Elon Musk Calms Down, and More From Tesla's Shareholder Meeting

When Elon Musk was a kid, he had so much trouble managing his time, that his younger brother Kimbal would lie to him about the bus schedule. Elon would show up a few minutes after the supposed arrival—and have just enough time to hop aboard. A few decades on, the whole world knows about Elon’s habit of blowing deadlines. And he admits it can be a problem.

“This is something I’m trying to get better at,” he said from the stage of Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum on Tuesday afternoon, at Tesla’s annual shareholders meeting. “I’m trying to recalibrate these estimates.”

A few days after a Twitter rage fest aimed at the media, a month after refusing to answer questions about Tesla’s financial state during an investors’ call, and two months after getting in a public spat with the feds investigating a deadly crash in one of his cars, Musk’s attitude when he appeared before his fellow shareholders was conciliatory. He even seemed emotional at times. “We build our cares with love,” he said, with a slight quaver in his voice. And he noted how brutal the auto industry can be, especially to newcomers. “It’s insanely hard just staying alive.”

For an hour and a half, Musk patiently fielded questions on just about every part of Tesla’s sprawling business. He said the Model 3 production rate will hit the long-promised 5,000 cars a week rate later this month, predicted an enormous increase in battery production, announced upgrades to the Autopilot semi-autonomous system, and even appeased PETA. If you missed the meeting, here are the key takeaways.

Elon Retains the Reins

The official business of the meeting included voting on the reelection of venture capitalist Antonio Gracias, Elon’s bus-catching brother Kimbal, and 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch to Tesla’s board of directors. (Only a third of the nine board members come up for election at a time—it’s like the US Senate that way.) Last month, activist investor the CtW Group urged Tesla shareholders to replace the trio with people who had automotive and manufacturing expertise. Another investor, Jing Zhao, filed a proposal to strip Musk of his position as Tesla’s chairman, which he has held since 2004 (he took the CEO job in 2008). But the shareholders stuck with Musk, reelecting the board members and nixing the leadership change by an overwhelming majority. (Tesla will file the exact vote count with the SEC in the next few days.)

The loss didn’t surprise CtW executive director Dieter Waizenegger, who argues control of Tesla is too concentrated in people tied to Musk. “This opinion is shared by a significant number of shareholders of Tesla,” he says. “We expect the final vote tally to reveal that.” Even if he’s right, Musk remains fully in charge.

More Model 3

Musk’s acknowledgement of his timeline trouble didn’t stop him from announcing that, by the end of the month, Tesla will be building 5,000 Model 3 sedans every week, which should be enough to start turning a profit on the car. The uptick is thanks to Tesla’s rebalancing of the workload between humans and robots in its factory in Fremont, California, where the company is adding a third Model 3 production line. It is also planning to open a factory in China, to go with its plants in Fremont and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Tesla is gradually expanding options for Model 3 owners, who so far have been limited to the version with an upgraded battery and premium interior, which starts at $56,000. By the end of this year, Musk hopes to start production of the version closer to the car’s $35,000 base price, with the smaller battery pack. Also coming soon: right hand drive.

New Products

Even as it struggles to build the Model 3, Tesla is planning on three new vehicles: the Semi truck, the revived Roadster, and the still mysterious Model Y. Musk told shareholders he’s hoping to start production of all three in the first half of 2020, though he has yet to specify where he’ll do that, or how. He’ll unveil the Model Y in March (it will be “something super special”), and expects the truck and the sports car to deliver better specs than the already very impressive numbers he announced last fall. Oh, and he’ll never build an electric motorcycle.

Autopilot Advances

Without getting into details, Musk said Tesla is making steady progress to improve its Autopilot feature, and is now working on adding the ability to change lanes and handle highway on- and off-ramps (Musk noted he was testing new software around 1 am this morning). For drivers who aren’t sure they want to spend $5,000 on the feature, Tesla will soon start offering free trials. Musk also reaffirmed his distaste for lidar, the laser shooting sensor most autonomous vehicle developers say is key to building a safe, capable robo-car.

SuperChargers

Tesla now runs nearly 10,000 Supercharger stations around the world, the stations where its drivers (and no one else) can plug in and charge a depleted battery to about 80 percent in 30 minutes. And Musk is working to keep improving charge times, saying a three- or four-fold improvement is possible. (That’s only true for relatively new cars, he added, disappointing the 2012 Model S owner who asked him about it.)

Going Vegan

Unlike many automakers, Tesla has been offering leather-free versions of its cars for years, appealing to its vegan and vegetarian fans. But it’s still using some leather in its steering wheels, and a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rep took the mic to press Musk on it. He explained Tesla can make leather-free steering wheels, but the work has to be done it its design studio, making it something of a pain. But he promised it’ll be easier once the Model Y comes around. Now he’s just gotta hit that 2020 goal.


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