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Introduced by IPC President and CEO Dr. John Mitchell, JB Straubel, CTO and co-founder of Tesla Inc., discussed the company’s history in a keynote presentation entitled “Accelerating and Disrupting Innovation: The Tesla Story” at the IPC APEX EXPO 2019.
"What problems are you solving, and what are you passionate about?" were his opening words as he described how Tesla had been inspired to tackle the issue of the exponential growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels in transportation. "It will force us to reinvent a lot of the technology around us; it's up to engineers to fix the problems!" And he reminded the audience how incredibly thin the atmosphere actually is—the majority of it lying within 10 miles of the Earth’s surface.
The time was right for Tesla to bring new thinking into the concept of electric transportation when the company observed the quantum shift in battery technology from lead-acid to lithium-ion that had been driven by developments in portable consumer electronics. Until that time, electric vehicles had been slow, heavy, and short-range, and fell into the golfcart category. Anything beyond that had been the territory of hobbyists, and the mainstream automotive industry had dismissed the opportunity to move away from the internal combustion engine.
But in 2002, having recognised the potential of lithium-ion power storage to enable electric cars to become accepted as premium vehicles, the Tesla team committed to realise that potential. When they announced their first Roadster prototype in 2005, they were dismissed as a crazy startup company. Their reluctance to follow the rules led them to be labelled as disruptive by those whose attitude would stifle innovation.
But there was no rule book! Their Model S was designed from scratch and built around a battery pack that formed the floor of the vehicle with its centre of gravity below wheel-spindle height, which resulted in consequent benefits in road-holding stability and safety. New electronics were developed to control the electromechanical functions, and a decision was made to eliminate buttons, knobs, and switches—to make everything software-controlled.
Further, Tesla built their own version of a gigantic iPad right in the middle of the car. Additionally, they made the whole car connected via a built-in 3G modem so that they could integrate the whole user experience as well as update firmware and software and perform maintenance functions by two-way data transfer. This gave them a flying start into the technology of intelligent vehicles and autonomous driving.
Tesla quickly gained credibility as a serious manufacturer of automobiles, and the precedent that they had set resulted in the automotive industry moving quickly to jump on the electric vehicle bandwagon. But what about the supporting infrastructure? Straubel drew an analogy with the cellphone network. Electric cars needed a network of charging stations strategically placed to optimize their range and provide a fast-charge facility. None existed, so Tesla decided to do it for themselves, beginning in California in 2012, and expanding rapidly in the U.S. and subsequently in Europe and Asia.
And how do they support the demand for batteries as the production of electric vehicles grew? Straubel made it clear that they so far represented less than 0.4% of the global motor industry. But Tesla predicted that even by 2020, there would be a requirement for 50 GW hours-worth of battery capacity. Once more, they took the initiative to build their own battery factory called the Tesla Gigafactory with a high level of being environmentally conscious, knowing that certain essential materials might be difficult to source. To partially mitigate this, Tesla founded a new company named Redwood Materials for the recycling of post-consumer electronics waste and the recovery of usable materials.
Straubel closed with a quote attributed to Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani: "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil!"
This article was initially published in the in the Real Time with... IPC APEX EXPO 2019 Show & Tell magazine