Exclusive Interview: Elon Musk Shows Cool Confidence About Tesla's Future

By · November 01, 2011

Tesla's Elon Musk

Elon Musk: 320-mile range in the Model S, a unique charging system, and big plans for half a million cars a year. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Elon Musk keeps his cool, whether he’s touting Tesla Motors’ latest innovation, disparaging the competition, or predicting where the business is going. In conversations by telephone and in person over coffee at the Tesla showroom in Los Angeles, Musk (named Tech Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal Magazine recently) demonstrated command of the company’s business down to the molecular level.

Minding the Gap

For instance, how is Tesla going to get through a months-long gap when the Roadster is out of inventory and the Model S sedan has yet to appear on the market? “There’s a bit of confusion about that,” says Musk. “We’re sold out on the Roadster and have stopped taking orders on it. But we’ll be doing deliveries of the car in the U.S. until the end of this year and we’re reserving inventory for Europe and Asia with deliveries that will continue until the middle of next year. And we’re producing powertrains for Daimler [the Smart Electric Drive and the A-Series battery vehicles sold in Europe], and will begin work on Toyota powertrains in the second quarter of next year.”

According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Tesla will take in $100 million from the Toyota partnership, in an arrangement that extends from 2012 to 2014. It’s a timely bit of cash for Tesla. Toyota also invested $50 million in Tesla.

More than 300 Miles?

Tesla is, indeed, looking east. In October, it announced a new battery partnership with Panasonic to purchase cells for up to 80,000 Model S cars through 2015. “They’ve been a partner with us for a while, and this is a big deal because these cells are optimized for the Model S. We think small cells are better than large, and with these batteries we’re confident we’ll exceed 300 miles of range [as announced for the first 1,000 cars, which will be called Signature models]. I think we’ll get to at least 310 miles, maybe 320, measured by the current EPA test procedure.”

Obviously, a battery EV with 320-mile range is unprecedented. If Tesla does deliver that, it will cement its reputation as the go-to company to provide state-of-the-art battery consulting for the nation’s OEM automakers.

JB Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, told me that even longer range was possible. “We didn’t fill up the entire space with batteries,” he said. “We think that 300-mile range is a sweet spot.” Although the Model S will have swappable batteries, the company isn’t likely to capitalize on that ability in the short term—and hasn’t invested in an infrastructure (swap stations) that would make it practical. “But in any case it’s helpful to be able to remove the batteries quickly—it’s a 30-second operation,” Straubel said.

Tesla's Own Charging System

Because the batteries can be removed quickly, and because Tesla will offer three separate packs for the Model S with 160-, 230- and 300-mile range, it gives rise to speculation that customers could “trade up” after buying the car. Straubel admits this is theoretically possible, since all three packs slot into the same space, but both Straubel and Musk downplay it as an option—in part because the 300-mile pack is heavier and requires some suspension adjustments.

Tesla tends to like its own solutions to problems, and that’s also the case with charging. Instead of simply signing on to the new J1772 AC/DC “combo” plug (which offers both Level II and Level III fast charging) from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Tesla is going it alone with its own significantly downsized and sleeker combo design.

Presumably Tesla could simply have styled a better-looking plug that nonetheless used the J1772 connectors, but that’s not the company’s approach. “If we have a choice of a great standard or being forced to adhere to a crap standard, we choose ours,” Musk said. “Ours is awesome. We can get 90 kilowatts through such a tiny plug. And we’ve made the cord as light as physics will allow to still be able to carry that amount of power.”

Since most public stations will be set up to charge with the J1772 plug, this is a potential problem, but Tesla says it will supply adaptors to accommodate any existing standard. The company also unveiled its home charger (which it calls a “connector,” since the actual 10- or 20-kilowatt charger is on the car). The wall-mounted unit is an ultra-sharp angular design, in various colors to match customers’ cars.

Big Expansion Plans

Musk says the Model S “is looking very good. We’ve been very clear we’re committing to deliveries no later than July of next year.” A next-gen Roadster will be available “in three years or so,” and Tesla will offer a sneak peek of the crossover Model X (on the Model S platform) at the end of the year, followed by a major event early next year.

According to Musk, the Model S “will have vastly more interior and cargo space than the Fisker Karma, and it’s 20 to 30 percent lighter. It’s five-star crash-rated in every category, and it will be the safest car in the world.” Current plans are to produce 20,000 cars a year, but Musk says that’s based on only one shift at the former GM/Toyota factory in Fremont, California it bought for peanuts last year. “We could certainly double our rate of production pretty quickly,” Musk said. “We could go to two shifts with very little added expenditure.”

Tesla’s ultimate goal is to produce a half million cars a year. How long will it take? “Six years,” says Musk. “Seven at the very latest. We plan to use the whole factory.” That plant is five million square feet, and Tesla is using only a small corner of it to build the Model S. So Elon Musk can’t be said to lack confidence.

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