Hokuto Ueda, a Harvard Business School grad who oversaw the launch of the Tesla Model S and the Gigafactory, describes what it’s like launching a new vehicle at Tesla. He says “the atmosphere is definitely intense” at Tesla as engineers scramble to cross the finish line with the first examples of a new vehicle. The electric-car company plans to deliver the first 30 Model 3 cars on Friday at its Fremont, California, factory.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is getting ready to hand over the first batch of Model 3s to owners this week. And with 30 of those cars scheduled to come off the electric-car maker’s assembly line in Fremont, California, it’s safe to assume employees are living and breathing all things Model 3 as the clock winds down.
Tesla has been here before – three times before, in fact – with the Roadster, the Model S, and the Model X. For Tesla engineers and for Musk, shepherding a new vehicle from prototype to production is a labor of four equal but opposite elements: innovation, creativity, grit, and hustle.
In part because of a level of secrecy matched only by Apple, it is not possible to know exactly what’s happening inside Tesla while those first 30 Model 3s are being built, but a former Tesla employee who managed the launch of the Model S offered some insight into what’s going on behind Tesla’s factory doors.
Hokuto Ueda, a Harvard Business School graduate who was on the team that took the Model S from prototype to delivery and launched Tesla’s Gigafactory, told Business Insider it was a “surreal” experience.
“The atmosphere is definitely intense,” Ueda said. “When I was launch manager there, every goal, every timeline that Elon set for us seemed impossible. When he set it out, it was like, dude, there’s no way that’s gonna happen.
“But, close to launch, you’re seeing the finish line. Long hours to try to cross that finish line, but it’s also very exciting.”
Ueda started at Tesla as an engineering intern, preparing the first prototype of the Model S in 2010, later building the Fremont factory and launching Model S production. He left Tesla after five years in 2015 as one of the founders of Drivemode, a Panasonic-backed startup whose app turns smartphones into infotainment systems for cars that don’t have the latest tech. The Model 3 has now joined the existing platforms on Fremont’s assembly lines.
- Screenshot via Elon Musk
“The biggest challenge of building that factory,” Ueda told Business Insider, “was that we were going from planning stages of the Model S to production in less than two years.”
“The typical car model takes three to five years to launch – and that’s without having to build a brand-new factory around it and with existing, known technology, not a brand-new EV,” he said, adding that his team worked around the clock when the first Model S cars were being assembled.
“You’re literally in the factory all day and all night - we ordered pizza and sandwiches for dinner – and then you go home for a few hours and come back and do it all again, but we had fun doing it,” Ueda said. “It was an extremely positive experience. I felt like everyone was committed to making that happen.”
- Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider
Ueda said the team building the first Model 3s was most likely feeling some pressure. Indeed, the mandate for the Model 3 is far greater. Tesla has taken no fewer than 400,000 orders for the entry-level, $35,000 electric sedan. A successful launch, Ueda said, will ultimately come down to the employees’ hustle inside the factory and Musk’s leadership.
“I think to be part of something like that is special and it’s what keeps people going, and I think that’s what’s special about Elon and his leadership style, is the ability to really get people to feel like they’re making history, they’re a part of history – and that sort of brings 110% out of everybody,” Ueda said.
The Model 3, however, will require Tesla to build lots and lots (and lots) more cars than the company has before. Tesla delivered 76,230 vehicles in 2016, just shy of its own projections, so Tesla’s goal to produce 20,000 Model 3s per month by December – and potentially fulfilling hundreds of thousands more Model 3 orders while still cranking out Model S and Model X vehicles – resembles another of those “impossible” goals Ueda spoke of previously.
Nevertheless, the former Tesla engineer remains confident in Musk and his team: “The goal he had set for you seemed insurmountable in the beginning, and then you’re actually delivering a car on time, and that just sort of reframes your thinking around what is possible and not possible.”
“Still, the first cars are the first cars,” Ueda said. “Then, suddenly, you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, I gotta make a whole lot more of these.'”