JB Strubel, chief technology officer at Tesla, attended the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany this week. Straubel has been with Tesla and Elon Musk since the beginning and has been deeply involved in every aspect of the company’s growth. Prior to the decision to build the Tesla Model S electric car, Straubel tried to convince Musk to build electric airplanes instead of cars.
Straubel has had a huge influence on the design of the Tesla Gigafactory under construction in Nevada. That manufacturing facility was planned from the beginning to be one of the most sustainable manufacturing facilities on earth. It’s enormous roof will be covered with solar panels. When complete. it will be a net zero facility, meaning it will generate more electricity than it uses over the course of a year. It will also be a zero emissions factory — an extraordinary achievement for such a gigantic factory.
Straubel’s remarks in Leipzig were video taped. You can see the entire video below, but the folks at Electrek have transcribed relevant portions of it. Here is some of what Straubel had to say to his audience.
On Using Hydrogen For Transportation
Straubel agrees with most critics of fuel cell technology. “I am not a fan of hydrogen. I do not see a future for hydrogen as a transportation fuel. The efficiency from going to the primary energy source, wherever you are creating the hydrogen – whether it’s solar, wind and hopefully it is sustainable – going all the way to the energy consumed in the vehicle is very inefficient.
“I think it is kind of an intellectually attractive idea because I see everyone saying ‘hydrogen is abundant, it’s just like water’, but those are totally irrelevant points for using hydrogen in transportation. What you need to look at is the efficiency of going from primary energy to consumed energy, and hydrogen vehicles use roughly three times more than an electric vehicle. That’s a fundamentally a tough limit. If all the other economic issues can be sorted out, you end up in a place that’s going three times more per mile to drive and has a three times more environmental footprint.
“There’s also a very tough infrastructure problem with hydrogen vehicles that no one has been able to solve. In my home state in California, there’s a big effort to try to promote hydrogen vehicles, but the infrastructure has lagged behind. The difficulty of putting a hydrogen fueling station is extreme – the permitting process, people don’t want them in their neighborhood – we have something like 5 or 10 stations in the entire state. That’s over years of development, they haven’t been able to expand it rapidly.
“I think there’s a really tough chicken and egg problem here. I don’t see the future. I believe batteries will end up improving faster and making hydrogen a bit irrelevant.”
On Autonomous Driving Technology
Straubel told the conference that developments in autonomous driving technology are happening “ridiculously fast.”
“Also in software and controls. I didn’t touch on that before, but that’s a field that’s incredibly exciting and changing faster than the energy storage space. All the technologies around sensors and mobile computing power that can live onboard the car, and the software that can do imagine recognition — taking the signal from those cameras and then turn them into something very usable for the computer in the car to control itself with.”
Is There A Tesla Truck In Your Future?
Straubel’s remarks on this subject make it seem that the idea of a Tesla truck is one that has received more than casual consideration. “I can’t say too much about the new products and the things we are developing, but from a pure technology point of view, everything that we’ve done on vehicles translates directly into trucks. There’s no reason that today you can’t make a very compelling electric truck. They can charge at same sort of times as a Model S — as one of our passenger vehicles — and have the same economy of operation.
“That sector hasn’t seen the same type of innovation. It’s a bit more conservative and obviously people don’t want to take risks on the end business, which is to move kilograms from A to B, but I think we will see that coming back – especially perhaps as fuel prices tend to rebound. You know there was a lot more interest in this a few years ago when fuel prices were much higher.”
JB Straubel tends to fly under the radar compared to highly visible Elon Musk, but he is at the core of everything that is happening at Tesla. A polished and effective speaker, his words offer insights into what is going on behind the scenes at Tesla Motors.