The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is expected to tout the latest improvements in the electric-car maker’s battery technology next week. (AFP)
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Updated 18 September 2020

The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

  • Entrepreneur building a digital version of Ford Motor’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the 1920s

Elon Musk is hailed as an innovator and disruptor who went from knowing next to nothing about building cars to running the world’s most valuable automaker in the space of 16 years.

But his record shows he is more of a fast learner who forged alliances with firms that had technology Tesla lacked, hired some of their most talented people, and then powered through the boundaries that limited more risk-averse partners.

Now, Musk and his team are preparing to outline new steps in Tesla’s drive to become a more self-sufficient company less reliant on suppliers at its “Battery Day” event on Sept. 22.

Musk has been dropping hints for months that significant advances in technology will be announced as Tesla strives to produce the low-cost, long-lasting batteries that could put its electric cars on a more equal footing with cheaper gasoline vehicles.

New battery cell designs, chemistries and manufacturing processes are just some of the developments that would allow Tesla to reduce its reliance on its long-time battery partner, Japan’s Panasonic, people familiar with the situation said.

“Elon doesn’t want any part of his business to be dependent on someone else,” said one former senior executive at Tesla who declined to be named. “And for better or worse — sometimes better, sometimes worse — he thinks he can do it better, faster and cheaper.”

Tesla has battery production partnerships with Panasonic, South Korea’s LG Chem and China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) that are expected to continue.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Investors awaiting ‘Battery Day’ announcements on Sept. 22.
  • Musk has hinted at significant new battery developments.
  • Partners and acquisitions have helped give Tesla an edge.

But at the same time, Tesla is moving to control production of cells — the basic component of electric vehicle battery packs — at highly automated factories, including one being built near Berlin, Germany and another in Fremont, California where Tesla is hiring dozens of experts in battery cell engineering and manufacturing.

“There has been no change in our relationship with Tesla,” Panasonic said in a statement provided by a company spokeswoman.

“Our relationship, both past and present has been sound. Panasonic is not a supplier to Tesla; we are partners. There’s no doubt our partnership will continue to innovate and contribute to the betterment of society.” Tesla did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Since he took over the fledgling company in 2004, Musk’s goal has been to learn enough — from partnerships, acquisitions and talent recruitment — to bring key technologies under Tesla’s control, people familiar with Tesla’s
strategy said.

They said the aim was to build a heavily vertically integrated company, or a digital version of Ford Motor Co’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the late 1920s. 

“Elon thought he could improve on everything the suppliers did — everything,” said former Tesla supply chain executive Tom Wessner, who is now head of industry consultancy Imprint Advisers. “He wanted to make everything.”

Batteries, a big chunk of the cost of an electric car, are central to the Musk method. While subordinates have argued for years against developing proprietary Tesla battery cells, Musk continues to drive toward that goal. “Tell him ‘No,’ and then he really wants to do it,” said a third former Tesla veteran.

The changes in battery design, chemistry and production processes Tesla expects to reveal next week are aimed at reworking the math that until now has made electric cars more expensive than carbon-emitting vehicles with combustion engines.

Tesla is planning to unveil low-cost batteries designed to last for a million miles. 

Tesla is also working to secure direct supplies of key battery materials, such as nickel, while developing cell chemistries that would no longer need expensive cobalt as well as highly automated manufacturing processes to speed up production.

Panasonic is partnered with Tesla at the $5 billion Nevada “Gigafactory,” while CATL and LG Chem supply cells to Tesla’s Shanghai factory, where battery modules and packs are assembled for its Model 3 sedan.

Panasonic recently said it is planning to expand its production lines in Nevada, which supply the cells that then go into the battery modules assembled next door by Tesla.

But the Nevada Gigafactory partnership almost didn’t happen, according to two former Tesla executives. Musk ordered a team to study battery manufacturing in 2011, according to one former executive, but eventually partnered with Panasonic in 2013.

Now, Tesla is testing a battery cell pilot manufacturing line in Fremont and is building its own vast automated cell manufacturing facility in Gruenheide in Germany.

The roller-coaster relationship with Panasonic mirrors other Tesla alliances.

During its development alliance with Germany’s Daimler, which was an early investor in Tesla, Musk became interested in sensors that would help to keep cars within traffic lanes.

Until then the Tesla Model S, which Mercedes-Benz engineers helped to refine, lacked cameras or sophisticated driver assistance sensors and software such as those used in the Mercedes S-Class.

“He learned about that and took it a step further. We asked our engineers to shoot for the moon. He went straight for Mars,” said a senior Daimler engineer said.

Meanwhile, an association with Japan’s Toyota, another early investor, taught him about quality management.

Eventually, executives from Daimler and Toyota joined Tesla in key roles, along with talent from Alphabet Inc’s Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, as well as rival carmakers Ford, BMW and Audi.

Some relationships did not end well, however.

Tesla hooked up with Israeli sensor maker Mobileye in 2014, in part to learn how to design a self-driving system that evolved into Tesla’s Autopilot.

“Mobileye was the driving force behind the original Autopilot,” said a former Mobileye executive, who declined to be named.

Mobileye, which is now owned by Intel, also recognized the risk of sharing technology with a fast-moving startup like Tesla, which was on the brink of collapse at the end of 2008 and now has a market value of $420 billion.

US tech firm Nvidia followed Mobileye as a supplier for Autopilot, but it too was ultimately sidelined.

In addition to partnerships, Musk went on an acquisition spree four years ago, buying a handful of little-known companies — Grohmann, Perbix, Riviera, Compass, Hibar Systems — to rapidly advance Tesla’s expertise in automation. Maxwell and SilLion further boosted Tesla’s ability in battery technology.


Britain, EU tell each other to move on trade

Updated 20 October 2020

Britain, EU tell each other to move on trade

  • Both sides call on each other to protect billions of dollars of trade between the neighbors

BRUSSELS: Britain and the EU said on Monday the door was still open for a deal on their post-Brexit relationship, calling on each other to compromise to find a way to protect billions of dollars of trade between the neighbors.

With just over two months before Britain ends a status quo transition arrangement with the EU, talks on a trade deal are deadlocked, with neither wanting to move first to offer concessions.

A no-deal finale to Britain’s five-year Brexit drama would disrupt the operations of manufacturers, retailers, farmers and nearly every other sector — just as the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic repeated on Monday that the EU still wanted a trade deal but not “at any cost” after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday there was no point in continuing talks.

“It has to be a fair agreement for both sides — we are not going to sign an agreement at any cost,” Sefcovic told reporters after meeting Michael Gove, Britain’s point man on the existing divorce agreement, in London.

“The EU is ready to work until the last minute for a good agreement for both parties,” Sefcovic said.

Britain, increasingly frustrated by the EU’s refusal to start text-based talks, called on the bloc to make the first move, with its housing minister saying that Brussels only had to make “some relatively small but important changes.”

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick called on the EU to “go that extra mile, to come closer to us on the points that remain for discussion.”

A spokesman for Johnson again ruled out prolonging any negotiation beyond the end of this year, when the transition period runs out, saying the EU “must be ready to discuss the detailed legal text of a treaty in all areas with a genuine wish to respect UK sovereignty and independence.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had been due in London for talks with British counterpart David Frost this week. Instead, they will now speak by telephone on Monday to discuss the structure of future talks, Barnier’s spokesman said.

Negotiations broke down on Thursday, when the EU demanded Britain give ground. Issues still to be resolved include fair competition rules, including state aid and fisheries. EU diplomats and officials cast Johnson’s move as a frantic bid to secure concessions before a last-minute deal was done, and European leaders have asked Barnier to continue talks.

British officials have repeatedly said any deal has to honor Britain’s new status as a sovereign country and not try to tie it to EU rules and regulations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said compromises on both sides would be needed. French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain needed a deal more than the 27-nation EU.

Britain is launching a campaign this week urging businesses to step up preparations for a no-deal departure. In a statement accompanying the launch, Gove says: “Make no mistake, there are changes coming in just 75 days and time is running out for businesses to act.”

More than 70 British business groups representing over 7 million workers on Sunday urged politicians to get back to the negotiating table next week and strike a deal.