The luxury electric-car company Tesla has yet to turn a profit, losing hundreds of millions of dollars last year alone. But on Monday, the darling of Silicon Valley became the most valuable American car company, surpassing General Motors, the Detroit granddaddy with $10 billion in sales on nearly 10 million vehicles.
Shares of Tesla, run by high-profile chief executive Elon Musk, put the company’s value at $51.5 billion, above GM’s $50.2 billion. Tesla blew by Ford ($44.6 billion) last week.
Musk’s company produced just 84,000 cars last year, with starting prices of $68,000.
The story of Tesla’s rise speaks to the divided American economy in 2017. Eco-friendly government tax credits, a boom in financial backing and the promise of futuristic innovation have created in Tesla a badge for the drivers who can afford its lofty prices.
At the same time, Tesla, with its long-running saga of production problems, hasn’t come close to fulfilling its mass-market ambitions. Beyond selling far fewer cars than its Detroit rivals, its automated factories employ a fraction of GM’s factory workforce.
Tesla’s stock-market rise has made Musk one of the country’s richest people and given him widespread influence, including another meeting with President Trump on Tuesday. But even critics who say Tesla could represent a technology bubble in the stock market acknowledge that the company’s success points to a new reality in the automotive industry that will reshape the experience of driving for most Americans.
“This is the ultimate bubble, which is doomed to burst,” former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz said. “Tesla cars are fine, but the business model is not,” he said, pointing to the high cost of production, which is not recovered in the sale price. But, he added, “all legacy car companies will soon have a variety” of similar electric vehicles.
Tesla has two models for sale and a third due this year. The Model S starts at $68,000 and goes up to…