Tesla’s Problems Go Way Beyond Elon Musk

The EV giant is alienating its customers, bringing in less revenue, and falling behind legacy carmakers.
Rain and the reflection of a bare tree on the hood of a black Tesla car
Photograph: David Gannon/Getty Images

For now, Alex Lagetko is holding on to his Tesla stocks. The founder of hedge fund VSO Capital Management in New York, Lagetko says his stake in the company was worth $46 million in November 2021, when shares in the electric carmaker peaked at $415.

Since then, they have plunged 72 percent, as investors worry about waning demand, falling production and price cuts in China, labor shortages in Europe, and, of course, the long-term impact of CEO Elon Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. After announcing his plans to buy the platform in April, Musk financed his acquisition with $13 billion in loans and $33 billion in cash, roughly $23 billion of which was raised by selling shares in Tesla.

“Many investors, particularly retail, who invested disproportionately large sums of their wealth largely on the basis of trust in Musk over many years were very quickly burned in the months following the acquisition,” Lagetko says, “particularly in December as he sold more stock, presumably to fund losses at Twitter.”

Lagetko trimmed his exposure in early 2022 due to concerns over Tesla’s governance, but he is worried that the leveraged buyout of Twitter has left Tesla vulnerable, as interest payments on the debt Musk took on to fund the takeover come due at the same time as the social media company’s revenues have slumped.

But Tesla stock was already falling in April 2022, when Musk launched his bid for Twitter, and analysts say that the carmaker’s challenges run deeper than its exposure to the struggling social media platform. Tesla and its CEO have alienated its core customers while its limited designs and high prices make it vulnerable to competition from legacy automakers, who have rushed into the EV market with options that Musk’s company will struggle to match.

Prior to 2020, Tesla was essentially “playing against a B team in a soccer match,” says Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin who tracks electric car sales in Europe. But that changed in 2020, as “the opposition started rolling out some of their A squad players.”

In 2023, Tesla is due to release its long-awaited Cybertruck, a blocky, angular SUV first announced in 2019. It is the first new launch of a consumer vehicle by the company since 2020. A promised two-seater sports car is still years away, and the Models S, X, Y, and 3, once seen as space-age dynamos, are now “long in the tooth,” says Mark Barrott, an automotive analyst at consultancy Plante Moran. Most auto companies refresh their looks every three to five years—Tesla’s Model S is now more than 10 years old.

By contrast, this year Ford plans to boost production of both its F-150 Lighting EV pick-up, already sold out for 2023, and its Mustang Mach-E SUV. Offerings from Hyundai IONIQ 5 and Kia EV6 could threaten Tesla’s Model Y and Model 3 in the $45,000 to $65,000 range. General Motors plans to speed up production and cut costs for a range of EV models, including the Chevy Blazer EV, the Chevy Equinox, the Cadillac Lyric, and the GMC Sierra EV.

While Tesla’s designs may be eye-catching, their high prices mean that they’re now often competing with luxury brands.

“There is this kind of nice Bauhaus simplicity to Tesla’s design, but it’s not luxurious,” says David Welch, author of Charging Ahead: GM, Mary Barra, and the Reinvention of an American Icon. “And for people to pay $70,000 to $100,000 for a car, if you’re competing suddenly with an electric Mercedes or BMW, or a Cadillac that finally actually feels like something that should bear the Cadillac name, you’re going to give people something to think about.”

While few manufacturers can compete with Tesla on performance and software (the Tesla Model S goes to 60 mph in 1.99 seconds, reaches a 200-mph top speed, and boasts automatic lane changing and a 17-inch touchscreen for console-grade gaming), many have reached or are approaching a range of 300 miles (480 km), which is the most important consideration for many EV buyers, says Craig Lawrence, a partner and cofounder at the investment group Energy Transition Ventures.

One of Tesla’s main competitive advantages has been its supercharging network. With more than 40,000 proprietary DC fast chargers located on major thoroughfares near shopping centers, coffee shops, and gas stations, their global infrastructure is the largest in the world. Chargers are integrated with the cars’ Autobidder optimization & dispatch software, and, most importantly, they work quickly and reliably, giving a car up to 322 miles of range in 15 minutes. The network contributes to about 12 percent of Tesla sales globally.

“The single biggest hurdle for most people asking ‘Do I go EV or not,’ is how do I refuel it and where,” says Loren McDonald, CEO and lead analyst for the consultancy EVAdoption. “Tesla figured that out early on and made it half of the value proposition.”

But new requirements for funding under public charging infrastructure programs in the US may erode Tesla’s proprietary charging advantage. The US National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program will allocate $7.5 billion to fund the development of some 500,000 electric vehicle chargers, but to access funds to build new stations, Tesla will have to open up its network to competitors by including four CCC chargers.

“Unless Tesla opens up their network to different charging standards, they will not get any of that volume,” Barrott says. “And Tesla doesn’t like that.”

In a few years, the US public charging infrastructure may start to look more like Europe’s, where in many countries the Tesla Model 3 uses standard plugs, and Tesla has opened their Supercharging stations to non-Tesla vehicles.

Tesla does maintain a software edge over competitors, which have looked to third-party technology like Apple’s CarPlay to fill the gap, says Alex Pischalnikov, an auto analyst and principal at the consulting firm Arthur D. Little. With over-the-air updates, Tesla can send new lines of code over cellular networks to resolve mechanical problems and safety features, update console entertainment options, and surprise drivers with new features, such as heated rear seats and the recently released full self-driving beta, available for $15,000. These software updates are also a cash machine for Tesla. But full self-driving features aren’t quite as promised, since drivers still have to remain in effective control of the vehicle, limiting the value of the system.

A Plante Moran analysis shared with WIRED shows Tesla’s share of the North American EV market declining from 70 percent in 2022 to just 31 percent by 2025, as total EV production grows from 777,000 to 2.87 million units.

In Europe, Tesla’s decline is already underway. Schmidt says data from the first 11 months of 2022 shows sales by volume of Volkswagen’s modular electric drive matrix (MEB) vehicles outpaced Tesla’s Model Y and Model 3 by more than 20 percent. His projections show Tesla’s product lines finishing the year with 15 percent of the western European electric vehicle market, down from 33 percent in 2019.

The European Union has proposed legislation to reduce carbon emissions from new cars and vans by 100 percent by 2035, which is likely to bring more competition from European carmakers into the market.

There is also a growing sense that Musk’s behavior since taking over Twitter has made a challenging situation for Tesla even worse.

Over the past year, Musk has used Twitter to call for the prosecution of former director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci (“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”), take swings at US senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders over government spending and inflation, and placed himself at the center of the free speech debate. He’s lashed out at critics, challenging, among other things, the size of their testicles.

A November analysis of the top 100 global brands by the New York–based consultancy Interbrand estimated Tesla’s brand value in 2022 at $48 billion, up 32 percent from 2021 but well short of its 183 percent growth between 2020 and 2021. The report, based on qualitative data from 1,000 industry consultants and sentiment analysis of published sources, showed brand strength declining, particularly in “trust, distinctiveness and an understanding of the needs of their customers.”

“I think [Musk’s] core is rapidly moving away from him, and people are just starting to say, ‘I don’t like the smell of Tesla; I don’t want to be associated with that,’” says Daniel Binns, global chief growth officer at Interbrand.

Among them are once-loyal customers. Alan Saldich, a semi-retired tech CMO who lives in Idaho, put a deposit down on a Model S in 2011, before the cars were even on the road, after seeing a bodiless chassis in a Menlo Park showroom. His car, delivered in 2012, was number 2799, one of the first 3,000 made.

He benefited from the company’s good, if idiosyncratic, customer service. When, on Christmas morning 2012, the car wouldn’t start, he emailed Musk directly seeking a remedy. Musk responded just 24 minutes later: “…Will see if we can diagnose and fix remotely. Sorry about this. Hope you otherwise have a good Christmas.”

On New Year’s Day, Joost de Vries, then vice president of worldwide service at Tesla, and an assistant showed up at Saldich’s house with a trailer, loaded the car onto a flatbed, and hauled it to Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, to be repaired. Saldich and his family later even got a tour of the factory. But since then, he’s cooled on the company. In 2019, he sold his Model S, and now drives a Mini Electric. He’s irritated in particular, he says, by Musk’s verbal attacks on government programs and regulation, particularly as Tesla has benefited from states and federal EV tax credits.

“Personally, I probably wouldn’t buy another Tesla,” he says. “A, because there’s so many alternatives and B, I just don’t like [Musk] anymore.”

CORRECTION 1/24/23 11:15AM ET: This story has been updated to reflect that Alex Lagetko reduced his stake in Tesla in early 2022.

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