Consumer Lawsuit Threatens to Shake Tesla (TSLA) Stock – What's at Stake?

Electric vehicle (EV) pioneer Tesla, Inc. (TSLA) has revolutionized the battery-electric vehicle market. Despite rising competition from legacy automakers, TSLA remains the top EV seller in the United States. During the year's first half, TSLA sold 336,892 vehicles, nearly 300,000 units higher than the second-largest EV seller.

However, the Austin, Texas-based automaker faces a lawsuit from three customers over its vehicles’ driving range estimates. The proposed class action lawsuit accuses the company of falsely advertising the driving ranges of its electric vehicles.

On August 2, 2023, the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit alleges that TSLA “marketed its electric vehicles as having a grossly overvalued range in an effort to increase sales to consumers.” TSLA faces charges of fraud and breach of warranty, among others.

The lawsuit followed a Reuters article that alleged that TSLA had created a “Diversion Team” in Las Vegas to cancel as many range-related appointments as possible after its service centers got flooded with complaints from owners who expected a better performance from their vehicles based on the company’s advertised estimates and the projections displayed by the in-dash range meters of the vehicles.

The team aimed to divert as many appointments as possible to help save TSLA $1,000 per visit. The investigative article, which came out on July 27, 2023, also revealed how the company began exaggerating the range of its vehicles by rigging the range-estimating software years ago.

A person familiar with the matter said that the automaker had decided a decade ago that it would write algorithms for its range meter to show drivers rosy range projections on a full battery. He added that these optimistic range estimate directives came from CEO Elon Musk a decade ago.

The source said, “Elon wanted to show good range numbers when fully charged. When you buy a car off the lot seeing 350-mile, 400-mile range, it makes you feel good.” However, the news agency could not verify whether the automaker still uses algorithms to boost in-dash range estimates.

Earlier this year, TSLA was fined ₩2.85 billion ($2.13 million) by South Korean regulators as they found that their cars delivered as little as half their advertised range in cold weather. The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) found that TSLA cars driving range plunged in cold weather by up to 50.5% versus how they were advertised online.

TSLA’s stock has declined 17.2% in price over the past month. However, the stock is still up 89.1% year-to-date.

Here’s what could influence TSLA’s performance in the upcoming months:

Robust Financials

TSLA’s total revenues for the second quarter ended June 30, 2023, increased 47.2% year-over-year to $24.93 billion. Its non-GAAP net income attributable to common stockholders increased 20.2% year-over-year to $3.15 billion. Its adjusted EBITDA rose 22.7% year-over-year to $4.65 billion. The company’s non-GAAP EPS came in at $0.91, representing an increase of 19.7% year-over-year.

Mixed Analyst Estimates

TSLA’s EPS for fiscal 2023 is expected to decline 15.3% year-over-year to $3.45. On the other hand, its revenue for fiscal 2023 is expected to increase 22.9% year-over-year to $100.09 billion. Its EPS and revenue for fiscal 2024 are expected to increase 42.7% and 28.5% year-over-year to $4.92 and $128.66 billion, respectively.

Its EPS for the quarter ending September 30, 2023, declined 22.8% year-over-year to $0.81. Its revenue for the same quarter is expected to increase 16% year-over-year to $24.89 billion.

Stretched Valuation

In terms of forward EV/EBITDA, TSLA’s 41.69x is 324.2% higher than the 9.83x industry average. Likewise, its 7.42x forward EV/S is 519.5% higher than the 1.20x industry average. Its 69.58x forward non-GAAP P/E is 341.1% higher than the 15.78x industry average.

High Profitability

In terms of the trailing-12-month EBITDA margin, TSLA’s 17.86% is 66.4% higher than the 10.74% industry average. Likewise, its 12.97% trailing-12-month net income margin is 210.5% higher than the 4.18% industry average. Additionally, its 1.18x trailing-12-month asset turnover ratio is 18.5% higher than the 1x industry average.

Bottom Line

TSLA faces some severe allegations of fraud and breach of warranty. The class action lawsuit against the company could help customers get some money spent on the cars and probably force the automaker to change how it advertises its vehicles’ driving ranges.

However, the stock has not reacted too negatively to the headlines around the lawsuit. Recently, TSLA launched cheaper versions of its popular Model S and Model X vehicles in the United States, having a shorter range. This move comes after the automaker undertook price cuts in China on its Model Y and Model 3 vehicles. The company has been focusing on volume growth by cutting prices across its product range.

However, investors remain concerned over its falling gross margins as the company focuses on volume growth. Given the mixed analyst estimates and the possibility of a fine arising from the class action lawsuit, it could be wise to wait for a better entry point in the stock.