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Musk adds Twitter mission while taking Tesla’s in new direction

Elon Musk in 2021.Al Drago/Bloomberg

Elon Musk’s sudden U-turn from months spent trying to get out of his agreement to buy Twitter isn’t sitting well with Tesla investors.

It’s no wonder why. Concern that the already spread-thin chief executive was going to add even more to his workload was part of the reason the carmaker’s market value has taken such a hit since Musk disclosed in early April that he’d become the social media company’s biggest shareholder. Tesla was a $1.18 trillion company then and is worth around $780 billion now.

There's not a whole lot of overlap between accelerating the transition to sustainable energy at Tesla and crusading for free speech and eliminating spam bots at Twitter. But Musk's followers are witnessing more than just mission creep across the many companies he controls. He acknowledged last week that it's going on within Tesla, as well.

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More than two hours into its AI Day event last week, Musk talked about wanting to change the perception Tesla is “just a car company.” Shortly thereafter, an attendee asked whether Tesla’s stated mission would be updated to reflect its outsize ambitions for Optimus, the robot project that’s progressed from dancing human to early stage prototype humanoid in roughly a year.

"Optimus is not, strictly speaking, directly in line with accelerating sustainable energy," Musk replied. "The mission effectively does somewhat broaden with the advent of Optimus to, you know, I don't know, making the future awesome."

A clear and concise mission has been one of Tesla’s biggest draws. Musk is apparently willing to gamble on moving away from this and into a vague new direction, despite the company struggling to meaningfully expand its existing non-automotive business line. Energy generation and storage revenue did tick up to $1.48 billion in the first half of this year, but that was just over 4 percent of total sales. This segment was more than 9 percent of Tesla’s revenue in 2017, the first full year after the company’s controversial acquisition of SolarCity.

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That’s worlds apart from Musk’s repeated predictions that Tesla Energy eventually will be roughly the same size, or even bigger, than its car business. The extent to which the energy side of the company has fallen short so far helps explain why analysts haven’t been in a rush to put stock in the chief executive’s declaration in April that Optimus ultimately will be worth more than Tesla’s car business.

It also didn’t help that the prototype that humans helped onto the stage late last week looked a bit primitive. Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas went into the event with an open mind, writing in a note last week that he was looking forward to seeing whether Optimus had the potential to save Tesla significant manufacturing costs, create a new revenue stream, or both. This week, in a report about third-quarter vehicle deliveries that came in lower than any estimate Jonas was aware of, he referred to AI Day as a “mostly non-event.”

Ryan Brinkman of JPMorgan Chase was similarly unimpressed, describing Tesla’s Optimus as similar in capability to Asimo, the robot Honda first unveiled 22 years ago.

"As of now we see little reason to value Tesla fundamentally differently as a result of this seemingly still skunkworks project that's unlikely in our estimation to result in revenues (much less cash flows) for many years to come," Brinkman wrote in a report.

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Skunkworks may hold enormous appeal for some young engineers in the field who are eager to work for Musk. But when explaining in January why the Cybertruck Semi and Roadster weren’t coming until 2023 at the earliest, the chief executive said then that Tesla had enough on its plate.