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Tesla has a new master plan. It's not a new car — just big thoughts on planet Earth

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Gruenheide, southeast of Berlin in Germany. on March 22, 2022. Tesla held an investor day on Wednesday. It did not reveal a new vehicle, but it unveiled some of its big-picture ideas on climate change.
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured as he attends the start of production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Gruenheide, southeast of Berlin in Germany. on March 22, 2022. Tesla held an investor day on Wednesday. It did not reveal a new vehicle, but it unveiled some of its big-picture ideas on climate change.

Anticipation had built for days. Tesla was poised to unveil a new strategic plan at its Investor Day, only the third time the company has laid out a "master plan" that would guide its future.

Analysts were eager to see a new Tesla model — specifically, a much cheaper Tesla, one that could make the most popular electric vehicle brand in America accessible to a far broader swath of buyers.

But at its Investor Day on Wednesday, Tesla did not reveal that vehicle.

Elon Musk's new master plan? Ending fossil fuels.

Instead of a shiny new car, the company went big-picture on climate change, making the case for an aggressive global transition away from fossil fuels — one with a vast number of electric vehicles and batteries, Tesla's core products, as the key components.

Good for a company that has always touted its green credentials, but Wall Street would have preferred a new car. Tesla stock dropped markedly in after-hours trading.

Musk had a lot in his mind about planet Earth

In some ways though, it was vintage Tesla.

Tesla has already radically reshaped the climate conversation, by spurring the auto industry to embrace electric vehicles.

The new "master plan" extended beyond the auto sector to talk about decarbonizing the global electric grid as well as all industry, shipping and air travel, too.

Musk opened the event by arguing the world can rapidly pivot to renewable energy with the help of batteries (to store solar power to use at night, for instance) and, of course, battery-powered electric vehicles. This new "master plan" also nodded to heat pumps and hydrogen for industrial uses.

Lots of researchers, analysts and nonprofit groups have charted out paths to combat climate change. Most emphasize that time is running out, and the scale of change required is daunting.

Musk's tone was more optimistic. He said Tesla had done the math and the switch would cost $10 trillion, less than the world would spend on fossil fuels over the same timeframe. Fully $7 trillion of that would be for electric vehicles — the market Tesla revolutionized, and intends to dominate worldwide.

"Today is not just for investors of Tesla, but anyone who is an investor in Earth," Musk said. "Earth can and will move to sustainable energy, and it will do so in your lifetime."

A Tesla charging station for electric cars is seen at the parking lot of a mall in Puebla, Mexico, on Feb. 26, 2023. Tesla executives talked about new ideas about every facet of its business, including on charging, at its investor day.
Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Tesla charging station for electric cars is seen at the parking lot of a mall in Puebla, Mexico, on Feb. 26, 2023. Tesla executives talked about new ideas about every facet of its business, including on charging, at its investor day.

Making the case for innovation, despite no big reveal

With no brand new vehicle to drive out on stage, Tesla executives and engineers shared information about how the next generation of vehicles will be designed and built.

The company claims to have a radically reinvented assembly process, which involves making the front and back of the car separately, that could cut production costs by 50%. Tesla also says future vehicles will require no rare earth elements and could incorporate any battery chemistry, making it easier to source raw materials.

To bolster its reputation as an innovative company, Tesla also bombarded investors with examples of how it has developed new features and cut costs.

Tesla boasted of a software update to automatically adjust air suspension mid-drive, based on data from other vehicles about where the road is rough, and a strategy to cut costs on Supercharger stations by preassembling entire stations and dropping them down from a crane, instead of installing each charger individually on location.

A Tesla Model Y car is shown at a Tesla showroom in a shopping mall in Beijing, China, on April 29, 2022. Tesla shares fell after it did not reveal a new car at its investor day.
Jade Gao / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Tesla Model Y car is shown at a Tesla showroom in a shopping mall in Beijing, China, on April 29, 2022. Tesla shares fell after it did not reveal a new car at its investor day.

A head start in the race for electrification

The investor day came as investors were feeling more optimistic about Tesla's future, despite growing competition.

Every major automaker now believes that zero-emissions vehicles are the industry's future, and they are racing to catch up with Tesla. That makes it likely that Tesla's share of EV sales will shrink, as more competition comes in. That was one reason for the company's precipitous drop in share prices last year.

But Tesla is producing vehicles at a higher volume than its rivals, and it recently cut prices sharply. That has increased interest in Tesla vehicles, and the move was well-received by Wall Street.

And Teslas remain popular with drivers. The company just won the top award for "Overall Loyalty" to a make in S&P Global Mobility's Automotive Loyalty Awards. In general, returning car shoppers stick with their previous brand about 50% of the time. For Tesla buyers, a solid two-thirds return to Tesla.

"Tesla had a very, very strong year," says Vince Palomarez of S&P Global Mobility. "They have produced a product that is attractive to a consumer ... They lowered their price. They're also getting access to the tax credit again."

Palomarez also notes that Tesla owners often install a Tesla charger at their home. That could be an added incentive to stick with the brand, instead of needing to swap out equipment or use an adapter every charge. He compared it to Apple's proprietary chargers.

"If you have an iPhone and you have an iPad and you have a MacBook, you know, you're going to get the Apple Watch .... the infrastructure is built there," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.