The Mystery of 12,000 Missing Teslas: Overseas Boom or Waning U.S. Demand?

Tesla Motors is slowly ramping up production. Demand for its electric sedans allegedly remains high. Yet far fewer of the vehicles are making their way onto U.S. roads this year.

In the first nine months of 2014, the number of U.S. registrations of Tesla vehicles fell by one-third to 9,331, according to an analysis of public records by Hedges & Co., an Ohio-based market-research firm. In the same period, however, Tesla said it delivered 21,821 cars—a 40 percent increase from a year earlier. What happened to the other 12,490 cars?

One possible explanation is that Tesla is shipping more cars abroad. Here’s how the dynamic pans out: Tesla sells its cars directly and basically makes them to order, so there should be little lag between delivery, sale, and registration of any given Model S. All those Teslas without U.S. registrations—almost 60 percent of deliveries so far this year—could have been shipped abroad.

Tesla now has about 40 sales centers in Europe and began shipping cars to Japan in September and China early this year, although it still doesn’t have a network of chargers in the latter country. But the overseas-sales thesis doesn’t entirely sync with what Tesla has said. In its latest financial update, on Nov. 5, the company said “the majority” of its deliveries in the third quarter were in North America. It predicted slightly less than half of its vehicles next year would be routed abroad—far fewer cars than the registration slump would suggest.

Tesla hasn’t been keen to elaborate. When asked about the decline in registrations, it simply referred to its recent earnings report.

Another possibility is that U.S. buyers are cooling on the car and deliveries aren’t translating to sales nearly as quickly as the carmaker would have us believe. On this front, Tesla traffic in the U.S. is interesting. The number of new registrations has decreased in Washington, where Teslas have been most popular since they first rolled off of assembly lines. Registrations in California, by far Tesla’s No. 1 territory in terms of overall sales, fell 43 percent in the first nine months of the year.

But registrations are climbing in places like Indiana and Ohio, where Tesla sales have been scant thus far. This year saw Georgia pass Oregon, Connecticut, and Colorado in the number of new Teslas going on file at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In other words, at this point in Tesla’s journey—roughly as the fledgling car company shifts into second gear—it may be transitioning from the early-adopter crowd to the everyman. (Or at least the everyman that has $70,000 to spend on a luxury car.)

If demand really isn’t waning—and Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk insists as much—it does seem to be shifting. A Tesla on the streets of San Francisco is old news at this point, no more notable than a small-batch Porsche. A Tesla in Savannah, Ga., meanwhile, is still turning heads. If demand is cooling in green-oriented states—and the U.S. at large—Musk probably wouldn’t want to crow about it, at least not until he has a new model to sell.