Greentech Media has published interviews with Tesla co-founders Elon Musk and Marc Tarpenning and Tesla CTO JB Straubel. We've spoken with Tesla investors Ira Ehrenpreis, Nancy Pfund and Steve Jurvetson.
But we haven't yet heard from early Tesla hire and VP of business development Diarmuid O'Connell. He spoke with investor and Tesla board member Ehrenpreis at the REFF-West event last week.
Ehrenpreis noted that Tesla has "an iconic and extraordinary CEO" in Elon Musk, but added, "It takes a full team to make a great company, and Tesla’s senior team is extraordinary." He added that "Diarmuid has had a profound impact" with leadership in deals with Daimler, Toyota, Panasonic, the Nummi plant and, most recently, the Giga factory.
"The answer always came back to oil."
O'Connell said that following Sept. 11, he dusted off some credentials and went to work in Washington, D.C. as Chief of Staff for Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. State Department during the "dire situation" that existed in the period 2003 to 2005, when there was an "IED campaign and multiple casualties every day." He said, "I was one of the people reporting to my boss...what was going on -- literally, who was being killed -- and started thinking hard about how we found ourselves deployed around the world."
In his conversations with military leadership, "The answer always came back to oil."
"In thinking ahead in what I wanted to do after my time in government, I wanted to work on oil reduction in our economy -- which takes you to transportation, and that takes you to passenger cars and light trucks. It became clear to me that true innovation wasn't going to come from within" because of the "incentives of incumbency."
The VP said that in 2005, the future was fuel cell technology -- that was the direction of policy, "But I couldn't answer [the question of] who pays for the infrastructure." What attracted him to Tesla, still in stealth at the time, was that it was working with cell technology that already existed in scale and secondly, for a change, Tesla was going to build "cars that were attractive."
Making monumental deals and embracing risk
Ehrenpreis asked about the "monumental" deals that Tesla had been making and the keys to executing on these big aims.
O'Connell noted, "It occurred to me very early in my stay at Tesla...that the scale of investment at the VC level was never going to be enough to make a change in the industry. Thinking about who had the deep pockets led me to pursue the opportunity with the Department of Energy."
"Elon gets credit for the initial approach to Daimler," said O'Connell, adding, "The opportunity with Daimler gave us an endorsement and credibility when we were an interesting phenomenon in the market."
Ehrenpreis noted that acquiring the Fremont Nummi plant "was about doggedness," and O'Connell suggested, "It's all about finding win-win situations."
"We found Toyota in a uniquely vulnerable situation where they had PR and regulatory challenges in Washington. They had an exit problem in the U.S. in their biggest market -- California. We knew they wanted to get out of the plant," and that they could get "a PR lift from helping to stimulate the next great American car company." He added, "Trying to get into the inner sanctum of a company as hierarchical as Toyota is an exercise in itself."
O'Connell said that that one of the fundamental things he has learned from Elon Musk is to be "calibrated in the choices that you make, to be very rigorous about assessing the probabilities of different outcomes -- but to truly embrace risk and in fact chase it in many respects."
"When you learn how to ski, the safe thing is to lean into the hill, that's the impulse. But the safe thing is, in fact, to lean down the hill," he said, adding "Not everybody is as comfortable with constantly leaning into the problem."
The "dealer battle"
Tesla has encountered a number of regulatory roadblocks.
"Most folks don't know that they have to buy a car through a dealer," said O'Connell. He notes that Tesla's "right to sell [its] cars directly to the public is challenged by a dealer regulatory body of law which is diverse across the 50 states and which tends to prescribe that manufacturers sell cars through a middleman, through a dealer."
"It's a good issue for us; it's one of principle," said O'Connell, but he warned, "Old industries tend to erect regulatory barriers, and it's a real problem for an innovator."
The Giga factory
"The site selection is over, which is a great relief to me and to my wife and kids," said O'Connell, adding, "This project is immense. You have to go up to the site to really appreciate how big a building this will be. It's a mile long and 70 feet high. It's incredible."
Tesla has suggested it will be building 500,000 cars per year by 2020 and hitting a scale that will drive down the cost of its 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack by 30 percent, to about $10,000. The project aims to disrupt battery costs enough to impact the distributed storage industry as well.
"It will In essence be a machine itself -- that's how we're thinking of this. A machine that takes raw materials in one side and produces batteries."
Ehrenpreis suggested that the Giga factory was one of the largest, if not the largest, construction projects on the planet Earth. But given that there are a number of mega-scale river diversion projects in China and water projects in the Gulf, and that the Panama Canal is being enlarged, Tesla might have to settle for being one of the world's largest buildings.
"The whole idea is to achieve economies of scale on the most expensive component of the car," and to make Tesla's mass-market vehicle, "the Model 3, possible," said the VP. He added that it also "unlocks a really exciting market. We are seeing an extraordinary opportunity in stationary storage."
O'Connell spoke of a "total solution" where EVs are combined with stationary storage and renewables such as solar.
"You can drive literally on sunshine -- that's the full value proposition, and that's what we're going to unlock with this factory."
Welcoming competition to the future of EVs
"I think what I'm most excited about is that we're not in this alone anymore. BMW and Nissan have made significant committed investments in electric mobility, and I think that that's really notable." He expects other Chinese firms in addition to BYD to make "serious" investments in EVs.
"We're not going to succeed because of our bottom line alone. Ultimately, we measure our success by how much competition we actually inspire. That's an odd thing to say as a player in an industry," said O'Connell, "But truly, our success will be measured by how many EVs of all brands are on the road."