Turmoil at Tesla
Many electric vehicle enthusiasts have pinned their hopes for an EV future on the startup company, Tesla Motors. When Tesla recently began a drastic “staff restructuring” effort which some have called a “bloodbath,” many fans grew anxious to say the least. Is Tesla in trouble? Are they changing the company goals and priorities? Or are they simply taking the painful steps required to transition from a startup to a full blown manufacturing company? I desperately wanted answers to these questions, so I did a bit of research and made a few phone calls.
On January 10, 2008, the Tesla Founders Blog published a list of employees who had recently been terminated from Tesla. This list included multiple vice presidents, lead engineers, and a variety of other folks from all areas of the Tesla organization. The blogosphere erupted in speculation about the future of the company. A few days later, an unidentified individual contacted the blog owner, ex-Tesla CEO Martin Eberhard, and convinced him to remove the names from the termination list he had published. On January 19, the blog removed the entire entry, stating that “it was explained to me that Tesla and its financial backer(s) can spend far more than I can on a lawsuit.” Websites which had reprinted the original list were also contacted and asked to remove the names on the list.
I contacted Darryl Siry, Vice President of Marketing, Sales & Service at Tesla, and asked him point-blank if Tesla is going down in flames. “Quite the contrary!” he replied, “Tesla is in great shape and we will be the first company to offer a production EV in a long while… Everyone at the company is working very hard to achieve our mission and focused on delivering cars to customers.”
I asked him, “What and who is motivating the employee purges?” He declined to answer, but stated that “the question is a mischaracterization of what went on.”
Regarding the company’s corporate philosophy, Siry commented, “The corporate philosophy is the same as it has always been. We are committed to building an independent car company that produces the best EVs that combine great design, performance and the best possible efficiency. I would also point out that the vast majority of the staff remains the same as it was before - we are a company of well over 200 employees and continue to grow.”
In order to get an alternative viewpoint, I contacted an ex-Tesla employee who wished to remain anonymous. Over the course of the phone call, I got the distinct impression that company chairman, Elon Musk, has adopted a firm “my way or the highway” attitude toward staff relations. Having a visionary like Musk at the helm certainly has its benefits, but my anonymous source expressed concern that the recent staff changes had eliminated many of the members of Tesla’s management team with real-world experience in designing and building products for mass production. My source did not doubt that those left were smart and capable, he simply pointed out that they had much to learn in terms of accomplishing the manufacturing goals Tesla has set for itself.
Throughout these events, rumors have been circulating that Tesla is on the verge of canceling its program to develop an electric sedan, code-named “Whitestar.” Siry denied this speculation, assuring me that the project is “still active.”
Thank goodness! To me, the Tesla Roadster is a wonderful toy with just enough “bling” to get the company into the media spotlight. However, if the company is really going to change the future, it is going to have to give us a viable replacement for the Toyota Camry/Honda Accord/Chevy Malibu-type family sedan. The Whitestar represents Tesla’s first major step in that direction, especially if rumors that it will be a plug-in hybrid are true. The day I hear confirmation that Tesla is killing the Whitestar is the day I will believe that Tesla has given up hopes of becoming a viable automobile company.
Until then, I will keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.
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