Automatic gear: Robotic arms assemble Model S cars at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California. Tesla says that production of its Model 3 electric car has been delayed due to an over-automation of the assembly line amid a rush to market. Picture: REUTERS
Automatic gear: Robotic arms assemble Model S cars at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California. Tesla says that production of its Model 3 electric car has been delayed due to an over-automation of the assembly line amid a rush to market. Picture: REUTERS

San Francisco — Ducking analysts’ questions has a price: $2bn.

Tesla investors gave a rare rebuke to CE Elon Musk on Wednesday after he cut off analysts asking about profit potential, sending shares down 5% despite promises that production of the troubled Model 3 electric car was on track.

Tesla’s future depends on the Model 3 and the company said it had largely overcome production bottlenecks, with Musk vowing a dramatic turnaround that would reverse losses and generate positive cash flow in just a few months.

Musk plans to shut down its factory in Fremont, California, for 10 days in the second quarter but said Tesla will meet the production target of 5,000 Model 3s per week by the end of June, as planned, and will turn a profit in the second half of the year.

To achieve profitability, Musk will have to reverse what today amounts to a $22,584 pretax loss per vehicle built by the Silicon Valley firm. Tesla posted its biggest quarterly loss when it announced first-quarter results on Wednesday.

Tesla stock was little changed after the earnings announcement but fell during a conference call, when Musk cut short analysts’ questions, costing Tesla more than $2bn in market capitalisation.

"These questions are so dry. They’re killing me," Musk said after an analyst asked what percentage of Tesla 3 reservation holders have started to configure options for their cars, an indicator of how much profit Tesla will be able to wring from the vehicles.

Another analyst asked about a capital requirement before being cut off.

Musk then took several questions about plans for a self-driving car network and other long-term projects from the host of a YouTube channel focused on investing, praising the questions as not boring.

Musk’s ability to run Tesla is crucial as the firm strives to efficiently and profitably build the Model 3, the first of its vehicles intended to be produced at high volume.

Musk acknowledged error recently in over-automating the Model 3 assembly line, which has resulted in production delays, but it is still unclear how long and costly it will be to unwind this mistake.

Delayed Model 3 production also comes as a slew of competitors bring new electric vehicle models to market.

The company stood by a previously announced target of building 5,000 Model 3s per week by the end of June.

Tesla’s capital expenditure declined in the quarter and the company cut its spending forecasts for 2018, saying it would spend less than $3bn. Tesla spent $3.4bn in 2017. analyst Clement Thibault said the reduction was noteworthy, "but in the long run given challenges that lay ahead of Tesla, I don’t think it is going to make or break the company".

He said Tesla was "definitely not in a minimising cost stage".

Free cash flow, a key metric of financial health, widened to negative $1bn in the first quarter from negative $277m in the fourth quarter, excluding costs of systems for its solar business.

Analysts had not expected so much spending, predicting hundreds of millions of dollars less in cash burn, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Tesla did not break out a cash flow calculation that it had included in previous quarters.

The niche car maker, which two years ago vowed to build 500,000 vehicles annually in 2018, has attracted legions of fans for its advanced technology and design.

But the company rushed its Model 3 to market, making mistakes in manufacturing whose effects are now being felt, and investor scepticism has risen.

Questions over Tesla’s finances are top of mind, and many analysts anticipate a capital raise in 2018 despite Musk’s statements that it will not be necessary due to profitability and positive cash flow in the third or fourth quarters.

Model 3

Tesla said gross margins on the Model 3, which today are slightly negative, would be close to flat in the second quarter and grow to "highly positive" in the second half of the year.

Tesla said it produced 2,270 Model 3s per week in the last week of April. It said net reservations for the Model 3, including configured orders not yet delivered, exceeded 450,000 at the end of the first quarter. Automotive revenue rose 1% from the prior quarter to $2.74bn.

Tesla reported a record loss of $709.6m, or $4.19 per share, for the first quarter ended March, compared with a loss of $330.3m, or $2.04 per share, a year earlier. Excluding items, it had a loss of $3.35 per share. Analysts had expected a loss of $3.58 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The company said it ended the quarter with $3.2bn in cash after spending $655.7m in quarterly capital expenses.

The lack of Model 3 revenue has exacerbated Tesla’s cash burn as the company continues to spend on its assembly line and prepares for new investments on multiple projects in the pipeline, such as the Model Y crossover and its Gigafactory.

The Model Y is just one of many projects in the pipeline for Tesla, which also launched a Tesla Semi and a new Roadster in recent months.