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Exclusive Interview with Tesla Co-Founder: Seeing The Potential of Electric Vehicles Over 15 Years Ago

Steven Li

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As electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity, Tesla has become a true leader, becoming the number 1 selling car in America. But Tesla’s impact extends far past the confines of its own business operations; it has inevitably motivated other companies like Rivian, NIO, and others looking to get a piece of the EV pie. What a lot of people don’t know about Tesla though is that although Elon is at the helm of Tesla today, he didn’t really found it; he was a Series A investor. Behind Tesla’s original vision Martin Eberhard, the founder and first CEO of Tesla.

Tesla: Humble Beginnings

Tesla’s beginnings, unlike its current market standing, wasn’t always glamorous. We have to remember that electric vehicles weren’t always a hit. A quick look at history tells us that General Motors had a stint at selling electric cars, but failed. By all means, the technology hadn’t caught up to the point where commercializing electric vehicles was feasible.

That’s why Tesla’s business is an interesting one. Starting out as a startup that didn’t want to create just another sedan, it’s managed to rise above its competition and climb to its position of the best-selling car company in the United States, as of September of 2018.

But to truly understand the roots of Tesla, the Tesla before Elon Musk, the Tesla before all the controversy, you’re going to have to hear it directly from Tesla’s first CEO, and co-founder, Martin Eberhard. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to chat with Martin over the phone to dive deeper into how Tesla got started, learn about the journey that he took since his college years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and how those formative years defined Tesla’s trajectory.

The Days Before Tesla

Steven: Your co-founder Marc Tarpenning didn’t attend UIUC. So how did you two meet?  

Martin: We met socially at a party put on by a mutual friend. We liked talking to each other and eventually worked together on a number of consulting projects, and liked each other well enough to do consulting projects (related to automobile stuff). We then started Nuvo Media, the first e-book, in 1996. It was a bit of a jump, but after Nuvo, we started Tesla.

Steven: Let’s go back to your college days. You went to UIUC and studied Computer and Electrical Engineering. What about your college experience compelled you to pursue a career in starting EV companies in the future?

Martin: It was a long progression, really. When I graduated my Masters, I did a lot of on-campus interviews, and I ended up choosing to work at a startup. I liked the company, I liked the people, and although in retrospect it wasn’t the best job offer, that experience got me interested in what startups were. After working at that startup for a while, I left to start my own company (Nuvo). Once we finished that, Marc and I wanted to do something that wasn’t just interesting; we wanted to do something impactful. Conscientious about the environment, we were definitely looking into electric cars – that ended up turning into Tesla.

How Tesla Stood Out

Steven: Back in the day, I think GM was trying to make electric cars as well but wasn’t so effective as far as commercializing. So how did Tesla stand out at the time?

Martin: Although some companies could technically manufacture these cars, there were no companies that were truly good at commercializing them. GM did have an attempt at selling electric cars, they weren’t very successful at it, and ended up dismissing electric cars from their portfolio of products.

Early Learnings at Tesla

Steven: What was your motivation to get started and continue to grow the company?

Martin: Well, at the time, it wasn’t that I really wanted to start a car company; I honestly just wanted a car for myself. When I started Tesla, I was really surprised that electric cars were the most efficient as well. Combining my conscientiousness about the environment with seeing a real opportunity, Marc and I thought that starting a car company, despite neither of us having previously started car companies or working at any, would be a good idea.

Steven: What were some of the early realizations you had being a first-time founder in the auto industry and how did that shape the trajectory of Tesla?

Martin: First, we considered ways to stand out. Firstly, we made Tesla the first car to use AC induction motor, other than the GM EV1. But at the same time, we were also aiming for a different kind of demographic. Not wanting it to just be “just another car,” we deliberately aimed for high quality and wanted to make our cars luxury products. Coupled with its performance, we thought we had carved out a unique niche that other companies, such as GM, didn’t figure out how to capitalize on before.

After Tesla

Steven: After Tesla, you went on to found another EV company, which later became a part of SF Motors. What problems did you see with EVs in your previous experiences that made you want to continue to tackle EVs?

Martin: After Tesla, I worked at Volkswagen for a couple of years. Mainly, I wanted to gain more experience and working at Volkswagen certainly had its benefits. At the same time, though, working at a car company is far different from starting one. Starting a company is nuts. After working at Volkswagen for a number of years, I started InEvit, a technology company. I took the problems that I noticed at Volkswagen and ended up capitalizing on them through InEvit. SF Motors eventually bought us out, and I joined their team soon after. But I was only at SF Motors for a short amount of time before I wanted to start something new again. Although I can’t talk too much about, I started a new company, Tiveni Inc., in this space, and that’s what I’m working on nowadays.

Conclusions

Tesla indisputably changed the automobile industry and opened doors for sustainability that was once believed to be commercially infeasible. Although it’s often interesting to read what Elon has to say on Twitter and of course, recognize his strong work ethic in growing Tesla to the $33.70 billion company that it is today, it’s arguably more interesting to learn how accurate Martin’s vision was over 15 years ago. Oh, and recognize the impeccable execution his team had in those early days.

Martin shows us that risk-taking entrepreneurs are the ones who eventually see their ventures turn into companies that change the world. And in a space as large as the EV market we know today too? He exemplifies that entrepreneurial spirit, dedication, and execution goes a long way

Transportation

Elon Musk Announces The Tesla Cybertruck: What We Know So Far

Steven Li

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Just yesterday, Elon Musk announced the new Tesla Cybertruck. And it has already gotten quite a bit of attention. Beginning production in 2021, having a starting price of just over $39,000, being able to go 500 miles on a single full charge, and having an entirely different design compared to all other Tesla vehicles, the truck is a beast of its own.

What To Expect From The Tesla Cybertruck

In Tesla’s marketing materials, it describes the Cybertruck as one that “has better utility than a truck with more performance than a sports car”.

It has a robust exoskeleton, which the company has designed to optimize for the truck’s durability. On the exterior of the Tesla Cybertruck, the company has chosen to leverage stainless steel to protest against dents.

The exterior of the Tesla Cybertruck.
The exterior of the Tesla Cybertruck. Image Credit: Tesla

The truck also has a 3,500-pound payload capacity and can tow a whopping 14,000 pounds, according to Tesla.

Even still, the truck can go from zero to 60 miles-per-hour is just 2.9 seconds.

Towing Capacity
The Cybertruck can tow over 14,000 pounds. Image Credit: Tesla

It, like other models, also comes with a premium option to include software for self-driving capabilities.

Competition And Implications

But the market won’t be easy to take. So far, the Rivian R1T and the (EV) Ford F Series have projections to both beat Tesla to market. Though in comparison, the R1T goes for about $30,000 more than the Tesla Cybertruck.

And on the other hand, the Ford F Series starts at a price point about $10,000 lower than the pickup truck; currently, it is still gas-powered. And like Elon has said in the past, the Cybertruck indeed has the F-Series beat.

Considering the current Cybertruck prototype, some experts believe consumers will favor Rivian or Ford due to their less polarizing designs. Here’s what they look like:

Rivian's R1T
Rivian’s R1T
Ford's F-Series
Ford’s F-Series

But considering its incredible specs, especially at its price point, the Tesla Cybertruck will be a force to be reckoned with. Rivian projects to launch its R1T by the end of 2020, reaching the market before Tesla by just a few months.

The race is on.

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Business

The Latest Tesla Sustainability Initiative: Patenting Sustainable Car Seat Foam

Maryanne Derkaloustian

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Tesla sustainability

Tesla vehicles are some of the most environmentally-friendly, but the company just showed more sustainability promise with a new seat patent. Though the company launched cruelty-free seats in 2017, the patent underscores its continued commitment. Today’s cars are way ahead of their predecessors in terms of energy usage and emissions. This, however, makes it easier for companies to neglect other factors.

The Problem With Traditional Seats

Polyurethanes typically make up the base of the common car seat. Looking into replacements is only necessary, since in this case, they are neither recyclable nor breathable.

Other varieties are also used in bumpers, doors, windows, spoilers, and other parts, so getting rid of it could be a long process.

Making the foam itself, though, is a tedious, time-consuming process, which entails pouring and mixing a whole cocktail of chemicals.

Shaping the material after that produces a lot of non-recyclable leftovers that have nowhere to go but landfills.

Tesla Sustainability Push Includes Patented Sustainable Fibrous Foam

While the star of this patent is the “architecture” of the foam, it is important to remember the materials involved.

The Tesla sustainability push entails a choice of low-melt polymers that are easier to repurpose for future use.

And although the processing methods it plans to adopt may require more attention to detail, Tesla can reduce a significant amount of manufacturing waste.

Ultimately, the company aims to use this technology in other “foamy” car parts. Consequently, that will help minimize even more non-recyclable waste.

Summary

It is especially important for a company like Tesla to switch gears like this. While other companies like Ford are nearing their zero-waste goals, 40% of Tesla’s raw materials still go straight to landfills.

However, the two companies switch places when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions. With mixed information available to the general public, it can be hard to tell how sustainable companies actually are.

Companies should keep all of this in mind. Because in the end, their every move leaves a mark on the planet.

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GreenTech

Hyundai launches car with a solar charging system in a push for sustainability

Steven Li

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Image Credit: Hyundai

Just Friday, Hyundai announced the launch of its first car with a solar roof charging system, which would be first introduced to the newest Sonata Hybrid. Promising to roll out the technology to other cars in the future, the company’s move is its first of many.

Fundamentally, introducing the solar roof should help improve fuel efficiency, boost electric power, and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. According to the company’s announcement, its silicon panels would allow for between 30 and 60 percent of the car’s battery to be charged through solar.

The impact? Apparently, six hours of daily charging could add over extra 800 miles to the car’s travel distance. To the consumer, that means convenience and saving a whole lot on gasoline.

For now, Hyundai is looking to have its solar roof play a supporting role in powering its cars. Its long term goal is to make powering cars with fossil fuels an obsolete concept, the company alludes. Its new Sonata Hybrid is a small step in the right direction.

Because the Sonata Hybrid does still run partially on gasoline, it does still emit the same greenhouse gases as conventional passenger vehicles. However, it is (and will be) far more fuel-efficient. On average, hybrid cars emit greenhouse gases in a quantity of over 30% less compared to their gasoline-run counterparts.

But the debate over whether electricity is actually cleaner than gasoline still remains. Currently, over 45% of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal-powered plants. Hyundai is going in the right direction, but still, there are many challenges ahead.

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