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Tesla’s ‘challenges’ with India gov’t halt potential rescue of $27B manufacturing initiative

(Photo: Tesla)

In 2014 when Narendra Modi officially became Prime Minister of India, his first message to people around the world was that, under his leadership, Indian manufacturing operations would become one of the world’s most robust. In September of the same year, Modi officially launched “Make In India,” a government initiative that encouraged companies from all corners of the globe to develop, produce, and assemble products in India with sizeable investments into manufacturing.

Five years after the initiative began, India’s manufacturing GDP was the lowest it had been in twenty years. It dropped 1.2% in the first five years following the launch of Make In India, although the growth rate of manufacturing globally increased 6.9% from 2014-15 to 2019-20.

Seven-and-a-half years later, Make In India is still a work in progress.

It was a disappointing start to the still active program, which has not been a complete failure. General Motors brought a $1 billion investment to a manufacturing facility in Maharashtra, the city where Tesla has been rumored to land with a potential factory of its own. Kia invested $1.1 billion in 2017 and has been producing vehicles at its factory in the Anantapur District since January 2019. Electrification, where the global automotive industry is heading, is still a weak point in India. Less than 1% of the country’s cars are electric.

Because of the extensive and massive $27 billion budget that has been set aside for these programs, India has tried to persuade companies to bring manufacturing to the country directly. With a sky-bound budget and thirst for local manufacturing, the confusion begins to set in: Why is Tesla, a company with a reputation for building the world’s best electric vehicles, that could likely build a manufacturing facility anywhere in the world, having so much trouble landing a deal in India to manufacture its vehicles?

A Tesla Model 3 testing in India (Credit: pune_exotics | Instagram)

The disconnect seems to be between Tesla’s requests and India’s needs. When Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, tweeted last night that there were still “challenges” when working with the Indian government, which had put the plans on hold once again, it seemed that the automaker’s requests for import duty reductions went to the wayside. An issue that seems to be Tesla’s most integral wish, import duty reduction has received support from some Indian politicians, noting that demand testing, which has been one key factor in the company’s attempts to enter India, cannot happen if duties are too high. “If they have to manufacture here, they need the numbers, and no one can test the market when you impose such high import duty on the vehicles,” Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said in August.

If import taxation was not an issue, Tesla could use data already available to them to determine whether a Gigafactory would make sense in India. Spoiler alert: Tesla would never build a factory in India based on sales figures from the past ten years as very few people can afford them when import duties are involved. Any vehicle below $40,000 is subjected to 40% tax. Any vehicle more expensive than $40,000 receives a 100% tax, effectively doubling the price of the vehicle. Currently, Tesla has no vehicles in its lineup that are under the $40,000 price threshold.

The problem is those import duties are a huge issue. India seems to be against doing it, at least for now, even though the massive $27 billion budget would not be directly affected by an import tax rollback. In fact, that budget could still factor in tax losses from duty reductions. Perhaps the reasons linked to Tesla’s delayed entrance into India could be linked to the automaker’s lack of need for other companies due to its vertical integration. While this sounds far-fetched, the President of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association (ACMA) said that localization is always a priority, and companies entering the market need to promote local manufacturing across the board, not just with the final product.

This would include everything from complex factors like semiconductors to other elements that are as simple as car seats. Tesla makes many of its parts in-house, including some microcontrollers and its automotive seats. “Tesla is absurdly vertically integrated compared to other auto companies or basically almost any company. We have a massive amount of internal manufacturing technology that we built ourselves,” Musk said in late 2020. “This makes it quite difficult to copy Tesla, which we’re not actually all that opposed to people copying us because you can’t do catalog engineering. You can’t just [say] I’ll pick up the supplier catalog, I’ll get one of those.”

This leaves India at a crossroads because, while Tesla would be a great benefit to the economy, manufacturing efforts, and employment, the company would not have as much to offer other sectors and companies as an automaker that is less vertically integrated. Reports have indicated that Tesla was planning to source components from local suppliers, but details regarding these rumors were slim.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the Tesla Fremont Factory in 2015.

But Tesla is far from a liability for any region. After launching Gigafactory Shanghai in China in early 2020, the factory has become Tesla’s biggest producer of EVs and accounted for nearly 52% of the automaker’s total deliveries for 2021. Despite the company’s vertical integration, which has increased gross margin on some Made-in-China Tesla vehicles to nearly 40%, the company has provided China with many economic benefits. The site will soon employ 9,000 people on the Model Y line alone after a confirmed expansion found in Tesla’s Environmental Impact Assessment for 2021. Gigafactory Shanghai will have 18,000 employees by the time the line expansion is completed. Additionally, it has helped encourage the adoption of EVs in Europe through exports, making the Model 3 the best-selling EV on the continent in 2021, with over 109,670 units sold. The next closest was the Renault Zoe, with 58,242 sales.

Whether Tesla will ever enter India seems to be a question that has no definitive answer currently. However, Tesla has been teasing a potential entrance for seven years, ever since Modi visited the Fremont factory in 2015. The long saga of Tesla and India will continue for now. With Tesla’s attractive status as an EV powerhouse, other countries might come knocking on the door, stealing an opportunity to increase India’s slumping reputation as a manufacturing hub. Considering the Made In India initiative’s backtrack in manufacturing GDP, perhaps new strategies should be tested.

I’d love to hear from you! If you have any comments, concerns, or questions, please email me at joey@teslarati.com. You can also reach me on Twitter @KlenderJoey, or if you have news tips, you can email us at tips@teslarati.com.

Tesla’s ‘challenges’ with India gov’t halt potential rescue of $27B manufacturing initiative
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