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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.

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