Episode 2: Tesla's Vision

Nikola Tesla invented everything from the AC induction motor to the Tesla coil. He is one of the most underrated geniuses from history. Tesla's inventions changed the world, and 60 years after his death, inspired a small car company in California to name their entire business after him.


Executive Producer & Host: Kristofor Lawson.

Mixing & Production by James Parkinson.

Jasmine Mee Lee is our assistant producer.

Artwork by Andrew Millist.

Theme Music by Nic Buchanan.

Other music in the episode from Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music comes from Epidemic Sound.


ELIZABETH RUSCH: I do school visits where I talk to young people about my books and my ideas. And I will often ask, "Raise your hand if you know who Nikola Tesla is." ...maybe about half the people raise their hands, and I say, "Oh, well, what do you know about him?" And they say, "He has a car company,"... So they've gotten that name, but they really don't know the story behind, behind this incredible person.

KRIS: No, Nikola Tesla never owned a car company. But he did inspire the founders of Tesla Motors when it came to naming their electric vehicle startup in 2003.

Elon Musk: And the reason it’s called Tesla is because we use an AC induction motor, which is an architecture that Tesla developed, and the guy probably deserves a little more play than he gets in current society. [ audio grab ]

KRIS: That’s Elon Musk speaking to The Henry Ford museum in 2008. And he’s correct in saying that Nikola Tesla doesn’t always get the credit that he deserves, and is often overlooked when people speak about the greatest inventors from history. Which is incredible, when you consider how much he achieved throughout his life. Not only did he invent a motor that revolutionised how we use electricity, he was also a pioneer for wireless technology - accomplishments he achieved about 100 years ago.

ELIZABETH RUSCH: He was really so interested in the ideas, and in the inventions, and wanted to contribute to humanity, to create things that would improve the human condition.

KRIS: And given Nikola Tesla’s grand visions for the world, an ambitious car company named in his honour seems quite fitting. And it’s an interesting lens through which to look at Tesla itself.

KRIS: So, who are Tesla? Where did they come from? And how did they become such an influential company?

KRIS: From Lawson Media, this is Supercharged. A show about power, conflict, and the people who are driving change. I’m Kristofor Lawson, and this season, we’re exploring electric vehicles, and how Tesla is forcing the entire automotive industry to move towards an electric future.

KRIS: This is Episode Two. Tesla’s Vision.

[Episode Montage]

KRIS: To truly understand Tesla the company, it’s important to grasp just who Nikola Tesla was and the foundation he laid for electric power.

Elizabeth Rusch: He was an inventor back in the 1800s. He was a contemporary of Thomas Edison… But Tesla actually has had so much of a bigger impact on all of our lives. He's sort of this genius whose ideas and inventions have touched us in so many ways.

KRIS: This is Elizabeth Rusch - we heard from her at the top of the show. She’s the author of Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World - a children’s book she was motivated to write after learning about Tesla and his forgotten story.

Elizabeth Rusch: So if you've ever had an x-ray... if you've ever listened to the radio, if you've ever used a remote… if you have electricity and lights and power and energy in your homes and businesses and schools, we have Tesla to thank for all of those inventions. So he's this inventor whose contributions I think have been hugely under appreciated.

KRIS: Tesla even worked on hydroelectricity, helping create the foundation for the Niagara Falls powergrid. So yes, he was hugely influential.

KRIS: Nikola Tesla was born on the 10th July 1856 in Croatia, and he had a somewhat tragic childhood. His older brother Dane, died right in front of him in a horse accident.

Melissa Schilling: Nikola believed that Dane was even more talented than he. He thought Dane was brilliant and also had this photographic memory that Nikola Tesla had. So I think they were born with it. I think the tragedy, in some ways, could have contributed to his sense of unconventionality and autonomy because after the tragedy, his parents withdrew from him a lot. And so he was very isolated. And he felt maybe a little bit unloved. And that can contribute to someone becoming very much a loner... So in fact, being a loner or feeling not accepted can actually facilitate being innovative... My name is Melissa Schilling and I'm a Professor of Innovation and Strategy at New York University and I do research on innovation and innovators.

KRIS: Tesla’s childhood was also riddled with illness. He was often sick and would be bedridden for weeks or months at a time. But this didn’t stifle his creativity. Before he was six, Tesla had already invented several contraptions, including a bug-powered wheel, and a fishing rod. He went to university at a young age studying physics and mathematics, and became the Chief Electrician at the Hungarian Central Telegraph Office at just 25. He grew up to be a great inventor… and by all accounts an unusual man.

Jonathan Shearer: He's such an interesting guy… like, he spoke eight languages, and he had all these weird idiosyncrasies, and he never slept. He claimed he invented these crazy, crazy things… Hi, I’m Jonathan Shearer. I’m the General Manager of Scienceworks.

KRIS: Scienceworks is part of a network of museums in Melbourne, Australia. It focuses on how science and technology are changing our lives.

Jonathan Shearer: One of Tesla's interesting quirks is he had a photographic memory. And so he rarely wrote down his ideas, because he could remember them perfectly, and recite them back at will. And in fact, even unique in terms of people with photographic memory, he could imagine his inventions, every part to scale, and how they all fit together perfectly in his mind. And so he didn't need to draw schematics. So we've got this issue of a man who didn't trust you know, forms of media, and often didn't write his ideas down, unless he actually needed to get a patent on his ideas.

Jonathan Shearer: Like, Tesla was an inventor to the exclusion of all else, like several times in his life, he got filthy rich off his inventions, but he just used that money to try and make more inventions, and usually fell back into poverty in between these periods of success. And I think it's because so many of his inventions didn't really come to fruition, AC power, which he improved, but didn't create, and the AC motor, which he did actually create, they became very ubiquitous, but nobody really sort of remembered him until relatively recently. Whereas Edison created his own history, he created himself as this iconic American figure - probably helped that he was American as well - I think a Serbian immigrant is probably was part of that narrative as well.

KRIS: It’s believed that Tesla held over 300 patents, which is impressive, but he didn’t patent all of his technology, often to his own detriment.

Melissa Schilling: Think about the effect of wireless communication. Even though Marconi is often attributed with inventing wireless communication, there was a big patent battle shortly after Tesla's death that verified that Nikola Tesla invented wireless communication… Now, eventually, somebody else might have come up with it but he was the first to come up with it. So it's a pretty enormous effect on the world.

KRIS: In 1882, Tesla started working for the Continental Edison Company in France, before moving to the United States just two years later, to work with Thomas Edison himself. Nikola’s skills and expertise were exactly what Edison was looking for - a smart, young inventor who was eager to establish himself. But that partnership didn’t last.

Jonathan Shearer: The famous story - and nobody's quite sure whether it's true - is that his supervisor at the Edison company told him if he could improve the system he was working on, he'd get a bonus of $50,000, which translates to about a million dollars in today's money. So it was impossible. And you know, dozens of engineers had tried, and Tesla did it and fronted up for his money. The famous quote is, “oh, Tesla, you don't understand our American humor.” And they played it off that it was a joke. So the common story is that that's why he left, that he didn't get his $50,000.

KRIS: After his falling out with Edison, Tesla established the Tesla Electric Company and invented the AC induction motor, which meant that alternating current could now be used commercially. He signed a contract with Westinghouse Electric to license his technology, sparking the ‘War of the Currents’ between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. Edison of course was a proponent of direct current. And as Melissa Schilling explains, this was a significant moment in history.

Melissa Schilling: Before AC electricity, DC electricity was like this little trickle of energy that could light up a light bulb nearby. AC electricity was huge power that could be just thrusted across the country, hundreds of miles and could run industrial machinery. So you really can attribute a lot of the Industrial Revolution to AC electricity. So that's huge. That's everything.

KRIS: Tesla had the better invention but Edison was the more established businessman. So Edison and his supporters started a smear campaign against Tesla and AC electricity. They posted flyers that said AC was extremely dangerous. They also publicly electrocuted cats, horses and even an elephant, attempting to prove how dangerous AC electricity was.

Harold Clark: The DC system that Edison ran, ran on fairly low voltage. And therefore did, he considered it you know, people could, people could touch the wires and not be electrocuted because it was, it was low voltage. Whereas Tesla's AC, worked at a much higher voltage, and which, yeah, definitely shock somebody badly. And Edison felt that that was that was really dangerous.

KRIS: This is Harold Clark.

Harold Clark: I am the Senior Director for STEM learning and community at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, in Rochester, New York.

Harold Clark: Now the high voltage frequency experiment work Tesla was doing had real advantages in terms of transmission, how far you could transmit power and all of that type of thing. So there were real advantages to it. But as a way of saying that his system was better Edison and his allies would talk about how dangerous this alternating current was, and to demonstrate that, they would electrocute they would do they would show sparks coming from the system or, you know, electrocute animals.

KRIS: What we have to remember was that in the 1800s people were pretty apprehensive about the idea of electricity. So these scare campaigns were very effective. People couldn’t really comprehend how electricity would change their lives. But ultimately, AC power would prove to be the most effective at delivering electricity to homes and businesses. Here’s Jonathan Shearer again.

Jonathan Shearer: Basically, Edison and Westinghouse, were trying to drive each other out of business. That was the whole current war. And so Westinghouse was in money troubles himself. And he offered Tesla a one off payment to buy all his patents to do with AC power generation and motors, rather than royalties on sales. And he did. So again, Tesla was rich in the moment. Whereas if he’d taken royalties, he would have been filthy rich over time. So the Westinghouse company, which obviously still exists, stood the test time managed to prove the superiority of AC power, it's much better at powering a city… and eventually people realized, yep, AC’s the way to go for mainstream power.

KRIS: The deciding factor in the Current War was the contract to light up the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Westinghouse beat out Edison to win the contract, and with the help of Nikola Tesla, showed the world the advantage of alternating current. Here’s Elizabeth Rusch.

Elizabeth Rusch: So, like sunset on the first day of the fair, President Grover Cleveland turned a key and the fair, which was in darkness, just flashed to light with a hundred thousand light bulbs bursting with light. And I mean, I can honestly say nothing like that had ever been seen in the world, right? He suddenly had lit up this huge area… and we entered the modern age, and it was all because of Tesla's ideas and inventions and his sticktoitiveness in the face of all kinds of opposition.

KRIS: We’ve only just scratched the surface on Nikola Tesla’s incredible life. But he truly did change the world, and his inventions continue to inspire people today.

KRIS: So, what would Nikola Tesla think of an electric car manufacturer being named after him?

Elizabeth Rusch: That's a really good question.

Elizabeth Rusch: You know, I'm thinking two totally different things. One is that he would be thrilled because I think he would just love the idea of an electric powered car and having his name associated would be thrilling to him. But I also know that he was somewhat sceptical of kind of awards and medals and things like that, so it's hard to say. I think he'd love driving one. I think he'd love driving a Tesla.

KRIS: Before we move on, there’s one more Tesla creation that I really want to share with you. The Tesla Coil.

Jonathan Shearer: He was obsessed with this idea of transmitting power wirelessly between places. And Tesla coils were part of his experimentation, trying to find a way to do that. So a Tesla coil is a way of building an enormous voltage of AC charge. And in fact, it builds up so much voltage that what It's famous for is that eventually it arcs from the machine to another conductor, and you get these massive artificial lightning bolts coming out of the machine. That's not the reason he was experimenting with Tesla coils, that was more a byproduct. And in fact, it seemed to pretty much be the only thing Tesla coils were good for in the long run, and so they’re used for entertainment more often than anything.

KRIS: And it just so happens that Scienceworks in Melbourne has a Tesla Coil of their own that can produce upwards of two to three million volts. They use it as an educational tool, putting on shows for school groups to demonstrate things like the dangers of lighting during a storm. Naturally, we wanted to check it out.

Jonathan Shearer: So as you can see, lots of different pieces of equipment - definitely looking like a mad scientist's lab. All of them produce enormously high voltage electricity in different ways. The most spectacular of which is the Tesla Coil, which looks like a giant silver mushroom in the middle there. All of it housed behind a giant Faraday cage, so any electricity or any radiation is grounded through that cage and into the ground.

Jonathan Shearer: Now when we do fire it off, it is very loud. We always get people to put their fingers in their ears for it, so I’m not sure what that means for you, with your headset on.

James Parkinson: Ah, I might just adjust the gain a little bit

KRIS: That’s our Producer, James Parkinson.

[Tesla coil fires up]

Jonathan Shearer: No matter how many times I fire it off, I never get sick of it.

KRIS: I bet that gives you a good buzz to set that off?

Jonathan Shearer: It’s really cool, it’s really fun.

James Parkinson: Thanks so much, that was awesome.

Jonathan Shearer: No worries.

KRIS: Yeah, that was amazing.

KRIS: Coming up after the break - we dive into the founding of Tesla Motors, as a new era of the electric car emerges.


KRIS: While Nikola Tesla was largely forgotten in the history books, his inventions and scientific findings still influenced many people - including two startup founders of a company they called Tesla Motors.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: Two men called Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. These are two names that in this day and age aren't often widely associated with Tesla.

KRIS: This is Edward Neidermeyer, he’s the author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.

KRIS: Eberhard and Tarpenning got their start in Silicon Valley in 1997 with their first company NuvoMedia - which they eventually sold after developing the very first e-reader, called the Rocket eBook. Now, going from ebooks to electric cars might seem like a big leap, but it was actually a rather simple step.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: One of the things that they learned in the process of developing this e-reader was that lithium-ion battery technology had really matured. And it was available in these 18-650 cells, which are about the size of a AA battery. And Martin Eberhard in particular was a real car guy, and was always really interested in cars and liked to drive fun, fast cars. And the two of them were talking about a bunch of ideas, you know, they'd sold their e-reader company, and they were kind of trying to figure out what to do next. And one of the ideas that they kind of came on was, what about an electric car? What about a fun, fast, premium electric car?

KRIS: It was 2003, and hybrids like the Toyota Prius were becoming really popular around Silicon Valley. But many owners in the area also drove high end cars like a Porsche’s or Mercedes. So Eberhard and Tarpenning saw the potential for a new market.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: And they really realised that the opportunity in the premium electric space to make a really desirable electric car was wide open. And they thought that if they started with a small volume, high end car, they could make enough money to fund a series of ever cheaper and more affordable and higher volume cars. And so that blueprint was, was pretty much in place from the get-go. This was the original vision of Tesla.

KRIS: After some deliberation, their preference for an AC induction motor inspired the perfect name for their new company.

Martin Eberhard:I had been thinking for a long time what to name our company, and I had tried out a lot of different ideas on my wife and none of them sounded right.”

KRIS: This is Martin Eberhard, speaking in the documentary film Life On Wheels.

Martin Eberhard:That motor was invented by Nikola Tesla, it was one of his many patents. And maybe for those of you who grew up near Niagara Falls, the name Tesla was well known. But for most of us Tesla is - was at least one of the forgotten inventors. One of the forgotten, incredibly important inventors in the United States and I thought that it would be a good tip of the hat to give him credit for his invention.” 0:17-0:52 [ ]

KRIS: And from its very foundations, Nikola Tesla’s vision is ingrained in the company’s ethos.

Martin Eberhard: After I’d named the company that, I ran across a white paper written by Nikola Tesla to the organisation that ultimately became the Society of Automotive Engineers, where he basically said that he thought his AC induction motor was the right choice for electric cars in the long run - it would work better than the other kinds of motors. And it was an argument that was, I mean, so compelling that I actually had it tacked into the last pages of our business plan.”

KRIS: Although people were becoming more environmentally conscious and cars like the Prius were well received in the early 2000s, Eberhard and Tarpenning still had trouble getting people to buy into their ambitious plan. As Edward explains, they weren’t just trying to make an appealing electric vehicle, they were creating a brand new car manufacturer from scratch.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: The real challenge they faced was getting Silicon Valley's venture capitalists to fund a project that really went so deep into the realm of hardware. You know, the big companies at this time were really mostly in software, or personal computers. And this was a step into a totally different kind of hardware and venture capitalists couldn't fund it - or wouldn't fund it rather, many of them wouldn't. At least until they found one man who would, and that was Elon Musk.

KRIS: Around this time, Southern California was home to a passionate community of EV enthusiasts, who would modify existing cars to run on electric power. For most of them it was a hobby, but others were taking it far more seriously.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: The guys who had really done the most in this space had started this company called AC Propulsion. And they were sort of really advancing the state of the art in electric drivetrain technology. And they built this car called the TZero, and it was essentially a sort of race car kit.

KRIS: Initially, AC Propulsion were using lead-acid batteries, until Martin Eberhard commissioned them to build him a TZero with lithium-ion cells. And this is where he first crossed paths with Elon Musk.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: Elon Musk was also very interested in this car at the time. And what's interesting is the guys who were running AC Propulsion, they’d actually worked on the EV1, which was a General Motors project that was also sort of in the 90s. And they've kind of had a bad experience with that a little bit and instead of getting into business making a car, they wanted to sell kits for cars. And so they tried to get Elon Musk to fund their business idea, which was taking a small, modest, sub-compact car and converting it to electric drive. And that was really emblematic of a lot of the way people were thinking about electric cars at the time, which was ‘“take a cheap car and put an electric drivetrain in it”, because the cost of the batteries are so high. You know, having a cheap car really kept the end price to the user down. The problem was, was that you ended up buying a cheap sub-compact car that just happened to be electric for way more money than anyone would ever consider paying for that car. And so essentially, you know, both Eberhard and Musk's sort of conversations with AC Propulsion led them to sort of put the two of them together and say, “look, you guys are both - you're both trying to do the same thing. You both want to make a fast electric car.” So you know, “Elon Musk, you have money. Martin Eberhard, you have a plan; get together.” And that's really where Elon Musk first got involved and that's really where Tesla, as a modern company really started to take shape.

KRIS: Elon Musk was one of Tesla’s first investors, and without his backing, the company may have never got off the ground.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: He basically funded more or less the entire Series A. And he was one of the few people because he'd sold PayPal - he personally made tens of millions of dollars on that - and he was one of the few people at the time who could really step in and say, “I'm going to fund this project.”.

DANA HULL: And he originally was the chairman of the board in 2004. And he's also the largest shareholder, so his influence is profound.

KRIS: This is Dana Hull from Bloomberg News.

DANA HULL: You know, he really kind of is the one who brought Tesla into the limelight. He was at the helm when the company IPO’d.

KRIS: But back in 2003, Tesla Motors were just focused on trying to build their first car. Here’s Edward again.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: The idea was to take AC Prupolsion’s technology, they would pay a license fee to AC Propulsion to use their drivetrain. And the original idea was sort of a very kind of basic conversion project. And as a result, the amount of funding for the Series A round was not was not that much by, you know, starting a car company standards. And what happened was they very quickly realised that AC Propulsion’s technology was the best, in terms of performance that was available at the time, but it was also essentially handmade. And it was designed and engineered in a way that it had to be handmade. And that's a real problem when you start to manufacture at any kind of scale. So they ended up actually having to completely re-engineer a lot of that drivetrain, just in order to manufacture it.

KRIS: And as for the car’s construction, Martin and Marc soon realised they needed help. So they approached British sports car company Lotus for assistance with manufacturing, and managed to forge a partnership.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: And Martin Eberhard had identified the Lotus Elise as a lightweight, bonded aluminum British sports car, as the kind of the ideal vehicle to sort of convert to an electric sports car. And they showed it was going to end up being a very expensive car. But unlike the project that AC Propulsion wanted to work on, this was one that would have the kind of performance that people would pay a six figure price to actually drive.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: And eventually they basically had developed that AC Propulsion drivetrain so much that it wasn't any longer just taking AC Propulsion technology and putting it in a Lotus Elise. It would have its own individual styling. So there ended up being a lot of work both on the drivetrain side and the vehicle side. The level of ambition that the project had taken on was far beyond what was originally envisioned.

KRIS: That first car would eventually become the Tesla Roadster. But bringing it to market was a long, challenging and expensive process for the company. The vehicles were manufactured in England by Lotus, who’s design studio also helped with the styling. The Tesla team took several trips to the UK before the design was finalised, and the more they wanted to customise the Roaster, the more difficult the manufacturing process became.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: Elon Musk was also pushing for more and more sort of improvements. And so they had what's called ‘elegance creep’ was what they called it, ‘elegance creep’. And it just kept getting more and more complicated, that would have carbon fiber body panels, and they would have these electronic door handles, and all these things that made it more than just a conversion, and made it more like a real product. But it also really, dramatically increased the cost. And they started this pattern, you know, very early on at this point, where because they'd underestimated what it was really going to take to make this the product that they wanted, and that they thought would sell, they had to raise more money, and more money, and more money.

KRIS: By early 2006, Tesla were ready to unveil the Roadster, and it was an important milestone for the company. But it was also a huge turning point for another reason, that would change the future of Tesla.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: You know, Tesla had developed prototypes of the Roadster, and they were ready to break out of stealth mode and really show it to the world for the first time. And when that happens they've got their first media coverage. And there was a story in the New York Times - there were two actually, early stories in 2006. The first one really focused on Martin Eberhard, who was the CEO at the time, didn't even mention Elon Musk. The second one, just a few weeks later, mentioned Elon Musk, among other things, but almost tangentially just sort of saying, “well, he's just kind of the money guy”. And he had been involved with a lot of design decisions on the Roadster. He wasn't CEO, he was the Chairman, but he had been more involved than most Chairman are. Because he was basically funding the entire project. He became really, really angry about the fact that the New York Times specifically, but that the media generally, was not giving him what he felt was his credit. And a number of emails from this time period of leaked out. And the second one was incredibly angry and frustrated. And two weeks after that, he ended up writing this blog post called The Top Secret Master Plan. And in it, he sort of sums up a lot of what had already been - this strategy, which again, Eberhard and Tarpenning had already come up with. And that was a really appealing narrative, and for Elon Musk, it became this way to sort of really present himself as being the visionary behind all this, even though, you know, he hadn't come up with the concept. With that blog post, he really made himself the central figure.

KRIS: And at this point, disagreements between Musk and the two original co-founders began to cause problems.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: They'd had disagreements before, but this was the first time that there was a real conflict. And over time, you know, this led to the see, you know, Martin Eberhardt and Marc Tarpenning, you know, slowly getting pushed out of the company. And a lot of that was tied to the fact that this project was much harder than they realised, and that it was going to take a lot more money than they realised. And that was the company was going to have to be bigger than they realized. And I think Martin Eberhardt, I don't think expected To be running a company, as big as Tesla got as quickly as it got until they didn't have, you know, proper accounting software and and they were all - it was just sort of chaotic and like “startup-y”. It was easy I think for Elon Musk to sort of, you know, blame a lot of these early struggles on him, and use that to sort of push him out.

KRIS: Martin Eberhard would eventually sue Musk for libel, slander and breach of contract in 2009, but ultimately dropped the case.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: And then there was a series of other CEOs for relatively short amounts of time. And eventually Elon Musk took over.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: What explains that is the fact that fundraising became much more important to the company, and Elon Musk was the fundraiser. So it wasn't even, you know, a question of him having a better vision or even being a better manager. It really was about the fact that the company just ended up needing to raise more money and he not only had money of his own to spend - to invest - but he also knew a lot of very wealthy people who would also invest.

KRIS: 2008 was a difficult year for Tesla. They were finally delivering Roadsters to customers, but this also coincided with the Global Financial Crisis, and they needed an emergency cash injection. Musk, who was appointed CEO in October that year, was there to provide it, investing a further $40 million US dollars to keep Tesla afloat. Their troubles didn’t end there, but it was Elon Musk who was able to see the company through.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: They just started delivering Roadsters in 2008 - they had all these technical problems with them, though. The transmission couldn't work. Things were in really bad shape, and he was able to sort of will Tesla forward. And then in 2009 they still had, you know, real financial problems. And he sent an email to customers saying that the government had already told them - the Department of Energy had told them - that a loan that they'd applied for would be dispersed within a matter of a couple of months. Well, at the time that that email went out, they hadn't even submitted a complete application. They submitted an application, but it wasn't complete. And they ended up I think, submitting two more, and the money didn't actually come the government loan didn't actually come until about 18 months later. And so, you know I think getting a car company through a cyclical downturn is always a defining moment for any car company. The auto industry is as much about survival during the hard times as it is anything else. And so, how Tesla survived 2008 and 2009 was through Elon Musk. He was the central figure in that. And that really cemented his central role in the company. And that aspect of his personality, the willingness to do whatever it takes, has really become a fundamental part of Tesla, just as his image has become, you know, so intertwined with Tesla’s.

KRIS: As of September 2018, Elon Musk is no longer the Chair of Tesla - for reasons we’ll be exploring later in this series - but he remains the CEO and majority shareholder. Since the original Roadster was discontinued in 2011, Tesla have brought three further models to market, with more on the way. And every Tesla vehicle since has been manufactured in the United States, which is an incredible feat. But that has also introduced more problems, as they continue to raise funds in order to meet their production deadlines.

EDWARD NEIDERMEYER: That started this pattern that continues to this very day where they have to continually raise money to, to keep the business going, in large part because they continue to underestimate how hard making cars really is.

KRIS: Coming up on the next episode of Supercharged, the year that Elon Musk calls “production hell”, assembling the Model 3 in a giant tent, and how the competition stacks up.

[Episode 3 Montage]


Jonathon Shearer: One of my favorite Nikola Tesla stories is, towards the end of his life, he was staying in hotel, hotel, and usually skipping out on the bill. And one time he paid a hotel with a death ray sealed in a box, but told them not to open it in case it went off. And finally, long after his death, his that their children opened it, and it was just loose parts in a cardboard box.