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Tesla's Chief Innovator Just Left

Tesla

Tesla, Inc., just lost one of the most respected innovators in the electric vehicle business, which brings up competitive implications for the future of what will be powering EVs.

After Tesla co-founder JB Straubel revealed his plan to leave the company, a few big questions came up… What will the next phase of the electric vehicle battery war look like? Will Straubel and another Tesla co-founder, Martin Eberhard, resolve the conundrum of manufacturing EV batteries that can go farther than 300 miles per charge and that come down in price?

At the beginning of Wednesday’s quarterly report, CEO Elon Musk made the stunning announcement about Chief Technology Officer Straubel leaving the company, and then gave details on delivery of Tesla's electric vehicles during the past quarter. The news was of great interest to shareholders and Tesla followers as the company continues to go through upheaval and backers yearn to see stability and growth from the EV maker.

Retiring at age 43, Straubel was still in his twenties when he became convinced that new and innovative lithium-ion batteries could become the power source for mass produced EVs. The battery technology was being adopted in laptops and and cell phones, and Straubel intuitively sensed that li-ion batteries would be the answer to the big question sidelining mass market EV sales — and bringing the technology to other transportation modes. How can you make batteries with good range and the potential to come down in cost that make the vehicles more affordable and viable?

Straubel met Musk in 2003, when they had lunch in Los Angeles near the headquarters of Musk’s other pet project — his rocket company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). At that time, Straubel was trying to convince Musk to build an electric airplane. Their passion for EVs led Musk to introducing Straubel to Tesla’s original founders, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.

They came together as a team, but Musk would be taking on a different approach than Straubel, Eberhard, and Tarpenning, who had a more conservative, engineering perspective about building the electric car.

Related: Battery Metals Face Looming Supply Crunch

Eberhard and Tarpenning left Tesla in 2008, as disputes came up over the future of the company — and as Musk exerted more control. Musk’s managerial style has been credited for pushing the company to the stock market and mass producing its Model 3 — but also with driving away key executives and causing turmoil with its factory workers.

Straubel brought a much needed calm and balance to Musk’s approach to running the company. He was known for providing insight and clarity to the technical points that could come up with shareholders and Tesla engineers. His role as a problem-solving engineer came through as the company had to overcome several obstacles.

He’s become known as a global innovator in EV batteries, energy storage, and propulsion. Straubel played a leading role in developing the company’s product line — guiding propulsion and software teams through the development of the Model S and Model X; fast-charging capabilities before the Supercharger network was developed; and stationary energy products long before Tesla acquired SolarCity. His leadership in developing the Powerwall and Powerpack energy storage products have brought in a steady stream of cashflow for the company.

Martin Eberhard is another true believer in innovative battery technology setting the pace for the race against internal combustion engines. He’s launching yet another electric vehicle battery startup soon after selling his previous EV battery startup to new EV maker SF Motors to help them make their own electric cars. 

Eberhard has stayed very active in the EV space, having briefly led Volkswagen’s EV development group in the US. He then went over to Atieva, which became Lucid Motors, a builder of high-performance EVs gaining interest among fans of the technology.

After leaving Lucid in 2015, he launched his own startup, InEVit, that built battery packs for EVs. SF Motors, a China-backed EV startup, acquired InEVit in late 2017. Related: Battery Metals Face Looming Supply Crunch

Musk may have his own secret plan in place to develop next-gen EV batteries and reduce its dependency on battery partner, Panasonic. Musk and other Tesla executives have been looking for ways to develop an ample supply of battery packs to ramp up production and sales of the Model 3 and future high-volume models. It’s also cut into sales of the company’s profitable energy storage systems.

Musk told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in June that Tesla has been “battery-constrained” in the past. That could also include having his company make its own battery cells to make the company what Musk refers to as being “vertically integrated.” Musk would like for Tesla to own all of its systems and software, and not rely on partnerships.

For Straubel, it’s now his time to move on. He will likely have to do something creative and innovative with his mind and fascination with batteries of the future. He may end up being like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — askance from his old friend Bill Gates and later criticizing him in a book; but Allen has remained quite active in the world of high-tech products without taking on Microsoft in direct competition.

Straubel says he'll have to chill out for now, but will be coming back soon. He’ll always be an innovator.

“I love inventing and creating and building things and am at peace knowing that about myself and wanting to reorient my life,” Straubel said. “I'm decompressing for a bit and having a little break, but I will have more to say in a few weeks.”

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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