Trump’s tariffs could knock Tesla’s Autopilot off course

The White House has refused to exempt the “brain” of Tesla’s Autopilot technology from punitive import tariffs, a decision that could delay or disrupt the company’s self-driving ambitions, TechCrunch has learned.

At a special “autonomy day” event last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled advanced Autopilot 3.0 hardware, including a new custom chip intended to enable full self-driving (FSD) operation for all of its new vehicles. This hardware is now standard in all new Model 3, S and X vehicles. Customers pay an additional $6,000 for the software upgrade called FSD.

The self-driving hardware lives within the Autopilot ECU (or engine control unit), a module that Tesla describes as the “brain of the vehicle.” This module is assembled in Shanghai, China, by a company called Quanta Computer.

Tesla’s plans could be affected by a previously unreported decision last month by the White House not to grant the automaker an exemption from 25% tariffs. President Trump imposed these tariffs last year on a range of imports, including electronics, in an effort to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China.

Tesla has suggested that the tariffs could force it to cease making its self-driving computers in China, thus delaying their introduction and even reducing vehicle safety.

“The imposed tariffs are forcing us to either source a new supplier, pass the cost increase to the end customer, or reduce operational costs within our internal operations, all having a reverse impact for what [we believe] to be the intention of the tariff,” the company wrote in an application to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) on November 16, requesting relief from the tariffs.

But on March 15, the USTR’s general counsel informed Tesla that it was denying the company’s request because it “concerns a product strategically important or related to ‘Made in China 2025’ or other Chinese industrial programs.” The USTR also rejected a retroactive exemption request for legacy Autopilot 2.5 hardware, for the same reason.

Made in China

Made In China 2025 is China’s strategic plan to move away from manufacturing to produce higher value goods, particularly in the areas of AI, electric vehicles and robotics. The White House sees the effort as a direct threat to U.S. domestic technology and automotive companies.

However, U.S. firms have long been among the largest beneficiaries of Chinese manufacturing expertise. Tesla’s Autopilot manufacturing partner in Shanghai, Quanta, has also worked with Apple, Amazon and Verizon.

“Tesla was unable to find a [U.S.] manufacturer with the requisite expertise to produce the Autopilot ECU 3.0 with the required specifications, at the volume requested and under the timelines necessary for Tesla’s continued growth,” the company wrote.

Tesla claimed that using Quanta would not help China reach a goal for 80 percent of domestic EV sales to come from Chinese companies by 2025. “To the contrary, if granted, the exclusion request would ensure that Tesla is able to maintain its technological and competitive advantage gained by manufacturing EVs and finished lithium-ion batteries in the United States,” it wrote.

Tesla also pointed out that more than 75 percent of the value of the new computer’s printed circuit board actually originates from outside of China. For instance, Tesla’s new cutting-edge neural network chips, which are a critical piece of Autopilot 3.0, are being made by Samsung in Austin, Texas.

The Tariff Effect

But the White House wasn’t buying it, and the USTR’s rejection is likely to hit Tesla hard. The company has already told investors that it could not guarantee hitting its gross margin targets on its cars, including the lowest-priced Model 3 variant.”

“These tariffs detract from our continuous growth and sustainability in a very difficult industry,” wrote Tesla.

Last week, the automaker posted a $702 million loss in the first quarter of 2019, on the back of lower than expected deliveries, and it just announced its intention to raise about $2.7 billion by selling a mix of debt and equity. The company originally said it intended to raise $2.3 billion in convertible notes and equity, then upped the total offering just a day later, according to regulatory filings.

Tesla is selling 3.1 million shares at a price of $243 per share through underwriters Goldman Sachs and Citigroup and boosted its convertible notes offering to $1.6 billion, according to filings. Musk is also doubling down on his own investment and now intends to buy up to 102,880 shares in stock worth $25 million.

With limited ability to increase prices or reduce costs, Tesla’s other option would be to relocate manufacturing to the United States. But that comes with its own difficulties, according to the company.

“Tesla’s decision to begin production [of the new Autopilot computer took] six months from development to production,” it wrote in its application. “With condensed timelines such as this, there is no leeway to test out a supplier that does not already have considerable experience … Choosing any other supplier would have delayed the program by 18 months with clean room setup, line validation, and staff training.”

Safety concerns

Even more critically, the company believes that such a move would also have safety implications: “Sourcing a new supplier increases the risk of poor part quality leading to possible quality issues that  would impact the safety of our vehicles and the final product… We cannot risk our customers’ lives due to a defect from a supplier.”

The tariffs could even disrupt Tesla’s ongoing research into artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision, it fears.

“Tesla’s leadership position is contingent on our ability to deploy these advancements and components at volume, which we would be unable to do under the current tariff structure,” stated its application. Musk told investors yesterday that autonomy would eventually make Tesla a $500 billion company, a more than ten-fold increase to its valuation today.   

Despite its strong wording to the USTR, Tesla has only mentioned the tariffs in investor filings in passing, where it focused on their impact on its bottom line: “Recently increased import duties on certain components used in our products that are sourced from China may increase our costs and negatively impact our operating results.”

Tesla declined to comment on this story.

Greg Linden is an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in the global supply chain for electronics. “For speed and high-volume, China is the place,” he told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “U.S. companies headed down the China road for board assembly about 25 years ago and never looked back. Component suppliers followed, and now China has a heft for high-volume electronics that no country can match.”

Linden has calculated that a U.S.-assembled Apple iPhone could add up to $40 per unit in cost, and estimates that building Autopilot 3.0 hardware in the U.S. would result in an increase of the same order of magnitude.

Lingering exemption requests

Tesla has several more tariff exemption requests outstanding with the U.S. government. A request to exempt the Model 3’s car computer, including its media control unit, connectivity board and advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) hardware, was filed at the end of December. Most recently, Tesla last week asked to be excluded from tariffs for specialized aluminum sheets from Japan, needed for lithium-ion battery cell manufacture at its Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada.

But it is not all bad news for Musk on the trade front. Last July, The Boring Company requested relief from tariffs on Chinese-made tunneling machinery. It claimed that an inability to source tunnel boring machine parts from China would cost jobs and delay its proposed underground Loop transit system between Baltimore and Washington DC by up to two years.

On March 19, the USTR granted a retroactive exemption for imports of tunneling machinery.

Ironically, the autonomous electric vehicles intended for the Baltimore to DC Loop are based on Tesla cars that will likely rely on new Autopilot systems being built, at least for the moment, in China.