Tesla co-founder turned Ford partner: electric vehicles have exceeded “critical mass threshold”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – JB Straubel has spent most of the past two decades at Tesla Inc. trying to disrupt the auto industry and pushing historic automakers like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors to take electric vehicles seriously.
He is now CEO of Redwood Materials, a battery recycling company, and is partnering with Ford to make its electric vehicles more sustainable. Redwood plans to be involved with the company’s Blue Oval City campus outside of Memphis, and Straubel was on hand for Ford’s announcement here last week, when he shared his thoughts on a range of topics with journalists. Here are edited excerpts.
Question: Ford recently partnered with you on battery recycling and GM has made similar announcements. Has tackling this part of the manufacturing process become a table issue for automakers electrifying their fleets?
A: It’s amazing how quickly it has become well known that it is necessary to have a closed loop supply chain and to address end-of-life issues from the start. When we started about three years ago, it certainly wasn’t understood so well. Our goal was to help create the systems and technologies to help make this easier to implement. There’s still a lot of work to be done there, but it’s certainly exciting to see companies like Ford, and more broadly in the industry, realize how essential this is to making EVs truly sustainable.
Can we get to a point where we can completely stop the extraction of materials for batteries from electric vehicles?
It almost sounds like science fiction in some ways, but it’s not that far off. If you imagine a future where the transport fleet is almost entirely electrified and where it is a bit more stable, then we won’t need to mine a lot of new materials. If we can recycle 95.98% of the metals in a battery, you can do it 100 times before you have to buy new materials. Look at the lead acid battery industry today, and this is a good example of what it can take. These metals are not consumed. They’re built into the product and sort of stay there for the life of the product. We can get them back and reuse them at the end of it.
What is the biggest threat to the electric revolution? Is it possible that electric vehicles are never taken into account?
I think we’ve crossed a critical mass threshold on this. The revolution is going to happen; I’m sure. Some of the biggest threats, however, are the fluidity with which it happens, how much it disrupts OEMs, customers. We’ve said it before, but some of the supply chain challenges are among the biggest threats. This is a massive change in the entire supply base and in the way cars are built. It is not a given and it can go smoothly.
How will the market react to the coming wave of electric vehicles?
Not all of these models will be very successful. We are going to go through this transition where it is not enough to be electric. It was probably never enough. It must be a great product that is also electric. That, I think, is not the case with everyone coming out in the next few years. It was different when he was motivated by regulatory pressures. Then it was enough to be electric. You would lose money on a car and that wasn’t necessarily great. It’s a different cycle, a different wave where customers have a choice and they’re going to choose the best products that have range, performance, price, all the different attributes.
What are the survival chances of some of the new electric vehicle startups?
My take is that the window may have closed, I think, on the possibility for very new startup manufacturers to sort of enter through the EV transition. It is extremely difficult to build an automotive business that can actually manufacture. No one realizes how difficult it really is, other than maybe the existing OEMs. I think a lot of people have had a certain exuberance looking at what Tesla has done and want to replicate that.
Of course, that makes sense. But it’s perhaps important to remember that Tesla was several years ahead of the curve in maturing the technology and working on it at a time when it was still in its infancy and there was very little. competition – in fact, there was anti-competition, with people actively saying it was in the wrong direction. It’s a very different market. Now, a startup entering this field is in direct competition with $ 11 billion in investments from major OEMs and huge commitments and major products. It’s a different market.