Will demand for Tesla's Model 3 electric sedan continue to grow, or has it essentially peaked? That's one of many existential questions haunting Elon Musk's electric car company.
As with most things Tesla, it's a polarizing topic with two different narratives coming from two different camps.
On about November 7, we'll find out the financials from Tesla's most recent quarter and perhaps some guidance for the final quarter of the year. In the meantime, the Model 3 demand picture remains murky, with the bulls optimistic and the bears predicting doom. One group is driven by faith in Musk and the mission (and an incomplete data set), and the other camp is driven by lack of faith in Musk (and an incomplete data set).
Here's where things stand.
Production is one thing
Tesla had a strong third quarter from both a production standpoint and (seemingly) from a sales standpoint. Tesla hit record numbers with a total of 83,500 vehicles delivered and 80,142 vehicles built in Q3. That's 55,840 Model 3s delivered, up from 28,578 in the previous quarter.
To be sure, these are impressive numbers for an automotive newcomer.
Only Tesla has the true statistics on vehicles reserved and canceled, but the Tesla bulls and bears have the vehicle identification numbers, and armed with those, it's off to the races. Although VIN registrations don't perfectly align with the Tesla build, they do provide some indication of production levels. And they've been pretty accurate of late, when compared to Tesla reports.
Bloomberg's Tesla Model 3 production tracker uses data from "official U.S. government resources, social media reports, and direct communication with Tesla owners." Based on this accounting, production of the lower-priced sedan has edged the 100,000-unit mark, which estimates a 13-week trailing average of 4,266 Model 3s being produced per week.
Halfway through October, Tesla had filed 30,478 new Model 3 VINs, with a total of 148,386 Model 3 VINs registered to date, according to the website Teslarati. Citing a "reliable source familiar with Tesla’s production," Electrek reports that Tesla is cranking out Model 3s at numbers "approaching 5,000" units per week in a strong start to the fourth quarter.
Tesla enthusiast Troy Teslike has created another fine Tesla VIN tracker and database that's based on self-reporting online. According to this model, Tesla built 4,711 Model 3s in the last seven days, and more than 106,000 since the vehicle launched. Troy forecasts 62,145 Model 3 deliveries in the fourth quarter of this year.
But what's the demand?
According to the short investor thesis, up to one-fourth of those reservations have been canceled, while refunds outpace deposits for Tesla's new mass-market electric car. In July, a Tesla spokesperson denied that Model 3 cancellations exceed new orders.
Shorts say the ~60,000 Model 3s delivered since July 2 have exhausted much of the long-range, rear-wheel-drive backlog, leaving some all-wheel drive and performance units — but mostly leaving backlog for the basic Model S. That's the $35,000 Model 3 that Tesla can't build because it will cause Tesla to "die," according to Musk. At that price, making the Model 3 would be a profitless proposition.
Here's the short math: 420,000 reservations - 100,000 cancellations - 60,000 YTD deliveries - 200,000 reservations for the $35,000 model = 50,000 deliverable cars on backlog. At the current Bloomberg tracker delivery rate, that backlog of higher ASP vehicles is gone this quarter.
If Tesla can't profitably build the $35,000 car, can no longer benefit from the federal tax credit, can't sell in China because of tariffs, and is still going through the EU homologation process, then where is the demand and where is the growth story?
That's the short thesis, at least.
Other odd Tesla situations that could indicate less demand than meets the eye: hundreds of high-ASP Teslas piling up in dusty fenced lots and underground garages in Fremont, Lathrop, Burbank and Los Angeles; a Tesla "sale" in Fremont; and reports of fleet purchases.
China: New tariffs, new factory, new demand?
On the brighter side, Tesla reports that there are significant growth opportunities for the Model 3 including leasing and lower-price variants, and "by starting international deliveries."
That means selling to China, the globe's largest market for EVs with 579,000 electric passenger cars sold last year — compared to 198,350 EVs in the U.S. Almost all of the globe's 400,000 electric buses are in China, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Tesla sold about 10,000 cars in China last year.
Tesla claims to be "accelerating construction" of its Gigafactory in Lingang, Shanghai, driven by a 40 percent tariff on cars sold in China and incentives for local auto builders. Tesla claims that demand for the Model S and X remains high despite tariff "headwinds." Tesla will be confronted by a raft of homegrown Chinese EVs from the likes of BAIC, Roewe and BYD, with prices between $29,000 and $45,000.
Black Friday or sustained demand?
U.S. automobile sales stats over the last few months proclaim Tesla the hands-down owner of the EV segment and a contender in the luxury car segment — an unprecedented feat. The Model 3 outsold the Chevy Bolt by an embarrassing ratio in September and is now the No. 4 bestselling passenger car in the U.S., ahead of scores of internal combustion engine models.
So how could demand be stalling, as many of the bears claim?
A short likened Tesla's current demand levels to the fervor at Walmart on Black Friday, a situation which will soon throttle back to a more organic demand figure, once the rush has subsided. If only there was some data to verify this.
With the caveat that these are self-reported numbers and not the entire picture, Troy's VIN tracker shows order data and a precipitous drop in new orders starting in mid-September. Again, this data is not complete.
If Tesla is not going to raise any more equity or debt as the CEO has claimed, then Tesla's existence and valuation depend on profits from rapidly growing shipments of the Model 3, funding lower-cost iterations and new models such as the Y, the pickup, the Roadster and the Semi.
Musk has at various times promised production rates of up to 10,000 units per week. And Tesla has said that it cannot be profitable on a $35,000 Model 3 without consistent 5,000-unit production weeks.
In the minds of the bears, Tesla's growth trajectory crashes without a basic Model 3. The bulls remain optimistic for growth. Musk, meanwhile, has reminded followers that this is all about a higher calling.