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Exclusive Interview: Tesla’s J.B. Straubel on Collaboration with Toyota

J.B. Straubel of Tesla Motors (center); with Greg Bernas, RAV4 EV chief engineer (left); and Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president and general manager, at the unveiling of the Toyota RAV4 EV in Los Angeles, May 2012.

In my review of the Toyota RAV4 EV in The New York Times this Sunday, I told the story of how Toyota and Tesla came together to create the vehicle. Toyota and Tesla are very different companies, so the meeting of the minds behind the scenes is fascinating. (As I wrote, the result is extraordinary: a spacious, powerful all-electric SUV with a consistent range of 120 to 130 miles.)

A lot of the background information, acquired through interviews with folks at Toyota and Tesla, didn’t make it into the paper. My interview with J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, was particularly interesting—but mostly ended up as background info. I thought readers of would like more of the details, so here are a few of the titillating excerpts from the interview (all in J.B.’s words).

How The Toyota-Tesla Collaboration Started:
Elon and I sit next to each other upstairs here. One day, Elon was in a conversation and put down the phone, looked over at me, and said, “That was Akio Toyoda’s office. He called and said he’d like to consider being friends.” That’s what lead to a deepening and strengthened relationship with Toyota. It was largely outreach and a brainchild of Akio—to consider if there is some synergy between these two companies.

Differences Between Corporate Cultures:
Tesla is much more entrepreneurial. Much faster paced. More steeped in electrical and electronics, software thinking and mindsets. We historically have not been as much an operational, or quality process, culture. We grew for years and years out of Silicon Valley. We’re a Silicon Valley technology start-up. It is today beginning to mature into an operational presence with the Model S and RAV4 launches, but especially when we started, it was not so much there.

Toyota, on the other hand, is super strong in program management, quality control, vendor management, supply chain management, and understanding customer-facing needs and the feedback into the production process. Their expertise is much more focused on vehicle integration, vehicle safety systems, and all the vehicle-side things.

Differences Between RAV4 EV and Tesla’s Upcoming Model X SUV:
The Model X and RAV4 are very different. They’re in completely different size classes and performance classes. The RAV4 is basically a compact SUV. It’s about the smallest SUV you can possibly get. The Model X is mid- to large-size. It has a whole other row of seats, and probably twice the power. [Also, it’s a four-wheel drive vehicle.] We don’t see the two vehicles as the same. The Model X has more of the performance and handling capabilities of a Q7.

No One-Pedal Driving on RAV4 EV:
The stronger regen feel on the accelerator pedal is a Tesla thing. We think it’s a nice. It’s also kind of aggressive. It tends to make it feel like a more aggressive car. Toyota didn’t think it was appropriate for their customers. The RAV4 audience is not the same as the Roadster audience.

We solved [the different views] by agreeing to do cooperative regeneration on the braking. There’s some level of regen when you let off the accelerator, but you get more when you step on the brake pedal itself. It leverages a lot of what’s in the Prius. It was a win-win. We end up getting efficiency, because you have very high level of regen possible, but you also you get to a user experience that we felt was good.


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