Unraveling a Tesla Mystery: Lots (and Lots) of Parked Cars

Groups of new vehicles are being detected in unexplained locations across the country. Evidence being posted online has raised questions about production, logistics, quality and even demand.

 

Elon Musk’s settlement of a securities-fraud case has removed a cloud over the company and its leader. But another remains: how its electric-car production is measuring up against Mr. Musk’s ambitious forecasts, a matter that a federal regulator is still investigating. One group of internet sleuths thinks it has found clues in plain sight, pointing to lots and garages in California, New Jersey, Arizona and other states where Tesla cars have been found parked in large numbers. The group’s efforts to document those sites could shed light on the delivery troubles that the Tesla chief has acknowledged, and reveal whether demand for the company’s cars is as high as he has suggested. Since July, Tesla has been parking anywhere from a couple of dozen to a few hundred cars at a lot in Burbank, Calif. In Lathrop, 70 miles east of San Francisco, Tesla has as many as 400 cars at an industrial site. A similar number turned up outside an industrial building nearby. At times cars have been seen entering and leaving the building, suggesting it may be a collection point or repair center. Hundreds more have been found in Antioch, northeast of San Francisco. On Thursday, a batch of about 100 Model 3s turned up in Bellevue, Wash. Smaller collections have surfaced in Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. The parked vehicles were discovered over the last two months by the amateur detectives, who in at least some cases are also investors betting that Tesla’s share price will fall. Some have flown drones over the parking lots to take pictures of the cars. At least one has access to a plane and shoots high-resolution photographs from the air. They post the photos on Twitter and have taken to calling themselves the Shorty Air Force. The sleuths — including three interviewed for this article, who asked not to be identified — say they feel Mr. Musk has not been candid about the company’s situation, particularly its sales. A Tesla spokesman, Dave Arnold, said by email that the large lots of vehicles were “logistics transit hubs” and added, “Anyone observing those lots will see a change from one day to the next.” (He said Monday that the cars in Bellevue were awaiting delivery. Photos posted online on Sunday show hoods open, possibly indicating maintenance work.)

Mr. Musk recently acknowledged that the company was having difficulty shipping cars to customers, saying Tesla was in “delivery logistics hell.”

He attributed the problem to a shortage of trucks to haul cars around the country. “That’s total nonsense,” said Mark B. Spiegel, a managing partner at Stanphyl Capital, which has a large position shorting Tesla. He is a vocal critic of the company and Mr. Musk on Twitter. “A quick search would reveal plenty of car hauler capacity. Perhaps Tesla doesn’t have the cash to pay for them.” The Auto Haulers Association of America is not aware of any shortage of car haulers, nor of any other automakers that are having trouble shipping new vehicles. “There’s quite a few carrier companies in California,” said Guy Young, the association’s general manager. A worrisome problem is Tesla built these cars and now doesn’t have customers willing to take them. Mr. Musk had long promised that the Model 3 would be available for as little as $35,000. But the least costly version available now starts at $49,000, and the price nears $60,000 if a customer wants the Autopilot driver-assistance software and other options.The company has said that more than 400,000 customers are waiting to buy Model 3 sedans, and that each paid a $1,000 deposit. Many who put down deposits may be waiting for the more affordable base model. Holding inventory is itself an issue for Tesla. The company has reported that it is selling almost all of the cars it is making. Each quarter, the number produced was close to the number delivered or in transit. Brian Johnson, an analyst at Barclays Capital who follows Tesla, said he suspected that the company had a mismatch between inventory and demand — that it had built more rear-wheel drive Model 3s than it could sell. He noted that Tesla was telling customers that it could deliver rear-wheel drive models in four weeks but that all-wheel-drive and pricier versions require waits of four to 12 months. “That suggests there is unmatched rear-wheel-drive inventory,” he said. In some cases, cars have been marked — with a bar-coded sticker or with grease pencil on the windshield — to indicate that they are inventory vehicles, meaning they have no customers awaiting them. Some markings indicate repairs required before the cars can be sold, like scratches, dents or components that don’t work.