Q and A: Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla

On Tesla's testing standards and air conditioning

I don't think [mainstream automakers] standards are higher. I think their standards are not high enough. Let's be clear about that. I would invite you to visit [our] test facility. It's pretty extreme.

The battery pack goes through every possible scenario. We have full-scale vibration tables that are also capable of thermally cycling the pack, so it can go through the "shake and bake." We can actually thermally shock the pack...while vibrating the pack, we have the salt tests, we do accelerated power cycling of the pack...

The toughest testing has been for safety. We want to make sure that, in extreme circumstances, the pack cannot break down. In order to achieve that, there are many levels of safety, starting with the cell; the cell is internally fused and then externally fused on each side so each cell is triple fused. Then each cell has a heat-shield sleeve around it. So you can have a cell go into thermal runaway and not affect the rest of the module. Let's say all those things fail, including the active safety systems -- there's a coolant loop running through that makes it very difficult for something like thermal runaway -- let's say in a very bizarre circumstance all of that fails, and the cells go into runaway. Then even at the module level we must contain that thermal runaway. We have to take the hot gas and vent it down at just the right angle, about a 45-degree angle away from the car, because we don't want it going under the car or into the wheel well. We're talking about an extremely unlikely event. But even in this event we want to make sure everything is OK.

The Roadster has prior-generation technology, but despite being involved in accidents -- none of which have ever been blamed on the car, by the way, people have just driven the cars like sports cars -- there's never been any battery fire in any Tesla, ever. I think we're taking extreme measures here to be safe.

The Roadster is not strong on air conditioning. If you're in a humid and a hot environment, the Roadster can sometimes struggle to keep up. That is not the case with the Model S, which can keep you ice cold in the middle of nowhere. If you want to be really cold in the middle of an Arizona summer, the pack is liquid thermal controlled. It's chilled and heated according to what the situation is. And the cell chemistry that we're using is actually conducive to high temperatures. We just completed our hot weather endurance testing, we had the Model S out in Death Valley. [During] the hottest portion of the day, we wanted to see if the Model S could maintain cabin temperature while going at 70 mph up an incline in Death Valley. Yes it can. I'll tell you what couldn't: the tow truck that we brought.

On being involved at such a detailed level

I'm an engineer, so what I do is engineering. That's what I'm good at.

On the fact that some automakers' CEOs are not so involved

It's shocking. I don't know how they make any kind of sensible decision. No, I'm super 'in the weeds.'

On what he'd tell someone trying to start a car company

It's an extremely capital-intensive industry. It should certainly not be anyone's choice if they are trying to get the highest return on investment.

So my first advice would be, unless they have some compelling non monetary reason to create a car company, as I did, than this is not a good use of their capital.

On environmentalism and his overriding mission

We needed to accelerate the advent of electric cars. There's a tragedy of commons problem that we have, a classic Economics 101 issue where there's a common good that's being consumed where the appropriate prices [don't exist to] cause the right actions to occur. And since we are not appropriately pricing the capacity of the oceans and atmosphere, then the only way that I could think of to address that was with innovation -- to come up with a product that was better so that people would choose to buy an electric car because it's the best car in the current economics of the source of energy. And that's the fundamental value that I was trying to achieve with Tesla. And we've had, I think, some effect. The [Chevrolet] Volt is a direct result of Tesla, which Bob Lutz has kind of credited us with.

My goal is to accelerate the advent of the electric car by whatever means necessary. And if we simply tried to sell electric powertrain technology to the car companies we would have had no success. We need to show by example.

On the viability of his businesses (and Mars)

SpaceX has been profitable now for a few years. There's a separate question as to how much progress SpaceX is going to make in developing technologies necessary to establish life on Mars. But there's not really much of a question whether SpaceX itself will survive.

The next six months for Tesla are going to be tough. I think six months from now, we'll know whether it will survive or not. And I think it will. But the next six months will determine that.

On manufacturing versus Internet startups [Musk founded what became PayPal]

I think manufacturing is really cool. It's like the ultimate Lego. I think there are a lot more smart people in America that should be working on manufacturing. There are far too many smart people that went into finance and real estate and stuff. We used to have a lot of smart people that went into manufacturing. I think we are seeing a bit of resurgence in U.S. manufacturing and we'll see more of it because things are getting not that cheap in China. I would never build in China, out of intellectual property concerns. It's asking for trouble there. And I'd have to travel to China all the time.

On how he'd feel if Tesla fails to compete with mainstream automakers' electric cars.

If Tesla had served as [an accelerant], we'd consider it mission accomplished at that point. Because it means that big car companies had made lots of electric cars. The more electric cars, the better. On a financial level it would be disappointing, and there would probably be lots of people angry at me, but I honestly would still feel personally that we had been successful if that were the outcome.

On the personal toll of running two companies

It would suck if I went insane. I really hope that doesn't happen. Please send me a note [if that happens]: "It appears you're going insane. Just letting you know." It's good to question one's sanity because at the point you stop doing that, you're probably insane.

On retiring to a vineyard

Maybe when I'm really old. I plan to be at least 65 or 70 before I have a vineyard.

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