Tesla: Big money (and a R&D agenda) – but who’s boss?

When Tesla was transitioning to the Model 3, CEO Elon Musk told The New York Times, “Don’t call it a car company, call it a technology company.”

Only, Tesla continued to produce cars, and to do so in interesting ways. The details sometimes caused him to backpedal on his promises, and reveal that his initial plans included an electric truck.

Musk subsequently moved to add another vehicle to Tesla’s list of achievements: producing a self-driving semi truck, which does indeed look to be more than an imagined product. But the original car became a pioneering research vehicle — and the cash flow it generated allowed Tesla to jump into developing its next big vehicle.

Tesla has long been an outsized success in the climate of Silicon Valley startups — and in a way that many industries struggle to replicate, which has only continued to help: With hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and $10 billion in market cap, Tesla is one of the biggest American automakers on a scale not often seen.

Tesla held its annual shareholder meeting Tuesday — another company record — with CEO Musk unveiling a car that would see production later this year: a battery-powered heavy-duty Tesla pickup truck. Musk said that the 100-mile per charge — delivered with a 10-year, unlimited-mile warranty — would be on track for production in late 2019. (He later called that claim “possibly conservative,” but noted that a conservative estimate would mean an 8,000 unit first run.)

The answer to whether Tesla is still a car company remains to be seen. The truck will be limited to five passengers, a stretch for the company that regularly advertises its versatility, and also undermines its bragging over acceleration — maybe a key shortcoming for a pickup. But when Musk repeatedly retorts that he “wants a truck that’s trucklike but carlike,” it makes more sense.

Other innovations, including the Model 3, Model X and Model 3 sedan, may well follow. Tesla also seems to be figuring out how to add jobs in areas where the company has a market presence and know-how, like brick-and-mortar stores.

The production of a high-end electric pickup truck would represent a bold direction for Tesla, as would a lineup that appears to be expanding with ever-more electric, zero-emission and post-rotary-engine vehicles. Such developments are intended to help further the greening of America’s transportation sector, and send a clear message to cities that electric vehicles — including vehicles that have converted to gasoline engines — will play a role in the future.

These vehicles are also Musk’s opportunity to make his mark. Not that he has much of one so far — that is, on his suitability for office leadership at any level. Musk has never been an employer of many people; the Tesla team has toiled all the while developing top-shelf products to which most investors did not pay attention.

Still, Tesla has one thing most American automakers do not have: a big enough balance sheet to carry a big bet on electric vehicles. Tesla has recently been doing well enough to both build a factory that would enable it to build cars it could not otherwise sell and, maybe, one big pickup.

And Musk seems happy to do what he can, and can. So maybe.

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