Eye in the Tesla sky: What aerial photos say about Elon Musk’s sales

Elon Musk’s long and arduous year might not be over quite yet: Aerial photographs of Tesla’s shipping lots – captured by RS Metrics – show the electric-car maker might not be out of turbulent waters when it comes to sales and vehicle production.

RS Metrics, a data company that uses satellite images, drones and manned aircrafts to track companies for investors and businesses, takes thousands of static photos daily of different businesses’ parking lots, including Tesla.

“We’re not seeing the full throughput, but we can sort of use it as a sample and get a sense for how production is going,” Alex Diamond, the company’s vice president of products, said. “It looks pretty choppy overall. It looks like it’s still a bit of a struggle for them.”

One photo captured in early August shows about 600 vehicles in the lot, which will be shipping out either to consumers or to other distribution facilities. Generally, Diamond said, there’s about an equal number of vehicles in a separate backlot as well.

“If they were shipping that many out every day, I think they’d be well ahead and really comfortably hitting their production targets and guidance for the third quarter,” Diamond said.

That number dropped to about 300 vehicles at the end of the month, he said.

RS Metrics takes aerial images about four times a week (and maybe more frequently than that, Diamond said). Tesla has been ramping up its production in order to meet consumer demand, and went to a 24/7 operation earlier this year, he noted.

“Things are kind of being produced and shipped out all the time,” Diamond said. “We’ve got to get frequent samples to really see what’s going on.”

Tesla shares dropped about 13 percent over the past eight days -- its longest losing streak on record.

Problems for Musk have not been scarce this summer. The eccentric billionaire came under fire in early August when he unexpectedly sent out a tweet saying he was considering taking the electric-car maker private, and had already secured the funding. Shares soared on the news, and although briefly halted by the Nasdaq, resumed trading, eventually rising more than 10 percent.

Although he later announced that Tesla would remain a publicly traded company to appease shareholders, that tweet spurred the SEC to launch an investigation into the veracity of Musk’s statement. The San Francisco office of the SEC has sent subpoenas to Tesla regarding its privatization plans to determine whether Musk intentionally misled investors.

It wasn’t the first time Musk’s tweeting has put him into some potential legal trouble: Vernon Unsworth, the British diver who assisted in the Thai cave rescue this summer, filed a lawsuit against the executive for calling him a “pedo” online.