JB Straubel Talks Trucks, Hydrogen, And Autonomous Technology


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.

JB Straubel speaks at ITF

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.

Source: Electrek

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • neroden

    Straubel is great and even more dedicated to Tesla than Musk.

    Musk is… just a little bit wiser. Musk recognized that an electric car could be done *now*, profitably, and an electric airplane could not yet.

    • Mike Dill

      Musk has stated that electric passenger planes start to make sense commercially at about 400w/kg. Current Tesla battery packs are at about half that (as far as I know). Small short range private electric airplanes are starting to be built, but are not yet on the public radar.

  • evfan

    I do not think I will ever drive a hydrogen powered car. BEV works great for me, thanks

    Having said that, I believe there is are applications where hydrogen power works well, such as large, long distance vehicles.

    People are too quick to dismiss hydrogen, for instance “hydrogen vehicles use roughly three times more [energy] than an electric vehicle”.

    If somebody tries to build a long range semi-truck that is battery powered, it will be super big and heavy and might even use more energy than a hydrogen semi.

    Also, this week Germany was in a position where it had a surplus of solar energy. When that happens again, it is ok to make hydrogen from the surplus solar.

    • Radical Ignorant

      You saved me the typing. Long range heavy vehicles is where density is as important as efficiency.
      However there was a study which expected batteries to get to gas level of energy density in 2045. So maybe we are wrong.

      • Steve Hanley

        Density vs efficiency. Excellent insight. The biggest gains in ridding the atmosphere of carbon pollution is in heavy vehicles like long range trucks. And don’t even get me started on ocean cargo vessels!

        • Radical Ignorant

          That’s exact reason why I love to read about this company started by one of guys from Tesla. They are developing gas turbine connected to electric motor. Initially for garbage trucks. Lately I heard they are doing it for buses or something. Before we get to battery density good enough for tractors some medium term solution is required. And having gas turbine working with constant optimal speed sounds like a good idea. Especially that IIRC natural gas is burning cheaper and cleaner than diesel.
          And don’t even get me started on ocean cargo vessels 😉

          • Steve Hanley

            The company is called Wrightspeed and its technology is absolutely brilliant! The gas turbine they have developed runs so clean, it does not need a catalytic converter to meet California emissions regs.

  • Marcel

    listened to the entire talk, found that everyone who spoke except for JB seemed to have an unrealistic view of how to the world should function. People are free to walk, cycle or drive and often it’s dictated by the local conditions. They say congestion, how is that going to change if you don’t have proper bike lanes or fast and efficient public transport? Yea, it’s easy for the Amsterdam woman bike initiative to boast about it, but the people before them setup the place to be a pleasure to explore by bike.

    That’s how they’ll achieve what they expect people to do, provide the infrastructure i.e. safe bike lanes where I’m not constantly concerned I’ll by run over by trucks driving 80 km/h down the road or public transport that’ll get me to work in roughly the same amount of time as my EV with less pollution, not more (sorry diesel buses are not clean). As it stands, public transport is saturated around here, no space to enter buses, no where to sit in trains, can’t walk through train stations and the prices are just so outrageous it’s not worth it.

    JB just talks the language I understand, the others are living in lalaland.

    • Steve Hanley

      Great comment, Marcel. Straubel is on his way to becoming a national treasure!