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Go Tesla! EVs just may carry the cleantech sector this year after all

Posted May 21 2010 2:26pm
Most of my friends know I’m not a huge fan of EV startups. They take massive amounts of capital, the end customer (i.e. you and I) tends to be very sophisticated, demanding, and a pain in the neck, the technology is extremely challenging and I don’t believe the startups understand their long term costs as well as they think they do. But worse than that, the competition is very, very good and well entrenched. So while I love the concept of EVs and more specifically Plug in Hybrid EVs, I’ve been a huge skeptic of EV venture deals.

But . . .

• Go Tesla! The Toyota tie up is an exciting move. Toyota gets access to the EV business as a hedge against the possibility that the Volt and Leaf cleaning its clock and take the mantle of most green car company away, plus they get a massive much needed dose of positive PR that’s worth their $50 mm investment all by its lonesome to counteract the legions of recent “Toyota’s quality just went to hell” articles and the latest “let’s grill the Toyota executives” push in Washington. This is good.

• Toyota gets a great use for the recently shut down NUMMI plant in California, making them look like the hero in that story without having to actually operate a high cost union plant again (apparently a large part of the reason they got out of it). For those that missed that story – NUMMI was a GM – Toyota JV in Fremont, the last auto plant west of the Mississippi, and apparently Toyota’s only union facility. When GM went bust (sorry when you and I decided we liked losing money in the car business), Toyota took the opportunity to back out of the JV, leaving a huge hole in the local economy (it was just about the only customer for a number of local manufacturers). California’s political bosses get a brief reprieve from their shellacking by helping with big tax breaks to ink a deal that may bring back 10% of the lost jobs (about 10 of the top legislators and administrators joined the Governator to announce it).

• The venture capitalists who backed Tesla get a new investor to pony up a chunk of the massive cash that will be required at good valuations. Even better, the backing of Toyota in my mind drastically increases the chances that a Tesla IPO can get done, despite the huge questions analysts have had on their near term revenue prospects since they filed the prospectus earlier this year.

• You and I, who are funding a big chunk of Tesla anyway with the massive $400 mm+ DOE loan guarantee, now get a foreign auto company to invest underneath us. (Of note this will be our second multi-hundred million investment into that part of the San Francisco Bay Area, since we are doing the same thing for the solar start-up Solyndra a couple of miles down the road.)

• Tesla gets much needed cash, a cheap ready to go plant without union labor requirements, and access (if they are smart enough to leverage it) to the considerable manufacturing , marketing , and distribution talents of what has been up until recently the best run auto manufacturer in history. With it comes the automotive street cred that they are sorely lacking.
Filed under the “what’s the real story” side – a couple of questions have been raised by various analysts in the press.

1) Why is Toyota not doing this as a JV or operating partner? Which would make even more perfect sense from both parties perspective. There’s been no mention of Toyota helping on marketing/distribution and service, areas that Tesla will sorely need if they get rolling. But maybe it’s just early days.

2) How many of the local jobs are actively coming back? Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla was quoted as saying 1,000 jobs were planned (there were many, many, many times that many jobs lost when NUMMI shut down), and he was apparently very ambivalent on the subject of union or non-union.
But regardless, there is a lot to like about a Tesla Toyota Tie up.

Neal Dikeman is a partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a cleantech merchant bank, and the editor of
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