Sunday, March 2, 2014

'Auto-pilot' cars next up for Tesla's Elon Musk

Disclosure: Long $TSLA and $SCTY
Mar 1 at 00:01

By David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

      March 01--Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk may be a billionaire several
times over but he also personifies the rather precarious nature of success in
Silicon Valley, where the line between goat and genius often blurs.
      Speaking at a recent panel discussion in San Francisco, Musk told the
audience that his high-powered electric-car company had come within "a few days"
of bankruptcy at the end of 2008. Without missing a beat, he later described
plans to build battery-swapping stations for Tesla's popular Model S sedan and
outlined his vision for self-driving cars.
      Within the next few months, Tesla will open a facility for replacing car
batteries rather than recharging them at one of the company's "Supercharger"
stations. Tesla demonstrated the idea in June, showing how an automated process
could remove and replace the car's battery pack in 90 seconds.

      "We plan to implement that between L.A. and San Francisco to start off,
and then see what the customer interest is and what percentage of people use
that versus supercharging," Musk said. "We're a little late on that, because we
got preoccupied on a few other issues."
      He also said the company would introduce "in the next couple of years"
technology similar to Google's self-driving car. But Musk noted that the cars
would not be fully autonomous.
      "I think what we'll have is what we call 'auto pilot,' similar to what you
have in an aircraft. You still have a driver, but you massively reduce driver
workload and effectively improve safety and just make it easier to go from one
place to another," he said. "I think we'll have some pretty exciting things in
terms of the auto-pilot capability in the next couple of years from Tesla. ...
But I think we'll need drivers, just as we need pilots, for quite a long time in
the future."
      That anyone would care about anything Musk has to say seems remarkable
given Tesla's brush with mortality six years ago. Even more striking, the
42-year-old entrepreneur actually thought Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX -- his
most famous creations -- would fail.
      "With Tesla, we had multiple near-death experiences," he said. "What are
the odds of a car company succeeding? Pretty darn low. And in fact, at Tesla we
came within a few days of being bankrupt. We closed the financing round at the
end of 2008 in the last hour of the last day in which it was possible to do
that, which was basically 6 p.m., Christmas Eve, 2008. We would have gone
bankrupt a few days after Christmas. So these were real close calls."
      Reports at the time said Tesla was down to its last $9 million. But to
be fair, many companies faced failure as the Great Recession began to wreak
havoc on the American economy in late 2008.
      But Tesla has produced two electric-car models, bought a factory in
Fremont, collected a spate of awards for the Model S, gone public and watched
its stock price soar. With survival no longer in question, Musk can turn his
attention to other pursuits.

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