Tesla’s Self-Driving Software Is a Perpetual Revenue Letdown

The chasm between what Elon Musk says about commercializing self-driving technology and what Tesla Inc. says later in regulatory filings has never been wider.

On Wednesday, Tesla released its 10-Q, a quarterly report that provides a more detailed view into the company’s financial position. For several years running, Tesla has provided regular updates in these statements on how much revenue it’s taken in from customers and not yet fully recognized. Some of this deferred revenue relates to a work-in-progress product: Full Self-Driving, or FSD, for short.

Tesla’s deferred automotive revenue amounted to $3.5 billion as of March 31, little changed from the end of last year. Of that amount, Tesla expects to recognize $848 million in the next 12 months — meaning much of the performance obligations tied to what it’s been charging customers for FSD will remain unsatisfied a year from now.

The company doesn’t go into detail about how exactly performance is falling short, though the software’s title is known to be a misnomer. FSD is a driver-assistance system that doesn’t make the company’s vehicles autonomous; it requires attentive drivers to keep their hands on the wheel.

In these filings, Tesla also reports how much deferred revenue it’s actually recognized — and the Austin-based company has consistently undershot its own forecasts. It has recognized $494 million of deferred revenue in the last 12 months, short of the $679 million that it projected a year ago.

The figures have taken on more relevance in light of the slowdown in Tesla’s automotive business and the emphasis Musk is placing on FSD. The CEO instituted a requirement as the first quarter was coming to a close that staff needed to install and demonstrate FSD to every customer in North America before handing over the car.

In fact, during Tesla’s first-quarter earnings call Tuesday, Musk drew a new line in the sand: “If somebody doesn’t believe Tesla is going to solve autonomy, I think they should not be an investor in the company,” the chief executive officer said. “We will, and we are.”

While Tesla did get a boost in the first quarter from higher FSD revenue recognition than a year ago, due to the release of a feature in North America called Autopark, total revenue fell 8.7% to $21.3 billion. This was the first year-over-year decline for the company in four years and the biggest percentage drop since 2012.

Musk kicked off Tesla’s earnings call by describing the latest version of FSD as “profound” and rapidly improving. The company has lowered the price to purchase the feature or subscribe to use it on a monthly basis, and has been offering free trials. It’s also had conversations with one major automaker about licensing FSD, the CEO said.

“Once again, would just like to strongly recommend that anyone who is, I guess, thinking about Tesla stock should really drive FSD,” Musk said toward the end of the call. “It’s impossible to understand the company if you do not do this.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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Published: 25 Apr 2024, 01:06 AM IST

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