The Church of Elon Musk Is Open for Business
Who are the people driving Tesla's energy revolution? We went to the Gigafactory's opening party to find out.
Image: Jason Koebler
Moments before Elon Musk stepped onto a temporary stage to address his most ardent disciples, his handlers gave him a pep talk: "Smile a lot, yeah, smile a lot," they told him. "Everything is awesome … if you look happy, everyone will be happy."
The music, some nondescript kick drum electronic stuff, faded out and the crowd, already liquored up on Nevada-brewed IPAs and punch, screamed as he walked from the Nevada desert into the white pop-up tent Tesla had set up for the occasion. Musk stepped on stage, and was received as if he were the Bieber for dads, a Beatle for Silicon Valley engineers.
"I LOVE YOU ELON," a male voice shouted from somewhere among the 2,000 pairs of khaki shorts that had crammed into the tent. "YOU'RE A HERO," someone screamed. It was clear from the outset that the people would be happy regardless of what the 45-year-old head of Tesla and SpaceX did or said.
The Tesla Gigafactory, his long-awaited temple of energy, was finally open, and this was the party to celebrate the beginning of the future of transportation, perhaps the beginning of the future of energy. At the very least, it's going to be the future of Musk's electric car company. The Gigafactory will produce the lithium ion batteries that will power Musk's cars, as well as produce batteries that will store energy for houses and businesses; paired with solar panels made by SolarCity, which Tesla just acquired for $2.6 billion, it will turn each home or business into a small utility company. The Gigafactory is the key component to the Tesla "master plan" of ending the world's reliance on fossil fuels.
Musk launched into his sermon, or, kind of ambled into it. He's not a bad public speaker, but he certainly makes up for his lack of polish with an unparalleled command of the science he's preaching and a bit of humility and relatableness. The crowd hung on his every word and, at times, shouted them back at him.
"The basic math was that in order to make half million cars a year, we need every lithium ion battery factory on earth that makes batteries for phones, laptops, cars, everything, just to achieve that output," Musk said. "It's like, well, clearly that's not being built because you'd be able to see it on a satellite picture … We said uhh, 'OK, we start building this thing and hopefully people will buy into it and start to believe.'"
"WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEEEEEVEEEE!" someone shouted. "SAVE THE WORLD!"
It was a tent revival in every sense of the word, and the thing this pastor hopes to revive is the hope of a sustainable future on Earth.
"Just spread the message," Musk said to close out his half-hour speech. "I know you guys think global warming is real, but the crazy thing is a lot of people out there don't. It blows my mind. There's a nonstop propaganda campaign from the fossil fuel industry because they're just defending themselves. It's what you'd expect, but it's nonstop. They have a thousand times more money than we do, so I think—this revolution is going to come from the people."
This word, "revolution," stuck with me. Musk, with Tesla, and SolarCity, and SpaceX, is trying to make the future great again, to borrow a phrase from a certain presidential candidate. But how do you start a revolution when your primary customers are—let's face it—rich people?
This is a criticism Musk has faced over and over again, and the two "Master Plans" he's written for Tesla do a good job of addressing that criticism: The general plan is to use expensive cars to fund the creation of less expensive cars, which will fall in price as economies of scale kick in.
Car batteries can also be used as home energy storage batteries to balance solar power loads, so while he's pushing cars off of fossil fuels, he can also push homes and businesses off of them, too. It's a trickle-down revolution, if you will.
"Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people, implying that we felt there was a shortage of sports car companies or some other bizarre rationale," Musk wrote last month in the second part of his Master Plan blog. "Unfortunately, the blog didn't stop countless attack articles on exactly these grounds, so it pretty much completely failed that objective."
Musk may not care about making cars just for rich people, but it's a revolution that inherently relies on the well-off to start it. Under the model, the revolution can't happen if the rich people don't care about the cars he's making for them. And so I went to Sparks, Nevada to figure out what the average Church of Musk member is like.
The 2,000 people at the Gigafactory opening party were the most pious believers of Musk's plan, or at least the most well-connected. Being able to convince five friends to buy a Tesla was the required amount of evangelism to guarantee two tickets to the event. Others, who were either Tesla owners or had preordered the upcoming Model 3, were lucky enough to win a lottery or had gotten in as a plus one to someone who scored an invite.
Tesla invited me to the party and allowed me to drive a Model X all day to get a sense of what all the fuss is about. (Motherboard paid for my transportation and accommodations.) Before my journey had even started, a Tesla spokesperson and I were approached in the Model X by a man in his 40s wearing a polo shirt and shorts. "Is this our shuttle for the event?" he asked. (It wasn't—shuttles were normal fossil fuel buses; Musk does plan on building a Tesla minibus in the near future.) "Are you an owner?" she responded. "Got two of them. Best cars in the world. Wouldn't think of buying anything else."
I quickly realized that in buying a Tesla, you're buying your way into a community, giving yourself an identity as a person who owns and drives a space car, who cares about the future, who probably doesn't get any joy out of performing car maintenance or changing oil. You will become a person who uses the word "frunk" without laughing and probably stores groceries where most people who expect the engine to be. A person who takes their car to renewable energy-powered charging stations called Superchargers, where you can talk to other Tesla owners about the joys of Tesla ownership.
Tesla has sold a total of roughly 140,000 electric Roadster sports cars, Model S sedans, and Model X SUVs so far, and has taken about 373,000 preorders for the Model 3, which starts at $35,000, so Tesla's club is still made up of a relatively small group of people. For comparison, Ford sold 2.6 million cars in 2015 alone.
I felt sheepish getting into and out of the car. I parked for lunch in what I wasn't sure was a legal spot and was certain when I returned, I'd find a note disparaging me for driving a spaceship around town.
It's easy to see why people feel passionate about the company. Driving a Tesla and talking about the experience is no longer terribly interesting, but let's get this out of the way—the Tesla Model X is easily the best car I've ever driven. I didn't have to deal with "range anxiety," which is the sense that your battery might die on a road trip, or any of the reported reliability or maintenance issues, so I was free to just gun the thing up and down the tree-lined mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe.
The windshield is gigantic, which makes it feel roomier than it actually is, the car's 0-60 speed of 3.2 seconds is faster than many roller coaster launches, the lithium ion battery pulls its center of gravity below the middle of its tires making it essentially unflippable and incredibly maneuverable. Everything—including the suspension and brake sensitivity—is customizable with a few touchscreen presses; the backseat doors open straight up like some sort of extraterrestrial vehicle; and the car can drive itself with a combination of radar, outward-facing cameras, and what feels like black magic. More importantly, its 45-65 speed is essentially instantaneous, making passing people and shooting small gaps—if you're being a jerk—completely effortless.
Comparing it to my rarely driven 2000 Honda Accord, which has 201,000 miles on it and struggles to get into first gear or reverse (it's an automatic), is essentially impossible. Comparing it to more reasonable cars… well, it's quicker, it's more fun, it feels safer, it feels like the future. I felt kind of like I did when I first tried out an iPhone while I was stuck with a flip phone and my most technosavvy friends were using cutting-edge Sidekicks. They're all phones, but only sorta. The Tesla was a joy to drive, at least for a day.
I felt sheepish getting into and out of the car. I parked for lunch in what I wasn't sure was a legal spot and was certain that I would not only be towed, but that when I returned, I'd find a note disparaging my audacity to drive a spaceship around town and park it wherever I wanted. I was ultra-polite in traffic, signaling to sneak into a lane, waving extra as if to say yes, I'm driving this insane machine and it is technically under my power but I'm really just a phony. My other ride is a bike, please take care not to door me should you see me in Brooklyn. Those are probably insane thoughts, but I think I felt this way because the car was unlike anything else on the road.
"You're standing in the middle of the factory right now," Musk told us in the tent. We were at least, oh, 1,000 feet or so outside the factory's temporary walls.
In any case, people kept commenting on the car: "Is that a Tesla?" "Wow! A Tesla!" When I got out of the car at my hotel, a man named Bob got out of his Model S and walked up to me—"You drive that thing here?"
I told him I hadn't, but Bob quickly offered that he'd driven his from the East Coast. "You haven't road tripped 'til you've road tripped in a Tesla," he told me. "Did you race it while you had it?"
I learned from Bob that just about every Tesla owner, has raced his or her car; in Bob's case, he'd crushed a Camaro off a traffic light down a desolate straightaway before the Camaro's higher top end eventually pulled ahead of him. I heard stories like this all night, regardless of how shy or unassuming the person I was talking to seemed. People love racing their damn Teslas, and people love telling each other about their Teslas. Bob didn't particularly seem like a revolutionary, but he was an evangelist.
The Gigafactory is this revolution's home base, its command center. The company literally moved mountains—excavating parts of the Nevada foothills to fit its massive footprint. Right now, the Gigafactory (which is called that because it will eventually produce many gigawatts of energy storage) covers a space of about 14 football fields. When it's done, at about 6 million square feet, it'll have the largest footprint of any building in the world. It will have a larger footprint than Vatican City, which is about 4.7 million square feet. It will cover 107 football fields; Musk said it will fit "50 billion hamsters."
"You're standing in the middle of the factory right now," Musk told us in the tent. We were at least, oh, 1,000 feet or so outside the factory's temporary walls, which are disassembled and reassembled as the factory envelops the pavement surrounding it.
Right now, it's big, but not unfathomably big. From afar, it looks like a large white building with a red racing stripe around the top—there's no sense in being romantic about it. It's just a big building.
Naturally, a tour of the Gigafactory was the main attraction of the Gigafactory opening party; guests, mainly driving Teslas or, dreadfully, rented gas-powered cars, lined up about an hour before the main gates opened. They got out of their cars and stood on the highway chatting with each other, anxiously waiting for their look inside.
The guests on my tour—a Tesla podcaster from Canada, a retired couple, a few men who made incessant dad jokes, probably because they are dads—were positively giddy throughout the whole thing.
"Are you going to put a casino in?" one guy asked before we'd even entered. Later, another briefly took over for the tour guide: "These things are, there's lasers in there, and there's sharks in this machine. They put the lasers on the sharks, and the sharks make the battery." I rolled my eyes, but smiled, a little.
"It makes sense for railcars of raw materials to come into one side and for finished vehicles to exit the other side."
Many of the Gigafactory's rooms are empty or under construction, many of its machines aren't yet functioning. There are robots everywhere, and, in the parts we saw, employees seemed to primarily supervise the robots. The robots talk: "Welcome to Tesla," an R2D2-looking bot that lifts up pallets of battery cells said to me. The robots sing, too—one plays the Indiana Jones theme song to signal to workers to get out of the way. "That's a robot that plays Indiana Jones and brings pizza to the workers," joked a dad. When no one responded, he repeated himself.
The Gigafactory is currently being used to put together Tesla Powerpacks and Powerwalls, which are batteries that store energy for use in your house or business. Paired with solar panels that can charge the batteries during the day so you can use them at night, they might one day be able to take your home off the power grid entirely. Musk estimates that as demand for stationary power storage increases, about half of the Gigafactory's business will be making Powerpacks and Powerwalls.
So far, the factory isn't turning raw materials into batteries. Actual battery production is scheduled to start before the end of the year. The plan for future Gigafactories, Musk says, is to push raw materials into one side and have finished cars come out the other.
If Tesla used, say "a bumper from a Honda, a steering wheel from this, you know, a motor from somewhere else—it wouldn't make any sense to make a car from bits and pieces of other cars," Musk said. "You need to design a car as an integrated product from the ground up."
Musk has long railed against the supply chain status quo of manufacturing. He says it creates bloat, makes things more expensive, less reliable, and is worse for the environment. It's why SpaceX makes almost every part of its rocket in house, which Musk says ultimately brings the price of launches down.
He's trying to do the same thing with Tesla—when a guest asks for a Model 3 update, he notes that the design of the factory is the most important part of manufacturing a cheaper electric car. Top-down integration is something he's emphasized to all of his employees. When I note to a Tesla employee that it seems a bit ironic that, in order to make things more sustainable, Tesla had to build one of the largest buildings on Earth, she responds that the real waste, comes from manufacturing and shipping small components across many small factories all over the world.
"The integration is important because think of how long a journey that molecule took from where it was mined. If it was mined in one part of the world, then went halfway across the world to get processed and then back halfway across the world to get assembled, that's obviously just a fuck—" Musk stops himself.
A slip, maybe. But probably not. The crowd roars in laughter and approval.
"It's fundamentally going to be expensive," he continues. "You can't send things on round the world trips and expect it to be cheap or affordable."
Because Tesla has a separate car assembly plant in Fremont, California, the first Gigafactory will only be used to make batteries, but if all goes according to plan, he notes that "it makes sense for railcars of raw materials to come into one side and for finished vehicles to exit the other side."
A man tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I move if I didn't want to get crushed
Musk says the Gigafactory is a "machine," a highly engineered Tesla product like any other. Some of the innovations seem cutting-edge: Putting all the production under one roof, for instance. Some of them seem like no-brainers that are being touted because it sounds impressive: Using plastic boxes to move battery cells around the factory will save "32 pounds of cardboard per palette," our tour guide says, pointing to a battery cell. The dad makes a joke.
After the tour, we returned to Elon Musk's revival tent. Appropriately, we soon got some Biblical weather. What started as a small drizzle on my half-hour drive from Reno to the Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, turned into a sandstorm, which turned into a downpour and lightning storm. The metal light fixtures affixed to the top of the tent swung back and forth to the point where I wasn't terribly comfortable being near them—a man tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I move if I didn't want to get crushed. An engineer in a hard hat climbed on a ladder and inspected the tent to make sure we weren't going to get blown away.
A Tesla employee told me the company was going for a "Burning Man vibe," perhaps explaining the sandy colored carpet. Burning Man, it should be noted, is famous for its sandstorms and creeping Silicon Valley influence, so the company succeeded on that front. Burning Man is less famous for its palm trees and faux wood paneling, which the Tesla party had plenty of.
The lights and the tent held, the rain only lasted about a half hour, the palm trees and faux wood were actually pretty nice, and we were rewarded with a desert rainbow that lofted itself over the factory.
It wasn't a particularly formal affair, but it wasn't super casual either. There was a mix of geeks with long shorts and high socks, men in button downs and khakis, Tesla superfans with branded swag, women in cocktail dresses. The vibe was fun—people were happy to geek out as they waited in the long lines for factory tours, for Tesla test drives, for food.
That doesn't mean they weren't opportunistic: Trays of salami and bread were ransacked by men in cargo shorts who seemed unsure if they'd ever get the chance to eat again. The first few people in line would take too many slices of salami and go huddle under a palm tree and share their spoils with their families, Lord of the Flies-style. Food was refilled sparingly throughout, but booze lines remained short and, from what I could tell, they didn't run out liquor, wine, or beer. The party lasted past midnight, though it thinned noticeably after Musk's remarks at 9 PM.
A computer programmer from Beijing told me it was an event that happens "once every hundred years."
The cover band breezed through an instrumental version of "Creep," a slowed down version of "Gin and Juice," and, at one point, the frontman used an iPhone as a voice modulator.
Customers gladly flew in from Germany, from Beijing, from Canada, from Japan. A computer programmer from Beijing told me it was an event that happens "once every hundred years." A guy who'd come out from Virginia told me it was a "once in a lifetime experience." No one mentioned that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating a traffic accident in which a Tesla passenger died while autopilot was engaged, or that Tesla has notoriously missed its deadlines, or that more than 12,000 people have canceled their Model 3 preorders.
To have a revolution, you need to excite the people. Musk has no problem whatsoever in exciting this crowd—loosened up by alcohol, they're even more rambunctious than the group of college students I saw him address back in March, at a hyperloop conference.
But will convincing people who can afford $70,000 cars be enough? The revolution is starting with programmers, middle managers, entrepreneurs, retirees. The Tesla owners at the party are mostly men, are mostly white, are mostly involved in tech, are highly invested in the culture owning the car gives to them, and know the difference between the Tesla that can go 0-60 in 2.8 seconds and the Tesla that can go 0-60 in 4.2 seconds.
Will that enthusiasm radiate out to other segments of the population? The Model 3, slated to come out in late 2017, will help.
For now, he's telling people what they want to hear. He takes questions for 20 minutes after his short speech. Will Tesla and SpaceX put electric cars on Mars? Of course it will. Will Tesla build electric ships? Not right now, "but if no else does ships, then we'll do ships." Musk is halfway through explaining how he wants to turn Teslas into fleets of Uber-like robotaxis when they're not in use, allowing you to collect some of the profits. "This has potential to massively amplify the utility of vehicles and offset the cost of ownership," he says.
Someone in the crowd interrupts him: "Will it find Pokémon for us?"
"It'll find Pokémon for you, of course," Musk jokes. The crowd goes nuts.