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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

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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Transportation

The Future: A Self-Driving, Zero-Emissions Tesla Motorhome?

Emily Dao

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Back in November 2017, Tesla unveiled its new Semi. Consumers were excited then, but now, with production plans set for 2020, the truck has only continued to pick up speed. CEO Elon Musk said the fully-electric, heavy-duty truck “rides like a sports car,” without spewing harmful emissions and thunderous noise.

Many were captivated by the reveal of this sleek, eco-friendly vehicle, and some even dreamt up new ways to vamp up the new ride and drive it into the future. 

It’s one thing to drive a Tesla⁠. Ever thought about living in one too? Well, a startup just released a prototype exploring that possibility.

Introducing the Tesla Semi RV.

What Would a Tesla Semi-Home Entail?

Vanlifer designed a concept prototype for what it dubbed the “Tesla Semi-Home,” with the Tesla Semi acting as the base of the electric campervan. A concept sketch by the company showed the motorhome would be able to fit 6 passengers, and would be equipped with all the same commodities as other luxury motorhomes and RVs — a full kitchen, seating areas, bathroom, and beds. 

Tesla semi-home prototypes from Vanlifer. Source: Vanlifer
Tesla semi-home prototypes from Vanlifer. Source: Vanlifer

The company also pointed out a Tesla Semi would save drivers around $200,000 in fuel over the course of two years. Plus, not only would an all-electric motorhome save some big bucks, but it would also be significantly more environmentally conscious. 

“Its [the Tesla Semi] range of up to 500 miles (fully loaded) makes it ideal for motorhomes,” the company wrote on their website. “So you can clock up some big drive days without the accompanying gas-guzzling guilt.”

The Tesla Semi’s Features Make It Ideal for Building a Motorhome

Vanlifer added that Tesla’s enhanced self-driving function, Autopilot, could also be an exciting new asset for a potential motorhome, especially for drivers taking long, scenic road trips.

“The enhanced autopilot also has us really excited as it means the driver has more time to take in the scenery of the drive, rather than worrying about driving itself,” the startup stated. 

Several major corporations such as Pepsi and Walmart have already made their reservations. Source: Alexis Georgeson/Tesla
Several major corporations such as Pepsi and Walmart have already made their reservations. Source: Alexis Georgeson/Tesla

Some other notable features about the Semi include its 500-mile range on a single 30-minute charge and ability to go from 0-60mph in 20 seconds, even with 80,000 pounds of cargo. Without cargo, Tesla said the truck will be able to accelerate from 0-60mph at 5 seconds flat.

Let’s Talk About Cost

For the Semi with up to a 300-mile range, it’s projected to cost $150,000, while one up to a 500-mile range will be about $180,000. 

Since 2017, customers have had the option to reserve Tesla’s long-anticipated vehicle online. Currently, to reserve a standard Semi, it costs around $20,000. However, to reserve the limited production “founders series” version of the truck, it would set one back $200,000. Nonetheless, Business Insider reports that several major corporations such as Pepsi and Walmart have already bought in

While these figures may seem pretty daunting, Vanlifer argues that the price is reasonable. In fact, the company said online, the price for the Semi “really isn’t much for a luxury, high-end motorhome.” 

Still, this price doesn’t include the trailer for the motorhome. 

Conclusions

The Environmental Defense Fund reports cars produce roughly 333 million tons of CO2 annually. (That’s 20% of global carbon-dioxide emissions.) Consequently, people have switched to everything from bikes to public transit to reduce their carbon footprint.

But as the Semi reaches the market, maybe a future with net-zero emissions won’t entail cutting cars. As seen from the minds at Tesla and Vanlifer, it might just require a little more imagination. 

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Transportation

Self-driving cars are the future, but how do they impact the environment?

Austin Wang

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Industry giants like Uber, Google, and Tesla are all investing massive amounts into autonomous vehicles. In the next decade, self-driving cars could completely populate our roads. No doubt, they’re the future of transportation. But as cars and trucks account for one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, the advent of autonomous vehicles potentially has huge environmental consequences.

Autonomous Vehicles More Sustainable on a Unit Basis

Autonomous cars are free of human errors, including accelerating too quickly or braking unnecessarily, and are programmed to take the most efficient routes. Thus, a single self-driving car should almost always be more sustainable than a regular car on a per-unit basis.

Tesla, for example, is one of the front runners in the autonomous car market and only builds electric cars.

Autonomous Vehicles May Cause Public Transport Opt-Outs

Of course, if autonomous cars became widely available, more people would choose to drive or use ride-hailing services. If people could sleep or work while their personal cars drove to them to work, many people may opt out of public transportation. Even if self-driving cars are more sustainable than regular cars, a large influx of vehicles on the road could greatly increase emissions.

Yet, autonomous cars could also lower emissions by reducing congestion. Autonomous cars could be programmed to interact with other cars to make routes more efficient. So, if every car on the road were autonomous, traffic congestion could dramatically decrease. Some have also suggested that self-driving cars could drive close together in packs to reduce air resistance. This ‘platoon’ driving could reduce vehicle energy consumption by as much as 25%.

Autonomous Vehicles Would Promote Ridesharing, Reduce Emissions

Furthermore, autonomous cars may also promote ridesharing. Ride-hailing apps like Uber could have fleets of self-driving cars picking up groups of people around the clock. And cutting out labor costs could dramatically reduce ride-hailing costs in the long run. Around three-quarters of commuters drive to work alone, so increasing ride-sharing could dramatically lower the number of cars on the road, as well as emissions.

Since autonomous cars wouldn’t need to park and wait for you to return, carpooling also becomes far more viable. A group of four people could take a single car that takes each of them to their respective offices. Individual car ownership may even decline in favor of neighborhood cars.

Consumers and Regulators Should Play a Role in Emissions Reductions

Regulations on ride-hailing apps could be vital to preventing excess emissions. If ride-hailing services were required or incentivized to use fuel-efficient and electric fleets, emissions could be dramatically reduced.

Furthermore, consumer trends play a big role in the environmental impact of autonomous vehicles. If many individuals opt for neighborhood cars, carpooling, or ride-sharing services, autonomous vehicles could actually reduce the number of cars on the road.

Regardless of their environmental impact, autonomous cars are the future. From an economic and safety perspective, the transition is inevitable. It’s up to governments, industry leaders, and individuals to ensure that autonomous cars reduce overall emissions.

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