Tesla’s Model 3 is now America’s best-selling electric car

New York - It’s official: Tesla’s new Model 3 is now the best-selling electric car in the US. 

Tesla released its production numbers for the first quarter 2018 on Tuesday. The company delivered 8 180 Model 3s in the first three months of the year. That compares with 6 468 deliveries for Toyota's Prius Prime plug-in hybrid and 4 375 for General Motors' Chevy Bolt.

Coming out on top is no small feat for a company that’s been manufacturing vehicles for barely a decade. However, huge hurdles remain as Palo Alto, California-based Tesla tries to turn the page on one of the most difficult chapters in its short history.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg launched an experimental model to track Model 3 production using vehicle identification numbers (VINs).

Our final estimate came in just 5% less than Tesla’s reported numbers, arguably validating the methodology.

That’s not great news for Tesla fans, because our model suggests the company may have exaggerated its production capabilities at the end of last year. In the coming weeks, Tesla will need to prove that it can sustain and build upon the peak weekly production rates it just announced.

Wall Street was pleased with the production numbers but hardly elated: “Good enough,” wrote Robert W. Baird & Company analyst Ben Kallo. KeyBanc Capital Market’s Brad Ericson said the numbers were “better than feared". Consumer Edge Research analyst James Albertine, who remains bullish even after Model 3 production missed his estimates, said, “Our hope is that subsequent ramps in production may be easier".

There’s reason for such skepticism. If we go back to Tesla’s fourth-quarter numbers, released in January, the carmaker said it had made 793 Model 3s “in the last seven working days” and achieved a production rate of 1 000 a week in the last few days of the quarter.

At the time, those extrapolated weekly rates were the only positive news during an otherwise miserable start to production. However, our model showed that Tesla didn’t sustain 793 cars a week until mid-February and didn’t hit 1 000 cars a week until mid-March.

So what are investors to believe of Tesla’s latest pronouncement that it’s now broken the 2 000-per-week barrier—itself lower than Tesla’s 2 500-per-week forecast—on the way to 5 000-perweek in the next three months? 

Looking at Tesla’s weekly rate is a bit like asking a marathon runner the fastest they can run a mile. It might be interesting, but when they have to go back to running marathons, how much bearing does it have on their endurance rate?

On Tuesday, Tesla tried to allay fears of sustainability - given its last minute-push to 2 020 cars during the final seven days of March - by saying it will produce 2 000 this coming week as well. 

Even if you believe that Tesla is closer to getting back on track with Model 3 production, the California automaker isn’t out of what CEO Elon Musk calls “production hell” just yet.

Musk said on Twitter Monday that he’s “back to sleeping at the factory” while trying to fix production delays with the Model 3. That’s not the way a CEO typically celebrates a successful quarter. 

That said, two weeks of production above 2 000/week would at least suggest that Tesla’s biggest bottleneck - at its battery factory in Nevada, in the US - may be over. Early in the quarter, Tesla was struggling to make 500 battery packs a week, according to the Bloomberg tracker. Tesla reported in February that a new battery production line had been built at its Grohmann Automation labs in Germany and was scheduled to be installed last month.

If Musk, 46, is instead camping out at his Fremont, California, assembly line, that suggests his attention has shifted from batteries to the next bottleneck in car assembly. “Car biz is hell,” Musk said.

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