Tuesday, May 31, 2016

At least it's under $5 billion...

As mentioned before, I'm working on a longer piece on the journalistic failure around the “proposal” for a supersonic passenger train called the Hyperloop (sorry about the scare quotes, but they really can't be avoided). It's a story of hype overwhelming the good work of some serious journalists.

The hype around the Hyperloop grows directly out of the carefully cultivated persona of Elon Musk. Here's a representative sample from the credulous Kevin Roose writing for New York Magazine:
For years, government has been a nuisance to Elon Musk. It's slowed him down. It's required him to spend his valuable time lobbying his Twitter followers for support in the New York legislature instead of building rockets. It's required him to explain his mind-bending technical innovations to grayhairs in Congress as if he were speaking to schoolchildren. Over and over, the public sector has convinced Musk that it is hopelessly lost when it comes to matters of innovation, and that anything truly revolutionary must spring from the ambitions of the private sector.

At the risk of a bit of Gawkeresque snark, Roose apparently has a rather unusually definition of “nuisance.”

Here is the far less credulous Jerry Hirsch writing for the Los Angeles Times:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

"He definitely goes where there is government money," said Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research. "That's a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day."

The figure compiled by The Times comprises a variety of government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars. [It does not, however, include the more than $5 billion in government contracts that keep SpaceX in business -- MP]

A looming question is whether the companies are moving toward self-sufficiency — as Dolev believes — and whether they can slash development costs before the public largesse ends.

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. (SpaceX, a private company, does not publicly report financial performance.)

Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.

The payoff for the public would come in the form of major pollution reductions, but only if solar panels and electric cars break through as viable mass-market products. For now, both remain niche products for mostly well-heeled customers.
Subsidies are handed out in all kinds of industries, with U.S. corporations collecting tens of billions of dollars each year, according to Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks government subsidies. And the incentives for solar panels and electric cars are available to all companies that sell them.

Musk and his investors have also put large sums of private capital into the companies.

But public subsidies for Musk's companies stand out both for the amount, relative to the size of the companies, and for their dependence on them.


California legislators recently passed a law, which has not yet taken effect, calling for income limits on electric car buyers seeking the state's $2,500 subsidy. Tesla owners have an average household income of about $320,000, according to Strategic Visions, an auto industry research firm.

Competition could also eat into Tesla's public support. If major automakers build more zero-emission cars, they won't have to buy as many government-awarded environmental credits from Tesla.

In the big picture, the government supports electric cars and solar panels in the hope of promoting widespread adoption and, ultimately, slashing carbon emissions. In the early days at Tesla — when the company first produced an expensive electric sports car, which it no longer sells — Musk promised more rapid development of electric cars for the masses.

In a 2008 blog post, Musk laid out a plan: After the sports car, Tesla would produce a sedan costing "half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable."

In fact, the second model now typically sells for $100,000, and the much-delayed third model, the Model X sport utility, is expected to sell for a similar price. Timing on a less expensive model — maybe $35,000 or $40,000, after subsidies — remains uncertain.

No comments:

Post a Comment