Elon Musk’s new plan will test investor faithful

July 21, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Elon Musk’s new master plan will test the Tesla shareholder faithful. In a blog post late on Wednesday, the electric carmaker’s boss laid out his vision for the next decade or so. He has some compelling ideas: building more vehicle types and ramping up autonomous-driving capabilities for a sharing economy. The trouble is that plenty of rivals want a piece of it, too. And his missive fails to address several more immediate concerns – not least how to finance his ambitions.

Musk titled his post “Master Plan, Part Deux,” – a reference to the “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me)” that he wrote almost 10 years ago to the day. That detailed how he was building an electric sports car in order to raise funds to manufacture family-friendly vehicles down the road. He has largely succeeded, which lessens the conceit of drafting a new outline for the next decade.

Unlike in 2006, though, Musk’s ideas are now mainstream. Larger carmakers have cottoned on to the appeal of both electric and self-driving vehicles – as have the likes of Google and Apple. Everyone is grappling with the concept of people sharing private vehicles or using a taxi-like fleet.

Tesla may have an advantage in some areas. It is, after all, solely committed to electric and autonomous cars while traditional players still concentrate on gasoline engines. But Daimler, Ford, Toyota and others have deep pockets, whereas Tesla is still losing money and has to raise capital just to make sure it has the cash to develop its more affordable Model 3 sedan.

Musk’s vision also includes electric passenger buses and heavy-duty trucks. Those are not just expensive propositions; they’re also technologically tough at present as batteries powerful enough to propel them are not yet commercially viable.

In the more immediate future, shareholders have another concern: Musk’s desire to combine Tesla with SolarCity, his home solar panel company. The plan does nothing to allay fears about the motives for the tie-up, or the governance issues it raises.

Musk’s determination to think far ahead is a positive and infectious antidote to short-term financial markets. But it is also a stark reminder that shareholders are not even riding shotgun.

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