This time, Tesla fielded questions from regular investors, not just analysts and YouTube nerds

Key Points
  • Elon Musk's Tesla earnings conference calls have been higher-octane recently than your typical quarterly call.
  • A small number of Tesla shareholders submitted questions through a mobile app and Musk and other executives ended up answering four of them.
Tesla Chief Executive Office Elon Musk speaks at his company's factory in Fremont, California.
Noah Berger | Reuters

Tesla opened its fourth quarter conference call on Wednesday by fielding questions submitted through a mobile app by some of its mom and pop investors.

It's was a far less contentious call than the one last May, when CEO Elon Musk sparred with professional Wall Street analysts over their questions about Tesla's production issues and cash burn rate. Musk lashed out at one analyst who asked about Tesla's capital requirements, saying "Boring, bonehead questions are not cool." He later apologized.

Earnings conference calls normally feature a polite repartee between company executives and research analysts and are seldom open to questions from news reporters (CNBC's Phil LeBeau did slip in a question during the October call) much less ordinary investors.

But Musk's conference calls in recent quarters have been a little higher-octane.

The call in May featured a surprising guest in the form of a 20-something YouTuber and small Tesla shareholder named Galileo Russell, who was allowed to pepper Musk with questions.

Russell, whose YouTube channel is a grass roots forum for Tesla shareholders, teamed up with a tech startup called Say that is backed by hedge fund manager Steve Cohen's private Point72 Ventures. Say is a mobile app that aims to give individual shareholders more power in voting on company issues and communicating with companies as shareholders.

Say was the app gathering the questions submitted to Musk on Wednesday.

Musk and other executives on the call ended up answering four of them, including one about how a recession could affect demand (Musk said he still sees orders of 500,000 for Model 3 in a recession environment), the time-line for self-driving features (Musk said they're working on traffic light technology and navigating complex parking lots), batteries (wouldn't comment on product development), and Tesla semi and Model Y (Musk says they might unveil the Tesla pickup truck this summer).

Crowdsourced questions

Musk has had to shore up his shareholder relations after sending everyone into a frenzy last year by casually tweeting  that he was considering taking Tesla private. He paid $20 million to settle with the SEC over that tweet.

The questions submitted for Wednesday's call represented a tiny sliver of Tesla's 171 million shares outstanding. Musk didn't directly answer one about reputation issues. But on the Say app, where people were voting on which questions they wanted asked, it was the most popular one going into Wednesday's call.

Shareholders representing about 173,800 Tesla shares, or $52 million of its $52 billion market cap, participated in submitting questions.

Say got its start last June as poll for Tesla shareholders to opine whether Musk should retain the chairman and CEO titles. Musk has since been required to step down as chairman for three years.

A representative from Tesla wasn't immediately available.