COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.–Tesla Motors Inc. co-founder and Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel took the stage Thursday morning at the CO-OP THiNK conference and showed the crowd of more than 600 credit union executives how they can learn from the uber-popular automaker that’s at the bleeding edge of technology.
Tesla expects to have one million cars on the road by 2020, creating 10 gigawatts of power demand, Straubel said, and it’s done so by following a few principles credit unions can also apply.
1. Streamline. Tesla engineers have devoted a lot of time reinventing what it’s like to drive a car, and that included changing the dashboard. “We said we’re going to throw away all the dials, all the knobs and switches in the cockpit,” Straubel explained. Manual, hard-wired designs are why infotainment systems in cars become obsolete so quickly; Tesla’s more efficient design, on the other hand, allows the company to keep its product – and its customers – up-to-date and even add features wirelessly.
2. Trust technology. Straubel, who noted he’s a member of a credit union in California, told the crowd there’s a huge fear of Tesla-level technology in the auto industry. “They treat it as this thing that is to be contained,” he said. Traditional auto companies don’t feel they can rely on software, he found, and the conflict highlights a stark difference between Tesla and the rest of the auto industry: One is run by people with modern technology backgrounds; the other is run by people with old-school mechanical backgrounds.
3. Leverage your existing product offerings. Tesla began with cars and car batteries; last week it launched Tesla Energy, which is developing residential, commercial and utility batteries. This is a further threat to the conventional utility industry, Straubel said, because the company is taking its original technology and evolving it to become what is essentially a smart grid. But all the products are connected because it applies the company’s technology in new ways.
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4. Form strange alliances, maybe even with competitors. Tesla is actively pursuing collaborations with local utilities – the very industry it is disrupting. “We have a natural partnership,” Straubel explained. “If we don’t have electricity, we can’t run the car.” Both parties know the present and potential impact of Tesla’s auto, commercial and home batteries on the electricity grid, as well as how it builds charging stations. “We can scare the utilities and also get them very excited,” he said.
5. Take a big leap of faith. Betting the farm on electric cars isn’t just about getting people to drive battery-powered cards; it means getting them used to charging instead of filling up. It’s a hard habit to change, especially because it started out as an overnight activity, Straubel said (it now takes about 10 minutes). Tesla needed to figure out how to develop a network of charging stations that would enable people to drive their cars long distances, so it experimented by building a few in California. It studied where customers wanted to go, too. “We had a whole team out literally driving down highway routes,” he said. Now it’s opening a station every 24 hours and plans to have 300 by the end of 2015. “It’s outgrown our wildest expectations two years ago,” he said. It’s an example of looking at where the market might go and guessing at where technology could go, he said, and then taking a leap of faith.
6. Don’t wait forever. One of Tesla’s foremost strategies is to build its own batteries, and that’s partially because suppliers just can’t provide what the company needs. It didn’t wait for things to turn; it launched plans to build its own gigafactory in Nevada. “We had to go into the supply chain and find a way to pull the supply chain faster,” he said. By vertically integrating and scaling up, the company plans to drive down the cost of its batteries, Straubel noted. “Anytime there’s a technology shift, there’s an opportunity for new companies to take hold,” he said. “It’s there for all the exiting organizations to grab, but they have to grab it,” he said.