A Tesla in every driveway?

A look at wealthy towns in California reveals that the luxury electric-car maker is selling Model S's as fast as it can make them.

By TheStreet Staff Mar 12, 2013 11:27AM

Electrical plug copyright Jupiterimages, Getty Images, Getty Imagesthestreet logoBy Anton Wahlman

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky taught us that in order to win, you have to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is now. So what does that say about Tesla (TSLA)?

To find out, I had to go to Ground Zero for Tesla. Where is that? Silicon Valley, of course. I spent the weekend driving around the neighborhoods of Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside and similar ZIP codes.

What I found was astonishing. There was, on average, a Tesla on almost every block. Some blocks had several. One block had eight houses, and I saw five Teslas in the driveways on that block.

Five out of eight! That's 62%. Considering that Tesla started delivering Model S cars in June 2012, and production didn't ramp meaningfully until October, this pretty much means that every single new premium car sold in this area in the past six months or so was a Tesla -- a 100% market share of new cars sold, most likely.

Does this mean Tesla's market opportunity is now limited, because it has already peaked at 62% cumulative market share on some blocks? Not at all.

These are relatively expensive homes in an expensive neighborhood. Silicon Valley does not come cheap these days. Good homes cost $2 million to $3 million -- or much more. Each home had what I estimated to be at least three cars.

Three cars per home, multiplied by eight homes on the block, is 24 cars. With five Teslas, that's barely 20% cumulative market share out of the 24 cars. That's like the smartphone market in 2004 -- most of the growth was yet to come, as exemplified by Apple's (AAPL) and Google's (GOOG) stock-price explosions since then.

Speaking of Apple, ask yourself: What was Apple's market share six months into the iPhone's launch in 2007? What was it exiting 2007? Did it break 1%? What was Google's Android market share in 2008? Basically, 1%.

I stopped at the parking lots outside a couple of coffee shops, Whole Foods (WFM) and a prominent gym, where the number of plug-in cars was significant. Each parking lot had at least a couple of Chevrolet Volts, Nissan (NSANY) LEAFs and of course a couple of Tesla Model S cars.

I asked a handful of people leaving and departing in these cars why they bought one. They responded mainly by a combination of the following: "I was on my third Mercedes S500 since 1993, and I was bored. I wanted something different, something exciting, some new technology."

Alternatively, I heard "Tesla is a local California company. The factory and headquarters are right here. If I ever have a problem, I don't have to deal with a dealer -- I go straight to the source."

The local theme mimics what appeared to be the reason some of these people were in the Whole Foods parking lot to begin with. Some of the food at Whole Foods may or may not be grown locally -- I neither know nor care -- but it's clear that it is the perception that matters. The image. Misguided or not, people believe locally made is better.

As irrational as it may be, people have talked themselves into the notion that they are saving themselves, the environment, something by buying locally manufactured goods. This appears to go for both radishes as well as cars, apparently. And Tesla is capitalizing on it.

The current Tesla Model S won't garner a massive share of the entire car market. The explanation is simple: It's obviously too expensive. The price ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 after tax rebates.

That price range is a small part of the car market, although it's a lot higher in Silicon Valley than in the U.S. as a whole. Just visit the parking lots at Google, Facebook (FB) and Apple -- and then correlate with their income and net worth, and you figure it out in relation to our nationwide averages.

For those who say you can't build a company selling cars priced from $50,000 to $100,000, I say look at Porsche. For 50 years straight, Porsche has built an entire company on mostly one model, the 911, although in recent years the brand branched out to a few other cars ... priced only moderately less than the now-$95,000 iconic 911. Why couldn't Tesla do the same? And Porsche, after 50 years, hasn't garnered anywhere the same market share as Tesla has, in significantly less than 50 weeks, measured by the driveways in Silicon Valley.

During the entire weekend of driving around, I did not see a single Mercedes S-class or 7-series BMW that was less than three months old, either in a driveway or on the street. Tons of Chevrolet Volts, Nissan LEAFs and Tesla Model S's -- but very few brand-new gasoline cars over $60,000. I define "brand-new" as cars with the temporary dealer registration tags, typically valid for 90 days or less.

It would be good to see what the official statistics are, if any, on the plug-in electric cars in at least these parts of Silicon Valley. Are they 70% of all new-car sales? Higher? Seventy percent of all car costing more than $40,000? Ninety percent?

How is this dramatically high demand for electric cars reflected in the demand for public electric-car charging stations? I drove into downtown Palo Alto and checked the five charging stations several times every day, several days in a row. The occupancy rate: 100% at all times. It didn't matter whether it was 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. Even worse: There were several electric cars parked next to these cars, waiting to charge. The demand for electric chargers appears to be close to 10 times the supply of them -- and probably more on weekdays.

The point here is this: Tesla cars are, of course, not yet commonplace all over the country. However, at ground zero, in its home market, the luxury-sedan market share has already hit 100% based on my personal observations. Given how many cars are sold every year in the major California coast cities -- San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego -- Tesla may not need to sell a single car anywhere else in the world, ever. It can easily sell the 20,000 to 30,000 cars it has planned to sell every year in California coastal cities alone.

Other carmakers are taking note of this steep adoption curve in Silicon Valley. The major carmakers are spending billions of dollars preparing their answers to Tesla, Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF. There will be an onslaught of models from all carmakers entering production starting already this year and accelerating all the way to 2018.

At the time of publication, Wahlman owned shares of AAPL, GOOG and FB.

More from TheStreet.com

Mar 12, 2013 1:38PM
I don't think driving around looking in driveways really counts as "scientific research"...  it's totally an interesting article about the possible future of a technology, but I'd suggest a little more number-crunching and a little less, "from what I could see driving around a very very limited subset of California neighborhoods searching for people with paper registration plates...."
Mar 12, 2013 1:41PM
the Porche SUV is fairly new to the market, no?  They've been around a long time before that...  Although it's obviously a big cash cow for them.  I agree Tesla may have the "high-end Prius" market cornered for now, but retaining that when Benz, BMW, and Lexus get in the ring remains to be seen.
Mar 12, 2013 1:20PM

Porche makes the vast majority of their money on their SUV not the 911. They would be a bust without the US SUV market, so not sure what your point is visa vis the 911.  Tesla looses money and got big dollars from the US gov't. Don't really see a business model there for them. 

 Electric cars are primarily facing a chemical engineering problem..battery charge times and storage not traditional mechanical engineering problems. Once battery tech is there everyone gets in Tesla get's crushed.

Mar 12, 2013 9:25PM
Mar 12, 2013 3:48PM

wELL THE aUTHOR is making a point...Of driving around where most of the Tesla managers and executives, maybe workers probably live....??


"Honey, the Boss wanted me to bring home one of the cars this weekend"....

Is it okay to park it in the driveway ??

I won't block your Chevy in the Garage...But we have to keep that door shut too.


Only in California, BUT I will bet that my sister, cousins and other 3-4 friends out there, DON'T

have one parked in their driveways...?  $50,000-100,000 after tax rebates? Those are Government subsidized incentives !!!!!  uh,huh.

50 years of Porsche...Okay let's guess where Tesla Motors will be in 50 years.?? uh,huh.

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