U.S. Markets closed

Google Talks, Earnings Put Tesla Back in the Spotlight

Richard Cox

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Tesla is back in the spotlight. The company has turned profitable for the first time and market chatter is focusing on talks with Google to develop self-driving cars.

Tesla's first-quarter profits came in at $15 million (with some items excluded), as sales of the Model S sedan surprised to the upside. At 12 cents per share, the results were much stronger than the 4 cents expected by Wall Street.

But the real story is the relative performance when looking at the same period last year. First-quarter results in 2012 showed a per-share loss of 76 cents, so the main story here is the massive earnings improvement and the company's turn toward profitability.

Stronger Sales

The improved performance at the 10-year-old Silicon Valley startup was driven by increased production and sales of its second vehicle, the Model S, which is the company's first mass-produced offering. During the first quarter, Tesla sold and delivered more than 98% of the Model S sedans it produced.

This helped push revenue to $562 million for the period (an 83% improvement from fourth-quarter 2012). In addition to sales of the Model S, Tesla saw increased revenue from sales of battery packs and electric power trains to Toyota and revenue from alternative vehicle development with Mercedes-Benz.

The zero-emission vehicle tax credit from the state of California added $68 million to Tesla's quarterly revenue (12% of the total figure). Overall, the improved efficiency of Tesla's sales plan is what generated the positive earnings surprise in a trend that the company expects to continue going forward.

More attention has been generated by Tesla's recent talks with Google. Most of the buzz suggests the market is looking for these companies to combine their forward-looking ideas and work together in creating the next phase in the evolution of automotive transport. At the upper levels, Tesla has been vocal about its belief that technology can drive a car safely and without human aid.

Google is a natural partner in this area, with well-documented success in its own fleet of driverless hybrids from Toyota. Most of Tesla's discussions have been centered on Lidar, which is Google's Light Detection and Ranging tracking system.

But CEO Elon Musk has said that costs for these systems might be too high, and this could lead Tesla to develop an autopilot system of its own. Musk has explained the company is more in favor of a camera-based system (rather than one that uses Lidar). At the same time, he has not ruled out the possibility that a partnership with Google will be seen at a later date.

It should also be noted the U.S. government has stated that fully autonomous vehicles will not become a significant cross-section of the market for another decade, so investors expecting near-term solutions in this area are jumping the gun. Statements from Google, however, suggest the technology for fully autonomous vehicles will be available in the next five years.

A Positive Outlook

While Tesla failed to meet its 25% projected pace of improvement in gross margins, first-quarter performance in this area did manage to come in at 17%. This is a strong increase from the 8% seen the previous quarter.

But the company still holds more aggressive expectations, reaffirming its guidance and suggesting the 25% figure in gross margins will be achieved in the fourth quarter of this year. Tesla's full-year sales guidance for the Model S was raised to 21,000, but profit expectations for the next quarter were revised lower on the additional costs associated with new product launches planned for Europe. Additional expenses will be incurred when development costs for Tesla's next car model are factored into the wider picture.

In all, the latest results from Tesla are encouraging. The company is a clear example of world-class engineering, and its balance sheet is starting to reflect this. Future earnings will be driven by a number of different factors. Demand for these vehicles is on the rise, both domestically and abroad.

Tesla has proven its talent when looking to execute big ideas, and will no doubt have a major influence on the next generation of automobile manufacturing. As the company's business model is further refined, margins will improve and Tesla will gradually increase its market share to become a more dominant brand.

The road ahead carries some level of uncertainty but 2013 should be a transitional year for the company in terms of its finances.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: See inside Jim Cramer’s multi-million dollar charitable trust portfolio to see the stocks he thinks could be potentially HUGE winners. Click here to see his holdings for FREE.