Elon Musk's tweets about Tesla's Cybertruck 'orders' tell us very little about actual future sales

Key Points
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted about Cybertruck "orders" pouring in all weekend until they hit 200,000 on Sunday.
  • But Musk conflated orders with low-commitment, $100 refundable pre-orders.
  • Tesla has declined to disclose pre-order numbers for its forthcoming crossover SUV, the Model Y.
Ford challenged Tesla to an 'apples to apples' tug-of-war between pickup trucks
Ford challenged Tesla to an 'apples to apples' tug-of-war between pickup trucks

After Tesla's Cybertruck debut Thursday night featured a botched demo that led to a broken window and sparked memes making fun of the vehicle's steel trapezoid shape, the stock tanked more than 6% on Friday.

CEO Elon Musk blushed, cursed and made self-effacing jokes when the event didn't go as planned. He then spent the weekend crowing on Twitter about how "orders" were flowing in for his company's first electric pickup truck.

On Saturday, Musk claimed there had been 146,000 orders, breaking down the percentage of future customers that were choosing the single, dual, or tri-motor options. He posted updates through Sunday, concluding with a tweet that just said "200k."

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Musk's tweets to his more than 29 million followers could convince the casual observer that there's already a massive order book for the Cybertruck, which won't enter production until late 2021 at the earliest. Long-time fans and critics know better.

What Musk calls an order isn't actually an order, but rather just a pre-order. At $100, the Cybertruck pre-order demands an even smaller commitment than what's been required for other Tesla vehicles. Fans had to put down $1,000 for the Model 3 in March 2016, and for the Model Y, they currently have to pay $2,500.

Musk's tweets appeared to juice the stock price early on Monday, lifting it as much as 3.4% from Friday. But the rally didn't last, and the stock closed up 1% at $336.34, trailing the broader gains in the S&P 500 tech index.

In the fine print on Tesla's "Design Your Cybertruck" webpage, below a "Place Order" button, Tesla notes, "By clicking 'Place Order' I agree to the Cybertruck Pre-Order Agreement." The company explains that the Cybertruck pre-order payment just covers processing costs and is not considered a deposit for the vehicle. It also says:

"This Pre-Order Payment and this Agreement are not made or entered into in anticipation of or pending any conditional sale contract."

Given the minimal $100 payment, it's impossible to say how many pre-orders will eventually convert to sales.

The Model 3 saw 325,000 pre-orders placed in the first week after its unveiling in 2016, a huge vote of confidence in a company that had only ever produced luxury vehicles. By the end of the second quarter of 2017, the number had climbed to 518,000. Musk said at the time that 63,000 had been refunded, dropping the number to 455,000.

Tesla has the unique ability to draw support and money from fans before a vehicle goes into production. Ford, by contrast, is currently taking $500, refundable "reservations" for its recently unveiled Mustang Mach E. As of last week, only 14,000 people had signed up.

Still, Tesla had moved away from talking about pre-orders in recent years. The company didn't provide such numbers for its forthcoming Model Y, a crossover SUV, or commercial truck known as the Semi. In January, then-CFO Deepak Ahuja, was asked for some color on early demand for the Model Y.

A screen shot of Tesla's Cybertruck order page, as of Nov. 25, 2019.

"We don't want to comment on the granularity of deposits," he said. "People just read too much into those."

That hasn't reduced Musk's bluster. On the company's third-quarter earnings call last month, Musk said that he expects the Model Y to be "an amazing product," and predicted it "will outsell Model S, Model X and Model 3 combined."

About the Cybertruck, Tesla said last week that the single-motor version with rear-wheel drive should get 250 miles per charge and cost $39,900. The dual-motor all-wheel-drive version, which will cost $49,900, should get 300 miles of range.

Customers who move from pre-orders to real orders will need to sign a purchase agreement, which will include the configuration, a final price sheet and terms at conditions.

Until that starts happening, Tesla and Musk can't technically claim any Cybertruck "orders."

WATCH: Tesla CEO Elon Musk says there have been 200,000 Cybertruck reservations

Tesla CEO Elon Musk: There have been 200,000 Cybertruck reservations
Tesla CEO Elon Musk: There have been 200,000 Cybertruck reservations