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Tesla's profits soared to a record – but challenges are mounting

A Tesla charging station stands in a parking lot in Springfield, Va., on Jan. 17. The automaker decreased the prices of Teslas by up to 20%, a move seen as a reaction to competition in the global market for electric vehicles and rising inflation rates.
Anna Moneymaker
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A Tesla charging station stands in a parking lot in Springfield, Va., on Jan. 17. The automaker decreased the prices of Teslas by up to 20%, a move seen as a reaction to competition in the global market for electric vehicles and rising inflation rates.

Updated January 25, 2023 at 6:22 PM ET

Tesla reported record profits and record revenues for 2022, as the company heads into a new year facing a number of steep challenges.

Profit for the year hit $12.6 billion, more than doubling since 2021 and beating the expectations of most analysts.

The company, which has blown past skeptics and doubters for years, acknowledged there's "short-term uncertainty" about the broader economy.

But it's showing no plans of slowing down, recommitting to an aggressive pace of expansion as it faces increasingly steep competition from rivals investing billions of dollars on an electric future.

The company reported operating margins of 16% for the fourth quarter, despite offering multi-thousand-dollar incentives in December to try to boost sales. Those margins – a key measure of profitability – are well above the single-digit operating margins that are typical for big automakers.

Tesla has since cut prices even further as it looks to grow sales and attract more buyers, while still pledging to protect profits.

"Long term, I am convinced that Tesla will be the most valuable company on earth," CEO Elon Musk said on Wednesday's earnings call — repeating a claim he's made before.

On Wall Street, Tesla may be losing some of its shine

This was a closely watched earnings report. Ahead of the release, analyst Daniel Ives of Wedbush called this update "one of the most important moments in the history of Tesla and for Musk himself."

Ives is a longtime Tesla bull who has been critical of Musk's purchase of Twitter — and he's not alone. Many Musk fans and Tesla believers have been frustrated with the company's management over the last year.

Tesla's stock plummeted last year. Deliveries, while they set a new record for Tesla, seemed to fall short of the company's ambitious growth target. Broader economic forces, like rising interest rates, put pressure on the company.

Meanwhile, although the majority of electric vehicles sold in the U.S. are still Teslas, competition is rising. Electric vehicles from Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen are starting to cut into Tesla's dominant market share.

On top of that, Musk's antics at Twitter have antagonized some shoppers, with polls suggesting Tesla's brand reputation has been hurt by Musk's rampant tweeting and his controversial takeover of the social media platform.

Asked about this on Wednesday, Musk dismissed the idea. "I have 127 million followers," he said. "That suggests I'm, you know, reasonably popular." Then he encouraged other executives to take to Twitter as a way to boost sales at their companies.

Meanwhile, the famously erratic CEO has been on trial for alleged securities fraud. Tesla also faces upcoming lawsuits over its hyping of the "Autopilot" feature, which allows a vehicle to control steering and acceleration but requires close supervision.

Tesla kick-started an electric vehicle revolution, forcing the auto industry to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to follow its path.

But all of its recent challenges left some investors wondering: is Tesla going to stay in the driver's seat?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2023. Musk testified at a securities fraud trial involving his false tweet in 2018 that he was taking Tesla private.
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk leaves the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2023. Musk testified at a securities fraud trial involving his false tweet in 2018 that he was taking Tesla private.

More cars, lower prices

Tesla certainly doesn't intend to cede its position at the front of the electric vehicle race.

The company's plan has always been to rapidly scale up vehicle production. Since early 2021 it's promised 50% growth year-over-year — that's the target that, in the perception of many investors, Tesla fell short of in 2022.

But Tesla argues they are right on track with their intended trajectory in the long term. For 2023, they are planning to build 1.8 million cars.

This week Tesla announced it would invest $3.6 billion to expand its Gigafactory Nevada campus, adding a truck factory and more battery production.

And earlier this month Tesla announced dramatic price cuts, of up to 20% for some models. That frustrated some existing Tesla owners, who saw their own vehicle's value drop overnight, but the move has the potential to attract new car shoppers.

"You drop the price on something, people start to forget about all the other things that are going on and just focus on what that price is," says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at the vehicle data site Edmunds.

After the price cuts were announced the percentage of people using Edmunds to research Tesla vehicles, as opposed to other brands, more than doubled.

Tesla also promises that the long-awaited, much-delayed Cybertruck will begin production this year, and that details about a "next generation vehicle platform" will be shared in March.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.