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How Tesla Will Change The World | Wait But Why

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It's not easy to be erudite yet hilariously crude... but the mad geniuses at Wait But Why manage it yet again with their writeup of Tesla.

This writeup is so full of information I'm going to have to go back and read it again.

This chart stuck with me:

chart global energy consumption renewable How Tesla Will Change The World Wait But Why

I really appreciate how they describes the learning curve.

The way I approach a post like that is I’ll start with the surface of the topic and ask myself what I don’t fully get—I look for those foggy spots in the story where when someone mentions it or it comes up in an article I’m reading, my mind kind of glazes over with a combination of “ugh it’s that icky term again nah go away” and “ew the adults are saying that adult thing again and I’m seven so I don’t actually understand what they’re talking about.” Then I’ll get reading about those foggy spots—but as I clear away fog from the surface, I often find more fog underneath. So then I research that new fog, and again, often come across other fog even further down. My perfectionism kicks in and I end up refusing to stop going down the rabbit hole until I hit the floor.

For example, I kind of got the Iraq situation, but there was a lot of fog there too—so when I wrote a post about it, one fog-clearing rabbit hole took me all the way back to Muhammad in 570AD. That was the floor. Digging into another part of the story brought me to the end of World War I. Another brought me to the founding of ISIS.

Hitting the floor is a great feeling and makes me realize that the adults weren’t actually saying anything that complicated or icky after all. And when I come across that topic again, it’s fun now, because I get it and I can nod with a serious face on and be like, “Yes, interest rates are problematic” like a real person.

I’ve heard people compare knowledge of a topic to a tree. If you don’t fully get it, it’s like a tree in your head with no trunk—and without a trunk, when you learn something new about the topic—a new branch or leaf of the tree—there’s nothing for it to hang onto, so it just falls away. By clearing out fog all the way to the bottom, I build a tree trunk in my head, and from then on, all new information can hold on, which makes that topic forever more interesting and productive to learn about. And what I usually find is that so many of the topics I’ve pegged as “boring” in my head are actually just foggy to me—like watching episode 17 of a great show, which would be boring if you didn’t have the tree trunk of the back story and characters in place.

Elon Musk opinion of Henry Ford: “Ford was the kind of guy that when something was in the way, he found a way around it, he just got it done. He was really focused on what the customer needed, even when the customer didn’t know what they needed.”

It was thanks to Tesla's first car that other car makers built electric vehicles, too. Competition moves people.

With the Roadster, Tesla wasn’t trying to make their long term car (one Tesla employee told me that from the beginning, Musk would make sure everyone knew that the company’s long-term mission “was not to make toys for rich people.”) They just wanted to build something awesome to A) show the world how great an EV could be, and B) generate revenue to develop their Step 2 car. So they didn’t start from scratch on the body design, instead basing it on a Lotus Elise.

The Roadster didn’t change the world—no $110,000 car ever could—but it sent a message to the industry that Tesla was for real. You may not have heard of the Roadster when it was announced in 2006 or when it started shipping in 2008, but some of the major car companies took notice—Nissan soon launched the all-electric Leaf and GM launched the plug-in electric Chevy Volt soon after the Roadster’s appearance (Bob Lutz, who was Chairman of GM at the time, openly credits Tesla for their decision to make the Volt, saying that after the Roadster unveiling, he went to the GM board and asked, “If a little company in California can do this, why can’t we?”).

Product inspiration is similar to Apple.

I asked him what it was like to come to Tesla after having spent years at more established car companies. He described the difference like this: “A company like GM is a finance-driven company who always has to live up to financial expectations. Here we look at it the other way around—the product is successful when it’s great, and the company becomes great because of that.” (This mirrored what Musk had told me earlier in the day: “The moment the person leading a company thinks numbers have value in themselves, the company’s done. The moment the CFO becomes CEO—it’s done. Game over.”) Von Holzhausen went on, saying, “Another difference is that at other companies, engineering comes first—a design package is prescribed on the designer and they’re told to make it beautiful. At Tesla, design and engineering are assigned equal value, and Elon keeps them opposed to each other.” Now that von Holzhausen has gotten used to his freedom to be obsessed with the product at Tesla, he says he “would dread to go back to pre-historic ways.”

Von Holzhausen’s first mission at Tesla was to design their Step 2 car—the mid-priced, mid-volume one—that would be called the Model S. The Roadster was based on existing design and was a springboard for the company more than a long-term product. The Model S would be Tesla’s first flagship product, and it was their chance to reinvent the concept of a car, from scratch. Von Holzhausen said, “When we started Model S, it was a clean sheet of paper.”

This all sounded uncannily similar to how Steve Jobs had done things at Apple. He obsessed over making “insanely great products,” and he never paid attention to what other companies were doing, always coming at things from a clean sheet of paper perspective. When Apple decided to make a phone, they didn’t try to make a better Blackberry—they asked, “What should a mobile phone be?”

Tesla Model S is the fastest, safest sedan in the world. And it drives itself!

The Model S is the fastest 4-door sedan in history, with 3.2-second 0-60 time. It saves battery power by being insanely aerodynamic with the industry’s lowest drag coefficient (.24). A bunch of engineering innovations have combined to give it the highest NHTSA safety rating of any car ever tested by the US government, 5.4 stars.

The Model S is already driving itself and soon, it’ll be able to drive itself to meet you out in the driveway in the morning with the temperature already set and the right music on; at night, you’ll be able to pull up to the house and just get out of the car and the car will park itself into the garage and plug itself in. They did away with model years (i.e. the 2014 Toyota Camry, the 2015 Toyota Camry, etc.), so instead of holding all the year’s new features until the new release, they just put features in as they go. Someone who buys a Tesla today might have a slightly different car than someone who bought one two weeks ago. And they’re constantly rolling out fixes and new features through automatic wifi software updates—owners often wake up in the morning to discover the car has a new capability.

In a bunch of cases, Tesla has wanted to do something that wasn’t technically possible with the current world or industry limitations—so they’d build what they needed to build to change those limitations:

The Tesla battery is heavy and they wanted to make the body super light to offset some of that weight—so they turned to SpaceX and used its advanced rocket technology to make Tesla the only North American car with an all aluminum body.

The Gigafactory and the Model 3 are what will make Tesla huge.

Gigafactory is a $5 billion lithium-ion battery factory, currently being built in Nevada. The factory will be self-sufficient, powered entirely by on-site solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and it will employ 6,500 people.

Right now, the world’s combined annual output of lithium-ion batteries is 30GWh—mostly for use in laptops and mobile phones. The Gigafactory will make more than that each year, which means it will more than double the total lithium-ion batteries made each year globally. There are two huge benefits to doing this:

First, Tesla is planning to ramp up production of their cars until they’re producing 500,000 of them a year, and they’re going to need a lot of lithium-ion batteries when they do. Musk’s reasoning is simple: “I know we can’t get enough lithium-ion batteries unless we build this bloody factory, and I know no one else is building this thing.” The numbers make this necessity clear. To  make enough batteries for their planned 500,000 cars a year, Tesla will need about 30GWh of lithium-ion batteries a year—the current world output—meaning that without building the Gigafactory, they’d have to use every single lithium-ion battery in the world. Tesla’s Gigafactory will just barely cover Tesla’s needs—if a day comes when every car company is making a ton of EVs, there will need to be many Gigafactories built by many companies.

Second, by both doubling the world supply of lithium-ion batteries and by continuing to innovate with battery technology, Tesla’s work at the Gigafactory will make batteries a lot cheaper. Musk says the price of the battery should go down by at least 30%. Right now, Musk says Tesla could make their cars with a 500 mile range—they don’t do it because it would increase the cost of the car. But as battery prices go down, EV ranges will go up as well.

I’m pretty convinced that the Model S is the best expensive car ever made. In its first year, its sales blew away its well-known direct competitors—the S-Class Mercedes, BMW 7-Series, the Lexus LS, and the Audi A8—and it’s been in the lead ever since. But those cars all play in a small space for the very rich.

It’s the Model 3 that will turn the industry on its head. You may not know much about Tesla today—or particularly care—but I’m pretty sure everyone will know about the Model 3 soon. Maybe that’s why Musk refuses to do any advertising—because he knows that when the Model 3 comes out, he won’t have to.

We need to learn to make energy the adult way—sustainably.

The sustainable energy world of the future—the yellow zone of our timeline from earlier in the post—is simple. It looks like this:

1) Almost everything we use will run on electricity.

2) Almost all of our electricity will be produced from sustainable sources.

That’s a world running on sunlight and electricity, and burning has no part in that world.

This transition will happen in steps, over time. At the beginning of the post, we identified the two problems we needed to address most urgently: 1) Electricity production is huge and mostly dirty. 2) Transportation is huge and almost entirely dirty.

We spent the rest of the post zoomed in on Problem 2 to examine how things got that way, stayed that way, and why we may be witnessing the moment it finally changes.

We won’t get into Problem 1 today—but both Musk, through his US-leading solar panel installation company, SolarCity, and Tesla, with their new product, the Powerwall stationary battery, are leading the way in this half of the energy equation too. For those interested, I put up a mini post on solar power and SolarCity.

People don’t quite realize it yet, but as of this moment, a family or business has the option to individually move themselves into the sustainable future. Using products made by SolarCity and Tesla alone, you can today live in a home and drive a car that are both powered by a solar panel-connected battery and live entirely on sunlight. Musk and his companies have made a little yellow brick road right out of the Fossil Fuel Era for anyone who wants to leave. And if modern technology can allow individual people, businesses, or even whole cities to live without fossil fuels, it hints that the only era any of us has ever known might be soon coming to an end.

Solar Action Alliance are a group of environmentalists who want to spread the word about the most clean, reliable, and abundant source of renewable energy: the sun.Their website,, exists to educate visitors and provide them with opportunities to get involved with solar. This includes a petition, a blog full of informative articles, location-specific solar infographics, and much more!

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