For those of us with an interest in automotive history, Elon Musk and Tesla is the biggest story that’s come along in a very long time. Watching it unfold in real time is highly fascinating and absorbing; we’re in the middle of the most transformative era in the automobile’s history since the 1920s. And Tesla is pioneering two of the most revolutionary technologies at the same time: electric propulsion and autonomous capability. The last successful start-up of a new automobile manufacturer in the US was Chrysler, in 1925. And even it failed, eventually. The only other major effort to break into this very competitive market was Kaiser-Frazer, in 1946, which lasted less than ten years. Neither of their efforts were genuinely revolutionary; Musk’s breadth of vision and scale overpowers them by a huge margin. The only possible parallel is Henry Ford.
Elon Musk is neither a modern executive in the usual sense nor a typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur; he’s a genuine builder of things, who is fulfilling his expansive childhood dreams of space travel, solar power, and electric cars by actually making them, from scratch. In his ability to transform his dreams into reality through the dint of almost super-human effort, intelligence, and the ability to inspire others to work (almost) equally hard, Musk is doing the seemingly impossible, and has become one of the most public and controversial personas of our time. Ashlee Vance’s biography, written over several years and with direct access to Musk, is a must-read for insight into the workings of his personality and the way he is re-shaping three (or more) significant industries at the same time. Here’s an overview:
Musk’s remarkable ability to utterly absorb himself into subjects that interested him as a child in South Africa were well noted at the time. He would drift off into trance-like stages for hours at a time, oblivious to what was being said to him. That led his parents and doctors to think he might be hearing-impaired, and they had his adenoid glands removed in the hopes that it would make a difference. It had no impact; Musk’s brain was wired in such a way as to allow him to concentrate on a mental task in a very visual way, using the visual parts of the brain for processing information and solving problems. When speaking of Musk’s extraordinary vision, it’s not just strictly a metaphor.
Musk was eager to move to the US, since he felt very constrained in SA as well as being bullied in school. That happened via Canada in 1988 after high school, and then a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania brought him to the US. And he began to think seriously what he wanted to do after university. As a video game addict, he gave thought to pursuing that industry, but felt that he couldn’t make a big enough effect on the world. He had been thinking, talking and working on issues of space travel, sustainable energy and electric cars for years. But they would have to wait until he had the resources to pursue them, as there were little to none existing avenues at the time.
Although he always saw himself as something outside of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he dove into that role when ideas and opportunities for early web-based businesses presented themselves to him. Repeating his two successes with Zip2 and PayPal are outside of the scope of this review here, as they were really just stepping stones to pursuing his current activities, except perhaps to drive home the point about his absolutely legendary ability to focus and work with little or no sleep for very extended periods of time. Well, that and confirming to Musk that he did not work well with partners and investors; he needed to be the captain of his ship, or it wasn’t worth it. His role in Paypal has been oft-criticized, but Musk has not shied away from returning the darts either. It made him a controversial figure, for better or for worse.
Having made about $250 million from the sale of PayPal to Ebay in 2001, Musk was burned out on the Silicon Valley rat race. He moved to LA, both to get away, as well as to be close to his true love: the aerospace industry. He fell in with a group called the Mars Society, whose goal the was to send mice to Mars, who would reproduce along the way. But Musk soon had more ambitious goals: to send humans to Mars. He was disappointed about the lack of enthusiasm and funding by NASA regarding plans for sending humans to the red planet. And so he decided to do something about it.
Initially, it started with plans for sending a “Mars Oasis”, a small “plant machine”, a first step to sustaining life on Mars. Musk was willing to drop $20-$30 million, about one-tenth of what experts told him it would cost. Undeterred, he and two others flew to Moscow to buy rockets there, given that Russia was very much in the business. The meeting went badly, and the Russians wouldn’t budge on their asking price of $8 million each. But on the way home on the plane, Musk told the others “Hey guys, I think we can build this rocket ourselves”. And he handed them his lap top with a detailed document of the materials needed to build, assemble and launch a comparable-sized rocket. As usual, Musk had been doing his homework. And thus SpaceX was founded.
I knew less about SpaceX than Tesla, and frankly, I was perhaps even more impressed by what Musk has accomplished there than with Tesla. The story of the incredible energy that has gone into SpaceX is mind-boggling. Musk interviews every engineer hired, and they all work incredibly long hours; some maintain a 16 hour work day, for years on end. It doesn’t agree with everyone, and some have to leave (or are fired) after a few years. But Musk sets the tempo, and the rest do their best to stay with him. It is the very key to success: SpaceX is able to hire the brightest engineers coming out of school, because the alternatives in the existing aerospace industry with their huge bureaucracies will never offer anywhere near the opportunities of SpaceX, where each engineer is given extensive responsibilities. The Musk approach, which he uses at Tesla too is simply this: one very bright engineer working 12-16 hours a day with clearly defined goals and access to Musk himself is more productive than perhaps three or more average engineers in the typical setting.
And what they have accomplished at SpaceX is almost miraculous: by building literally every single component from scratch, and constantly working out ways to do it cheaper and better, SpaceX’s costs for building and launching rockets is vastly lower than the competition, who are increasingly being left in the (space) dust.
And each generation of rocket becomes more powerful and capable, the most impressive accomplishment being the recent successful precision landing of the first stage after a launch, allowing the rocket to be re-used. This feat was always been the Holy Grail of rocketry, but only Musk has been able to pull it off. And now SpaceX has built a capsule for humans so that it can transport to the Space Station, and has recently started building satellites.
All of this has happened through vertical integration and by the relentless process of refinement to make SpaceX products more capable as well as lower cost. Musk really has truly done a Henry Ford in the aerospace industry. And unlike Ford, who rather got stuck on the Model T, Musk is relentlessly pursuing bolder space projects. He is utterly determined to put men on Mars, and the goal is 2025. That’s like tomorrow, in space time.
Musk’s long-simmering passion for electric cars was ignited when he was approached in 2003 by J.B. Straubel, who had converted a Porsche 911 into a very fast EV. Straubel was actually pitching an electric airplane, but when Musk turned him down, Straubel turned to EVs. Musk bit, on the spot. With some of Musk’s money under his belt, Straubel headed to to AC Propulsion in San Diego, the undisputed leader in EV technology at the time. Their ultra-fast tzero electric roadster, with lithium ion batteries, could rip off the run from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, unprecedented for the times.
Musk got to drive the tzero, and was smitten. He tried repeatedly to fund a development to turn the bare-bones roadster into a proper commercially-viable sports car, but was rebuffed by AC Propulsion’s Tom Gage, who although a whiz at EV tech, lacked practical business sense. AC propulsion was more of a playground.
Meanwhile, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning , who had just sold their startup, NuvoMedia, for $187 million, had also ended up at AC Propulsion a year or so earlier, and bailed out the firm based with $500k, based on their promising technology (lithium ion batteries, AC drive motors and controllers). Also unable to get AC Propulsion moving in the direction of a proper commercially-viable production car, Eberhard and Tarpenning started their own company in July 2003, named Tesla, after the brilliant AC and motor pioneer, Nikolas Tesla.
Tesla founder Martin Eberhard
But Tesla had a very difficult time funding their venture, given the sheer challenges of trying to start a new car company, never mind an electric one. So they pitched Elon Musk, whom they knew had already expressed interest in EVs via his connection with Straubel. And it wasn’t just building an EV that interested Musk; he saw it as a critical first step towards a larger goal, including reducing America’s addiction to oil. Straubel joined the Tesla team, and development got under way, keeping the 6,831 commodity-style 18650 lithium ion cells properly managed and cool being the biggest technological challenge. But mastering that has kept Tesla at the forefront of battery technology, power and cost, a critical component of their future success.
The biggest problem should have been a no-brainer: in order to get the Roadster’s 0-60 time to under four seconds, yet hit a 130 mph top speed, a two speed transmission was to be employed. Xtrac, a British supplier, failed to build a gear box that could survive the torque. It was a painful lesson that Musk would later take to heart: better to build critical components yourself rather than entrust your whole company to a supplier, who was not likely to take a small start-up seriously. A second transmission was ordered from Magna; that too failed. The transmission had to be ditched altogether, and the Roadster’s battery pack, motor and controllers re-engineered to deliver the performance goals without two gears. The learning curve was steep.
Given the challenges in producing a new car from scratch, Tesla decided to outsource almost everything: Lotus would build the basic chassis, a lengthened version of their Elise. Body panels came from France. The motors came from Taiwan. The battery cells were from China, and the battery pack was to be assembled in Thailand. Then Lotus would assemble the components in England, and ship the cars to Tesla. It all turned into a logistical nightmare and costs were totally out of control.
Musk became very concerned about the haphazard way things were going, and he and Valor Equity, another investor, hired a logistics/cost control expert to evaluate. The news was terrible: it looked like it would cost Tesla $200,000 to build a car to be sold for $85,000. Although Musk and Eberhard had battled over certain details of the development of the Roadster, this was altogether different. Tesla was out of control; Eberhard was an excellent engineer, but his abilities to turn this into a viable going concern were clearly lacking. The Tesla board ousted Eberhard in August of 2007, and he soon left the company altogether.
A new CEO, Michael Marks, made considerable headway in sorting out the knots in Tesla’s costs and getting the Roadster somewhat closer to production, but his goal was clear: to make Tesla attractive for an eventual acquisition. But that was not what Musk had in mind. He started talking about White Star, a $50,000 sedan to be built in much larger numbers (the future Model S).
Musk now started to take a higher profile role at Tesla, to counteract the negative press and to expound a much more ambitious vision. But he also got directly involved in component level details and production processes. When there was a problem with the Roadster’s carbon fiber body panels, Musk flew to England, picked up the tools, and delivered them himself to the supplier in France. And he instituted a full-on press in getting the production costs down, in the usual way: work harder and longer, like Saturdays and Sundays. In response to some pushback on that, Musk gave a characteristic comeback: “I would tell those people that they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt”. It really encapsulates the way Musk fought back from numerous near-death moments, both at Tesla and SpaceX: work longer and harder. One former key exec said: “Working at Tesla back then was like being Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Don’t worry about the methods or if they’re unsound. Just get the job done. It comes from Elon. He listens, asks good questions, is fast on his feet, and gets to the bottom of things, fast.”
Despite all of the progress and insane efforts, things started to become very ugly in 2008. It was the depths of the recession, and the Big Three automakers were all heading for bankruptcy, or barely skirting it, in the case of Ford. It had cost much more to develop the Roadster than planned, but finding more money was essentially impossible. It would take Musk’s total fortune and a near-nervous breakdown to bail out his own firms, as SpaceX was also on the skids at the time. At TTAC.com, the Tesla Death Watch was well underway.
Musk sold off his personal possessions, including his beloved Mclaren F1, and put every decision at both companies through a new lens of fiscal austerity. He personally signed off on every significant expenditure, and trained his employees to evaluate every part and process and make the right trade-offs between spending money and productivity. If a part could be made significantly cheaper in-house, it was. It was a very different mindset than the established one in the aerospace industry, where huge government contracts insulated everyone from caring the least about what any given part really needed to cost.
Musk’s approach led to revolutionary approaches, especially at SpaceX. Instead of every electronic component and assembly being made uniquely for the rigors of space, off-the shelf consumer-grade parts and components were employed, and found to be quite adequate due to the improvements in technology and materials. The rest of the industry was stuck in 1960; SpaceX was firmly in the 21st century.
The crisis of 2008 was a cliff-hanger; after running the calculations, Musk determined that he had just enough money left to ensure that only one of his two companies would survive. The crisis took a huge toll on Musk, physically, financially, and emotionally. But somehow he slogged it out and managed to save both companies through desperate measures. NASA came through with a $1.6 billion contract for for SpaceX to haul supplies to the Space Station. Tesla borrowed from SpaceX.
Musk and his companies got through the eye of the needle, but just barely. And it wouldn’t be Tesla’s last scrape with bankruptcy. One co-worker said this about Musk: “he has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met”. Another said: “Most people who are under that sort of stress fray. Their decisions go bad. But Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear long-range decisions. the harder it gets, the better he he gets. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”
Of course, many of his employees couldn’t take the pain as well. Turnover is a way of life at Musk’s companies, although some manage to adapt to the regime, which can also commonly involve caustic remarks from the boss, for good measure.
SpaceX has become a huge success, and a big contribution to Musk’s current estimated net worth of some $10+ billion, only eight years after being technically broke. SpaceX is still prively held, and Musk aims to keep it that way, as his ultimate goal of colonizing Mars might not set well with the fickle demands of investors. That means SpaceX employees that have been vested in stock possibly have a long wait. Or maybe a free trip to Mars.
It should be noted that Musk takes only a one dollar annual salary from his companies, and lives solely on loans, using his stock as collateral. Musk is 100% invested in his companies; if they fail, he will essentially be broke. As he was during the near-brushes with bankruptcy in 2008.
Needless to say, Tesla confounded the skeptics by putting its Model S into production in 2012, a feat naysayers said would be too expensive and difficult. A large automaker might well budget a billion dollars or more to develop a new car and its platform from scratch, never mind a groundbreaking all-electric one. Many of Detroit’s new car programs have cost several times that amount. Musk’s budget to develop the Model S and acquiring the tooling and machinery to put it into production: a mere $130 million. Model S costs would be driven down be the same approach as with SpaceX: design, develop and build it in-house, thanks to a similar cadre of highly-motivated hard-working young engineers who would outwork and out-think the third-party suppliers used so heavily by the rest of the industry.
A Mercedes CLS was used as a starting point for the Model S’ development, chopped up and turned into a fully-functional mule. It was used to validate the concept as well as to woo investors. But the Model S still needed to be styled. Musk had hired Henrik Fiskerback in 2007 to design the Model s, but the results were decidedly lackluster. Given that Fisker unveiled his own plug-in hybrid Fisker Karma in 2008, a seductively attractive car, it became clear to Musk that Fisker had tricked him, and not only pawned off an vastly inferior cklunky design, but also stolen much critical information that boosted the Karma’s development timeline.
In the summer of 2008, Franz von Holzhausen (right) joined Tesla, having previously been a designer at VW, where he was credited for the New Beetle. From there he had a brief but highly unsatisfying stint at GM, where its design processes sucked the life out of him, by assigning designers haphazardly to projects without any consideration as to what projects a designer felt some genuine enthusiasm towards. “They took all the spirit out of me; I didn’t want to die there”, von Holzhausen said. He soon moved to Mazda, where his help was really needed and appreciated. One can clearly see a kinship to Mazda’s recent designs from the von Holzhausen era with the Model S.
Musk and von Holzhausen hit it off and developed a relationship not unlike Edsel Ford and Eugene “Bob” Gregorie during Ford’s golden design era of the mid 1930s. Musk has a natural feel for design, but needed von Holzhausen to collaborate and refine. They essentially started over with the design for the Model S. Von Holzhausen was given a corner of the SpaceX factory in LA with some drapes hung around the space, and in the tradition of so many other new Musk hires, had to drive to IKEA and buy some desks and to an art store for paper and pens. It’s a story straight out of the another era, like the 1920s or so.
Von Holzhausen’s move to Tesla was a huge risk, given that the company was flirting with bankruptcy at the time.It didn’t so much feel like a car company as just a bunch of guys tinkering with a big idea. “It was like a garage experiment, and made cars cool again. The suits were gone, as were the veterans dulled by years of working in the industry”. Von Holzausen said: Elon’s mind was always beyond the present moment. You could see he was a step or three ahead of everyone else and 100% committed to what we were doing”.
One of the big decisions was Musk’s assistance on building the Model S out of lightweight aluminum, in order to meet range and performance targets, given its heavy battery pack. At the time, there were no manufacturers in North America with any extensive experience building mass-production car bodies from aluminum; in Europe only Audi and Jaguar had done so. Once again, Musk encountered huge resistance from his team, but he wouldn’t budge. Like everything else, Tesla figured it out the hard way, but there was of course a steep learning curve.
The other decision was to put a 17″ screen in the center of the instrument panel. Suppliers for the touch screen all said there was nothing that would work in automotive conditions. He hit a brick wall. In typical Musk fashion, he took matters into his own hands, had some laptops tested and found out that their screens and electronics were plenty durable enough. It was like the consumer electronics flying into space on SpaceX rockets. Old patterns and assumptions were always ready to be torn up by Musk.
By 2009, things were looking up for Tesla. The Model S had been unveiled to very positive response, and Daimler bought a 10% stake for $50 million, as well as a contract to build battery packs for the Smart EV. And in January 2010, the DOE approved a $456 million loan (which was fully paid back early). Now they just needed to steal a factory. No sooner said then done.
GM had backed out of the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota in 2009, and Toyota announced it was going to close the giant Fremont plant. In the spring of 2010, Tesla bought the 5.3 million square feet facility for $42 million, a plant once valued at $1 billion. And to pay for it, Toyota invested $50 million for a 2.5% stake in Tesla. What a deal.
And on the heels of it, Musk started the process of taking Tesla public, something he undoubtedly had mixed feelings about. But to move forward into the realm of a mass-market producer, Tesla needed the $200 plus million a public offering would generate. But there was a price to pay, with endless scrutiny and second guessing, something SpaceX has mostly avoided by staying private. It was the first American automotive IPO since Ford went public in 1956, and netted Tesla $226 million. Of course, the stock has been on some wild rides since then, but at its current price of $188, Tesla has a market cap of $30 billion, compared to Ford’s $48 billion. Yes, there’s a lot of investor high hopes riding along with Musk’s vision.
The Model S launch was a breakthrough, and boosted the stock dramatically. But there were major bumps in the road. Although hailed for its many qualities, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, and the highest rating ever given any car by Consumer Reports, there were teething issues. Motor failures, assembly quality, some sub-standard parts from suppliers who didn’t take Tesla serious. And getting them sold at first was another huge challenge; Tesla faced a second brush with bankruptcy that Musk addressed by turning 500 of his employees into a de-facto sales force. It was sell or die, and sell they did.
Musk’s vision has continued to expand. The Gigafactory, under continuous construction in Nevada, is a key part of it, as it will allow Tesla to continue to drive down the cost of its batteries as well as build components of its Model 3. Parts of the factory are already functional.
This chart shows Tesla’s cost per total kWh for its latest Powerwall 2 storage batteries, which are becoming an ever-more important part of Tesla’s business, especially since its acquisition of Solar City, a company he also founded. It shows how far ahead of the competition (30% or more) Tesla is in this key aspect. And Tesla has a similar lead in its automotive battery costs, which were pegged at “less than $190 per kwh”, and may be closer to $120, given the latest drop in its Powerwall costs.
GM and most other carmakers are taking a very different approach. The Chevy Bolt EV has its whole electric drive train, battery pack and all related components designed and built by LG. GM essentially has supplied a glider to be outfitted by a supplier, and has no real investment in the technology. And it has been announced that GM will lose about $10k on each Bolt; it’s sole purpose being a “compliance mobile” to meet ZEV mandates. Production targets are modest and sales will be limited to those states with ZEV mandates, at least initially.
Batteries are the key element to making EVs cost-effective in the marketplace, especially when federal tax credits run out, as they will for Tesla within a few years. The EV market is a treacherous one; one the one hand, the major manufacturers can’t afford not participate; on the other, the economics just aren’t there yet. Tesla’s huge gamble is that it can be profitable due to a continual reduction in costs with its relentless focus on increasing production efficiencies.
Actually, Tesla is very profitable, in terms of its gross margin on building its cars; in fact its gross margin (23+%) is much higher than most of the industry. But Tesla’s huge operating expenses, R&D, capital costs, and incessant expansion, including its ever-larger Supercharger network, all crimp its operating profit. But that’s to be expected for a rapidly growing firm, and Musk’s vision clearly has continued growth ahead of profits. Henry Ford didn’t just sit on the profits from the early years of the Model T; he re-invested them relentlessly into the Gigafactory of its time, Ford’s Rouge River plant, which gave Ford a huge lead in lowering production costs further.
But it isn’t just its battery costs that make Teslas unique, advanced, and the envy of the rest of the industry in key aspects. Tesla’s elegant software that controls every aspect of its operation and is readily (and repeatedly) upgraded via downloads is a completely integrated and self-developed system. Other manufacturer’s have dozens of various electronic systems with numerous processors, from different suppliers and different software, etc., and making them interface is a constant huge battle. The Tesla is truly the only car of the 21st century. And that makes it almost infinitely adaptable, such as the ready adaption of autonomous capability.
Google (and others) have been working for years to develop autonomous capability, but have never figured out how to bring them to market. Every Tesla built since November 1, 2016 has the hardware installed for fully-autonomous functioning, and the software is being rolled out in stages as it’s validated and gets government approval. So even though current Teslas aren’t yet fully autonomous, every one out on the street is adding billions of miles of critical real-world data to the system, a key component when it is fully deployed.
And as a final tidbit on the Model S’ continued development, Tesla’s new 100 kWh pack in the P100D allows not only for a 315 mile range but a 0-60 time of 2.5 seconds and a 1/4 mile time of 10.76 seconds,making it the quickest production car in the world. Not bad, considering it also has an EPA rating of 88 empg.
The Elon Musk story is huge, and it’s hard to know where to stop, as his expansive vision has shown no signs of slowing down. His proposed Hyperloop was widely panned in the media when he announced it, yet two companies are building prototype systems, and one has a contract to test the feasibility, development and construction of a system to connect Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a distance of 100 miles, in twelve minutes. It’s a fast-track contract that is intended to lead to the construction of a system along the lines of the video above. Musk has no direct involvement in Hyperloop, saying he was too busy with his other businesses. True that.
It’s easy and all-too common to criticize Musk. Anyone with such a high public profile and vast vision is bound to be a lightning rod. There’s no question that in his stated quest to do something big for humanity, individual persons, in the form of his employees, have often felt left out of that equation. Musk can be searing, although he’s generally considered not be even near to Steve Job’s league in that regard. Yes, there is a steady trail of ex-Musk employees that are burned out and feel used. But there’s also a steady trail of fresh new talent waiting in line to work for the most dynamic employer in the land, if not the world. treating employees gently and trying to fulfill dreams that everyone else thinks are unfulfillable seem to be mutually exclusive. It’s not like Henry Ford coddled his employees.
And yes, Musk has acolytes who revere him as a demi-god who can do no wrong. That makes an easy target.
Vance’s book (a NYT best-seller) is a compelling read and reinforced my sense that Musk is not a good person to bet against. His ability to stomach risk is simply unparalleled; and he’s all-in, all the time. His track record suggests that he’s consistantly thinking ahead of anyone else in his fields, and is able to execute, even though it’s not always a smooth ride. SpaceX has a very solid foundation, and is well past its precarious early years. Tesla is still a huge gamble; the electrification of the automobile industry is considered inevitable, but being ten or more years ahead of what might be the natural evolution towards that is…classic Musk. If he can pull it off, profitably build the less-expensive Model 3 when no one else can, he is potentially set to expand his already huge lead over the competition. And Tesla’s sudden leap ahead in autonomous technology implementation is the icing on the cake.
Too big of a lead to fail? Hardly impossible, as the capital and engineering demands to ramp up to 500k cars per year by 2018 is going to be another eye in Tesla’s needle. And Musk is already talking about a million cars per year just a few years later. And it will never stop, as long as Musk is still in control, dreaming and functioning. And can find willing and eager young engineers to carry them out. And willing investors to keep feeding the hungry Musk machine. And of course, willing buyers of his cars, solar roofs and power storage units. That’s the really critical component, and the one Musk has the least control over. Or does he?
Update: Here is an op-ed in today’s NYT called: “Want to Bring Back Jobs, Mr. President-Elect? Call Elon Musk” Elon Musk’s companies have created 35,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs in the US. Musk stands for exactly the kind of domestic job-creation that Trump is calling for. And regarding federal tax subsidies for EVs, Musk has stated very clearly that he’d be happy to have all of them eliminated. Why? Because they benefit the other manufacturers much more than Tesla, which has lower costs and would compete more effectively if all tax credits were eliminated. As it is, they’re going to be phased out for Tesla’s cars soon anyway.