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Car and Driver: Tesla CEO Clarifies Model 3 Features, Reservation Tally Via Twitter; We Explain What Happens to All That Deposit Money


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2018 Tesla Model 3


At the splashy reveal event for the Model 3 EV, Tesla Motors unveiled the car but little other information about it. Having outlined the basics—that the car will start at $35,000, seat five, and offer two- or all-wheel drive—details about the car’s battery pack, power system, and more were held back for release at a later date. As it turns out, that later date was this past Sunday afternoon, two days after the official Model 3 reveal, when Tesla CEO Elon Musk took a few moments to respond to the public’s questions on Twitter.


In multiple tweets, Musk clarified both the Model 3’s standard and optional drive systems, as well as how many pre-orders the company already has for the car. Speaking to the Model 3’s standard drive configuration, Musk said it will use a single electric motor (as does the Model S sedan) powering the rear wheels; the optional setup will also mimic that on the Model S, which is to say it’ll use an extra electric motor to also power the front wheels. Horsepower and torque figures, alas, remain elusive, and Musk made several bizarre statements regarding the Model 3’s steering system, describing the production unit as “feeling like a spaceship.” The outlook is rosier (and more down to earth) on the order bank side of things, where Elon claims Tesla has received more than 276,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 globally.


Naturally, online (where not everyone with an opinion has studied Business Accounting 101, or even basic arithmetic) there has been some confusion as to the monetary value of those orders. Allow us to clear that up. Each pre-order customer puts down a $1000, refundable deposit to reserve a Model 3. Simple math returns an immediate yield for Tesla of $276 million, not the billions of dollars that some—including Mr. Musk, again via Twitter—have touted. Any figure using the “b” word counts the value of those orders as final sales. (Multiplying the Model 3’s $35K base price by the current number of reservations nets Tesla a still-theoretical $9.6 billion, although Musk tweeted $7.5 billion, assuming a $42K average transaction price and an earlier, smaller, figure for the total number of reservations.) Some have breathlessly described such billions as a windfall for Tesla before it has delivered a single Model 3. However, neither we nor Tesla see its deposit money that way. The automaker is adamant that the $1000 deposits aren’t counted as revenue until after a customer actually takes delivery of a car (the deposit represents an initial payment against the eventual purchase price of a Model 3). And deliveries happen only after customers receive purchase agreements and configure their cars, steps that eager Model 3 reservationists are still waiting to take. Tesla, for its part, has promised that the first Model 3s will be delivered late next year.


So what does $276 million in deposits mean to Tesla’s balance sheet? Until the day that it eventually starts being converted to revenue, i.e. when sales commence—if those sales commence—it’s both a cash asset and an offsetting liability. According to Tesla’s past SEC filings—and as confirmed by a company representative—deposit money is not counted as revenue, but is lumped into the company’s cash holdings. The caveat is that deposits (in total) are specified in a separate line under “liabilities” on the company balance sheet. Ergo, customer deposits can and likely will be used for, say, helping launch the Model 3 or for general operating expenses (just as deposits for the Model S and Model X were), while the sum of deposits on undelivered cars remains listed as debt on the balance sheet—it’s not Tesla’s revenue until it receives it in exchange for an actual car.


But wait, what if all of those consumers asked for their money back or Tesla, for some reason, couldn’t fulfill its obligation to deliver cars? That would be an issue, but likely not a debilitating one. Unlike many other start-up car companies we’ve seen over the years, Tesla is not so under-capitalized that these deposits represent a majority of its assets. As of December 31, 2015, Tesla had $1.2 billion in “cash and cash equivalents.” Furthermore, Tesla’s been down this road before, only with less fanfare. Tesla’s annual SEC filing, as of December 31, 2015 showed it already held $283 million in customer deposits, most of which ostensibly were for the still-fresh Model X crossover. Of course, there were fewer reservations for the Model X than for the 3—hence it avoided the sort of frenzy and speculative discussion that has surrounded the Model 3 order process—but the deposit total for that car was greater because would-be customers needed to shell out $5000 to get in that line. So long story short, even though Model 3 deposits are assumed to have inflated Tesla’s cash and liability figures an equal amount, even before the 3’s order books opened the company had more than enough cash on hand (plus other assets) to draw from should it need to meet refund obligations.


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