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Tesla Looked Like the Future. Now Some Ask if It Has One

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The New York Times

Just a year ago, Tesla looked like a rising force destined to revolutionize the auto industry. Some analysts are asking whether the company could run out of money by the end of the year.

Its battery-powered Model S sedan was the rage among luxury-car buyers. Its Autopilot system seemed far ahead of its competitors in self-driving technology. Its chief executive, Elon Musk, was promising that the more affordable Model 3 would soon roll off its assembly line and bring emission-free driving to the masses.

Wall Street was enraptured. Tesla’s market value rose to surpass that of either General Motors or Ford, car companies with a century of experience.

What a rough ride it’s been since then.

Not only has the Model 3’s introduction been mired in glitches and delays — “manufacturing hell,” as Mr. Musk put it — but Tesla’s driverless efforts have been overshadowed, and the company has continued to lose money quarter after quarter.

In just the past week, Tesla’s troubles have intensified. Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the company’s credit rating, concerned that it was burning through cash. Those worries have grown so dire that some analysts are asking whether the company could run out of money by the end of the year.

“I’ve said for some time that Tesla is far from a sure bet, or a stable company for that matter,” said Clement Thibault, a senior analyst at Investing.com. “Tesla has been living on borrowed time and money for quite some time.”

Tesla shares dropped 8 percent on Tuesday and another 8 percent Wednesday, and though they regained ground Thursday, they have lost almost a quarter of their value in less than three weeks.

Reflecting questions about Tesla’s ability to pay off its debt, its bonds have slumped as well. Those that will mature in 2025 traded at about 88 cents on the dollar on Thursday.

A Tesla representative declined to comment on the company’s finances.

But the company’s recent troubles extend beyond its balance sheet. Federal investigators are looking into a fiery crash that killed a Tesla driver last week in California, including the possibility that Autopilot was in use. (Autopilot was in use during a 2016 crash in Florida that killed a Tesla driver, but safety officials concluded that the crash did not result from a flaw in the system but found it lacked safeguards to prevent its misuse.)

And on Thursday, Tesla said it was recalling 123,000 Model S cars made before April 2016 to replace bolts that hold a power-steering motor in place. The bolts can become corroded and break, leaving drivers with only manual steering. The company said no crashes or injuries related to the issue had been reported.

Tesla’s reversal of fortune is a jolt for both the company and its chief executive, who had built a reputation not only as a visionary but also as an achiever, masterminding an automotive brand, breaking ground on a battery plant that would be the world’s biggest building, and launching rockets through his SpaceX venture.

For years, Tesla has ridden a wave of enthusiastic support from its customers and a certain set of investors, even though it generated barely any profit in the 15 years since its founding. Company events to present new models tend to have the feel of a religious revival, with hundreds or thousands of owners cheering wildly at each new pronouncement from Mr. Musk. Anticipation for the Model 3 prompted nearly 400,000 prospective customers to put down deposits of $1,000 each.