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FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk attends an opening ceremony for Tesla China-made Model Y program in Shanghai, China January 7, 2020.  (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk attends an opening ceremony for Tesla China-made Model Y program in Shanghai, China January 7, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Elon Musk steers Tesla to record deliveries

  • The electric-vehicle maker’s sales soared despite a drop in global demand for new cars during the Covid-19 pandemic

Tesla Inc. fell just shy of its goal of delivering at least half a million vehicles after the Covid-19 outbreak temporarily closed the company’s lone U.S. car plant.

The Silicon Valley electric-car maker Saturday said it delivered a record 499,550 vehicles globally last year, up from roughly 367,500 the previous year. Analysts surveyed by FactSet on average expected 493,000 Tesla deliveries in 2020. Tesla said it produced 509,737 vehicles last year.

The company’s resilience during the pandemic that has reduced road travel and damped auto sales globally has fueled investor exuberance for the electric-car maker. Its stock soared more than 700% last year.

Chief Executive Elon Musk, via Twitter, hailed the figures as a “major milestone," adding that during the early days of Tesla he wasn’t certain the company would make it—a sentiment he has previously expressed.

Tesla in the coming months faces a difficult task as it looks to introduce additional vehicle models and open new factories in Germany and Texas as part of Mr. Musk’s growth ambitions.

Tesla’s deliveries last year were buoyed by demand in China. Tesla began delivering cars from its new Shanghai plant in late 2019. Those sales helped to offset production slowdowns in the U.S., where Tesla had to close its Fremont, Calif., plant for several weeks starting in March as local authorities imposed restrictions on businesses to slow the spread of the virus.

Tesla ended the year with 180,570 deliveries in the final quarter, a record topping the 139,593 vehicles that went to customers in the previous three-month period.

Deliveries were dominated by the Model 3 car and Model Y sport-utility vehicle that started going to customers in the midst of the pandemic. Tesla said it delivered a combined 442,511 Model 3s and Model Ys last year and a combined 57,039 Model S luxury sedans and Model X SUVs. The company said its delivery figures were conservative and could be revised.

The surge in deliveries has stoked Wall Street expectations for Tesla to post a record profit for the period and its first full year in the black when it reports 2020 fourth-quarter earnings in a few weeks. It would continue Tesla’s run of five quarters in a row of profit that led to the company’s inclusion in the S&P 500 index last month.

Tesla’s performance through the pandemic differed from that of most of its rivals. Auto sales in much of the world languished last year as Covid-19 and measures to stem the spread of the virus kept people home, slowed production and put many out of work. Researcher LMC Automotive forecasts that 2020 demand for vehicles will come in around 14% below 2019 levels.

As sales recover globally, some see a window of opportunity for electric-vehicle makers to gain market share. Hybrid and electric vehicles, consulting firm Deloitte estimates, will make up around 12.1% of new vehicle sales world-wide in 2025, compared with roughly 3.6% in 2020.

Tesla, which last year became the world’s most valuable auto maker, has lofty growth ambitions. The company said it plans to produce 20 million cars annually by 2030.

Volkswagen AG, the world’s bestselling auto maker in 2019, sold around 11 million cars that year.

Tesla hasn’t formally released a target for 2021 vehicle deliveries, but Mr. Musk said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call that it likely would be in the vicinity of 840,000 to one million cars. The company Saturday said it was now also producing Model Y SUVs in China “with deliveries expected to begin shortly."

To underpin its plans, the company is working to expand its car-making footprint to four facilities from two. Tesla aims this year to open a factory near Berlin, its first in Europe, and add a second U.S. plant that it is building outside Austin, Texas. Mr. Musk also has said that the company plans to begin selling vehicles in India this year.

Tesla has historically struggled with the introduction of new vehicles and production expansion. Among the challenges the company faces this year are expected to be the introduction of new vehicle-production lines for its electric pickup truck and semitrailer truck. Mr. Musk has already signaled some of the new vehicle technologies Tesla is introducing to the Model 3 car it will build in Germany could spell delays.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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