloon and Musk’s ex-wife herself May 6 and May 8.)

The upshot of both stories suggests that Toyota seems to be first in line to acquire Tesla and its technology if it runs out of cash, but has no financial obligation to bail it out if it doesn’t like the terms.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Runaway Bride

Thursday night, Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors announced that its long-promised Model S electric sedan would be built using a portion of the closed NUMMI plant here in Fremont. The announcement came with a $50 million investment from Toyota.

Given the 25-year NUMMI joint venture between Toyota and GM had established infrastructure, and its April 1 closing was a source of great embarrassment to Toyota, this seems like a no-brainer. However, apparently it only dates to an April meeting between the Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who made the joint announcement Thursday.

When I heard this, however, it reminded me of all the previous places that Tesla had promised to build a factory:
  • Albuquerque: promised 2007, abandoned 2008
  • San José: a greenfield site, promised 2008, abandoned January 2009
  • Palo Alto: a former HP factory, promised August 2009 — and apparently still on
Runaway Bride (Widescreen Edition)This reminded me of the Julia Roberts movie “Runaway Bride,” about a woman who kept planning weddings but then abandoning them at the last minute.

Most recently, the company had been negotiating with Long Beach (the former Douglas Aircraft plant for making DC-9s) and Downey (a former NASA site) in the LA area:
"It's gonna be a tough decision, because I think frankly both Long Beach and Downey would be great locations," Musk said.
Downey officials had approved nearly $9 million in incentives to attract the factory. The facility had been once listed in Tesla’s proposal for a $465 million “advanced technology” federal loan. Needless to say, city officials were upset:
"We are shocked, upset and betrayed. We can see why the public is so upset with corporate America," said Downey City Councilman Mario Guerra, adding that Tesla had told the city it would sign the lease for the Downey plant on Friday.
According to proponents, the Fremont plant will create 1,000 jobs. The company has cumulative losses exceeding $200 million on sales of about 1,000 cars and total revenues around $100 million. For such a tiny car company — selling a niche product — it has been tremendously successful getting publicity and promises of subsidies from local governments.

Or as a Downey city official put it:
“I couldn’t be more disappointed. I feel like I was stabbed in the back,” Councilman Mario Guerra said yesterday. “We were promised all along that we weren’t being used and this is what happens.”

“Elon Musk personally gave me his word that we weren’t being used,” Guerra continued. “Somebody is a very good poker player and I guess that’s how you become a billionaire.”
Tesla had also been promised as the salvation of the American auto industry, which has lost 100,000s of jobs in the past three years. Now, with the strategic investment by Toyota, there is an increased possibility that its exit strategy will be to become a subsidiary of Japan’s (and the world’s) largest auto company.

Monday, May 3, 2010

EVs: An expensive way to pollute the planet

I've always wondered about the green bonafides of electric vehicles: not because of the batteries, but because of the greenness of the electricity that it pulls off the grid to charge those batteries.

Sure, some people make themselves feel better by buying electricity from green sources — but then that reduces the supply of renewable energy available for others to buy. Meanwhile, if California (and other regions) is straining to achieve even 20% RE share, the marginal effect of increasing electricity demand will be to increase fossil fuel consumption from peak sources. It’s easy to ramp up electricity generation from peak natural gas (or coal) plants, but nearly impossible to quickly increase baseline generation of carbon-free sources like RE or nuclear power.

Even if you go for average — rather than marginal — CO2 emissions from grid power, the federal Energy Information Administration predicts that fossil fuels will account for 65%of electric power generation in the US even in 2035.

Now, a veteran British auto journalist has attempted to calculate the lifecycle CO2 cost of electric vehicles. Building on a team of consultants working over a three year period, the report, “The Emperor’s New Car,”was authored by Clive Matthew-Wilson of the auto review site Dog & Lemon Guide.

As Matthew-Wilson writes:
Claims that electric cars are ‘emissions-free’ are simply a lie; they merely transfer the pollution from the road to the power station. Not only will electric cars not reduce emissions, they may actually increase emissions, because burning coal to make electricity to power an electric car creates more pollution than if you simply powered the same vehicle using petrol.

Renewable energy sources may be growing fast, but they’re still a tiny percentage of the world’s electricity supply and they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future, because renewable energy sources tend to be far more expensive than fossil fuels.
The study contrasted the Tesla Roadster with the Lotus Elise (petrol-fueled) car that it’s built from. It concluded that the Tesla produced less CO2 emissions if used in New Zealand (where grid power is primarily hydro) but more emissions in the US, UK, China and Australia.

The report also concludes that the EVs are likely to be produced mainly at Chinese factories with far less environmentally friendly production and energy generation than those of the developed world.

Such errors are hardly accidental. As the Toronto Globe & Mail summarized the report:
The report says car makers, not environmentalists, are prematurely pushing electric cars. Car makers want electric cars because of the enormous subsidies they will generate.
This is hardly the final word on the subject, and it would be naïve to think this will end the hype and exaggeration. However, one can hope it will engender more accurate estimates among environmentalists and policymakers as to actual ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

Instead of cutting edge, technologically risky and expensive EVs, the report concludes that the best way to reduce CO2 emissions in populated areas is by using a proven (100-year-old) technology: mass transit.

Here in Silicon Valley, we’re heading in the other direction. In Santa Clara County, we have a mediocre bus network and a limited light rail system. Meanwhile, the three-county commuter rail (Caltrain) is about to disappear as cash-strapped local governments end their subsidies. Meanwhile, Googlers and other members of the Silicon Valley elite buy Teslas rather than depend on mass transit.

To me, it seems like stimulating EV usage before we have a large supply of RE is putting the cart before the horse. In 2009, both RE and EV manufacturers won generous Federal subsidies, but if the government some day decided to adhere to a budget, the data suggests subsidizing RE now and EVs later.