Exclusive Interview: Tesla’s J.B. Straubel on Collaboration with Toyota

By · September 04, 2012

J.B. Straubel of Tesla Motors, with Toyota executives

J.B. Straubel of Tesla Motors (center); with Greg Bernas, RAV4 EV chief engineer (left); and Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president and general manager, at the unveiling of the Toyota RAV4 EV in Los Angeles, May 2012.

In my review of the Toyota RAV4 EV in The New York Times this Sunday, I told the story of how Toyota and Tesla came together to create the vehicle. Toyota and Tesla are very different companies, so the meeting of the minds is fascinating. (As I wrote, the result is extraordinary: a spacious, powerful all-electric SUV with a consistent range of 120 to 130 miles.)

A lot of the background information, acquired through interviews with folks at Toyota and Tesla, didn’t make it into the paper. My interview with J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, was particularly interesting—but mostly ended up as background info. I thought readers of PluginCars.com would like more details, so here are a few titillating excerpts from the interview (all in J.B.'s words).

How The Toyota-Tesla Collaboration Started:

Elon and I sit next to each other upstairs here. One day, Elon was in a conversation and put down the phone, looked over at me, and said, “That was Akio Toyoda’s office. He called and said he’d like to consider being friends.” That’s what lead to a deepening and strengthened relationship with Toyota. It was largely outreach and a brainchild of Akio—to consider if there is some synergy between these two companies.

Differences Between Corporate Cultures:

Tesla is much more entrepreneurial. Much faster paced. More steeped in electrical and electronics, software thinking and mindsets. We historically have not been as much an operational, or quality process, culture. We grew for years and years out of Silicon Valley. We’re a Silicon Valley technology start-up. It is today beginning to mature into an operational presence with the Model S and RAV4 launches, but especially when we started, it was not so much there.

Toyota, on the other hand, is super strong in program management, quality control, vendor management, supply chain management, and understanding customer-facing needs and the feedback into the production process. Their expertise is much more focused on vehicle integration, vehicle safety systems, and all the vehicle-side things.

Differences Between RAV4 EV and Tesla's Upcoming Model X SUV:

The Model X and RAV4 are very different. They’re in completely different size classes and performance classes. The RAV4 is basically a compact SUV. It’s about the smallest SUV you can possibly get. The Model X is mid- to large-size. It has a whole other row of seats, and probably twice the power. [Also, it’s a four-wheel drive vehicle.] We don’t see the two vehicles as the same. The Model X has more of the performance and handling capabilities of a Q7.

No One-Pedal Driving on RAV4 EV:

The stronger regen feel on the accelerator pedal is a Tesla thing. We think it’s a nice. It’s also kind of aggressive. It tends to make it feel like a more aggressive car. Toyota didn’t think it was appropriate for their customers. The RAV4 audience is not the same as the Roadster audience.

We solved [the different views] by agreeing to do cooperative regeneration on the braking. There’s some level of regen when you let off the accelerator, but you get more when you step on the brake pedal itself. It leverages a lot of what’s in the Prius. It was a win-win. We end up getting efficiency, because you have very high level of regen possible, but you also you get to a user experience that we felt was good.

Rating Power, and How You Get It:

Power rating in EVs is not the right picture. The torque profile is so different. An internal combustion engine vehicle is rated in horsepower. That’s what it’s good at. With EVs, you need to think about newton meters at the wheel. And then kilowatts.

Power doesn’t just come from software. It’s hardware too. You need more current. You need a more capable drive inverter to give you higher motor currents at lower speed. This is something fundamental to the Tesla feel and brand. It’s something that we realize early on is a delightful part of EVs. It’s the EV grin. In addition to the efficiency and low CO2, and environmental friendliness, you can also get a great driving experience because of the torque response. That’s something we pushed into the product and into all of our architectures.

The magnitude of the torque is hardware and software. The feel and the dynamic and how it’s controlled are software.

The RAV4 EV’s Competition Is Nissan LEAF:
Frankly, we see the RAV4 EV as an incredibly strong competitor to the LEAF. If you’re comparison EV shopping, that’s the comparison. The LEAF is thousands of dollars cheaper, much smaller, and arguably half the range. It’s a massive reduction of range and utility for a relatively smaller price differential. Ideally, we would have liked to see Toyota price the RAV4 EV a little bit lower, but [as is] they will sell all the vehicles. But it sends an adverse message to the market. Hey, these things are super expensive and not ready for prime time yet. Those are the pros and cons.

The Least Range an EV Should Get:

A functional minimum we should aim for is the 125- to 150-mile range. I think it gets meaningful constrained when you get below that. The LEAF works for most of your driving. But the frequency of times when you have to really start thinking about when do I charge, how am I going to charge during an intermediate trip and destination, it’s not linear. It’s like a hockey stick. That’s really tough for the super mass-market consumer who doesn’t want to deal with any of this stuff.

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