Tesla Inc.’s earnings call Wednesday should have been a victory lap, after the electric-car maker reported quarterly profit of more than $2 billion for the first time, wrapping a year when earnings tripled and extinguished doubts about profitability.
“Technoking” Elon Musk performed a sideshow, returning to the earnings stage — after saying last year he was done with it — so that he could deliver a pie-in-the-sky fantasy show about the future instead of rational discussion about a stellar year. Musk took a few seconds to acknowledge the year’s results, then dusted off some of his biggest flights of fancy — again proclaiming that “full self-driving” is right around the corner and will make Tesla cars worth more than the original purchase price, while adding a relatively new one about humanoid robots.
“I would be shocked if we do not achieve full self-driving, safer than a human, this year,” Musk said at the top of the call, repeating a promise he has repeatedly made in one form or another for years. Heck, this one seems responsible compared with Musk promising 1 million Teslas would be a networked robotaxi network by the end of 2020.
Musk tells these exaggerations to get consumers to pay thousands of dollars, or hundreds a month, for “Full Self Driving” software, even while arguing to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that the software is not autonomous. (The California DMV has been reviewing Tesla’s use of the term and is also reviewing whether Tesla’s test driving of its vehicles on public roads requires regulatory oversight.)
He then uses customers’ willingness to pay for that software — which does not do what it claims — to attract investors, while not revealing the data that supposedly proves his theories. When asked Wednesday by one Wall Street analyst, Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research, for some numbers on attach rates — how many cars are actually using the software and paying for it — Musk waved him off and promised “a very big number.”
“Effectively, long-term every car will have FSD,” he said. “So the value of that will be a very big number.”
As this column has catalogued, Musk has spouted untruths about the near-term path to autonomous cars for years. Newer to the fantasy parade is his plan to develop humanoid robots he calls Optimus, like the Transformer. You may remember the launch of said robot ambitions, which included a person dancing in a robot outfit.
“This, I think, has the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time,” he said, while basically implying he hopes to one day replace his human workforce with the robots.
If this sounds at all familiar, it may be because of Musk’s yearslong claims that his factories would use manufacturing robots to beat out the competition. Except that idea got tossed in Tesla’s “production hell,” when Musk was forced to admit “excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake.”
Perhaps Musk went back to the well for outlandish claims about the future because 2022 isn’t going to be as great for Tesla as 2021. No new models are expected to be introduced, while the company continues to work on a new battery technology referred to as 4680. Neither the Cybertruck nor the Semi is expected anytime soon, until the battery can be perfected, and there is no $25,000 model currently in the works.
That really shouldn’t matter, though, if Musk could just build on what Tesla accomplished in 2021 and increase it. Despite chip shortages and supply-chain problems, Tesla managed to deliver 936,000 vehicles during 2021, up 87% from 2020, with a full-year GAAP profit of $5.5 billion.
Instead of celebrating the accomplishments of his workforce and promising to try to do it again, Musk prefers to openly dream of replacing his workers with robots, perhaps so he can continue to be bolster his image as a super engineer working on the world’s most difficult problems instead of a car salesman. Whether Musk feels pressure to play the futurist in order to help maintain the company’s still insane current market cap of $922 billion, or whether he just believes his own hype, is not clear.
Whatever the reason, Musk ruined what could have been a celebratory call for the company, its workers and its investors that focused on actual achievements — and realistic ones in the new year.