Tesla created a battery that might someday power your car — and everything else

At its "battery day," Elon Musk showed a battery that Tesla's been working on for years and plans to build itself.

Tesla batteries

Tesla's new batteries being produced at a plant in California.

Photo: Tesla

There's a new Tesla coming next year: The Model S Plaid, which Elon Musk said "will achieve the best track time of any production vehicle ever, of any kind. Two-door or otherwise." If you can wait a bit longer, Musk also said Tesla's about three years away from selling a $25,000, fully autonomous vehicle.

But those cars weren't the point of Tuesday's event. Musk has always tried to explain Tesla as an energy company, not a car manufacturer. "The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good," Musk wrote in his Master Plan, Part Deux in 2016.

At Tesla's aptly named " 2020 Annual Shareholder Meeting and Battery Day," which I can only describe as a drive-in concert exclusively for Tesla-driving Tesla shareholders, Musk showed off one of the company's most important energy initiatives: a dramatically more efficient car battery that Tesla plans to manufacture itself.

  • The new battery will bring up to 54% more range to vehicles, Tesla SVP Drew Baglino said, along with 56% reduction in cost and a 69% (as Musk pointed out, nice) reduction in investment per gigawatt hour.
  • Tesla can do all this through a series of very finely detailed changes that Musk and Baglino explained at great length (can I interest you in a long discussion about wet processes and highly elastic binders? No?), plus new material plans and a new way of integrating the battery into the structure of the car itself.
  • Musk was careful to set expectations ahead of the event, saying the new tech "will not reach serious high-volume production until 2022." At the event, he continued the theme. "It's close to working," Musk said. Then he corrected himself: "It does work, but with not a high yield." The key, he said, was that Tesla knows where it's going and how to get there.

This is not the million-mile battery some had talked about, though, and Tesla's share price showed some seriously disappointed investors. As the electric car industry heats up, and as Nikola and Porsche and so many other companies start to put out their own tech, some looked at Battery Day as the moment Tesla would prove it was still a decade ahead. And it didn't quite live up to its billing.

As for why Tesla decided to do this? Musk started battery day by explaining the problem: There's no way to scale the battery technology we have today to a size that actually begins to solve the world's problems.

  • "Tera is the new giga!" Musk said. Tesla won't be talking in terms of gigawatt hours anymore, he said. If you could produce 10 terawatt hours of batteries every year, he said, you'd be able to "transition the global fleet of vehicles to electric." Moving home and commercial energy would take even more.
  • This would take an impossibly massive uptick in production from a company like Tesla. Musk said it would take almost 3 million people, $2 trillion and 135 Gigafactories to output enough energy under the current system, and even that wouldn't get it done quickly enough.
  • Tesla's also clearly invested in owning its entire process and ecosystem. After some well-documented issues with suppliers — and the ever-changing ambitions and plans within Tesla itself — the company just seems happier controlling its own destiny.

In the "formal part" of the day, ahead of the big reveal, Musk and other executives also gave an update on all things Tesla. The short version: Tesla remains a work in progress, but it's starting to do car-company things really well.

  • "We've had the best technology for a while," Musk said, "but now we're also improving economies of scale." That'll be news to investors' ears, since Tesla's long been good at creating cars and less good at building a lot of them. For that, and for lots of the things he said, Musk got appreciative honks from the audience.
  • He also praised the state of the Autopilot software, which has been completely rewritten and is "clearly going to work" thanks to labeled 3D video and more cameras. He also said he's still driving "the bleeding-edge alpha build of Autopilot," which is a heck of a way to dog food your own product.
  • Musk said investors should think of the future value of Tesla as "vehicles produced times the value of autonomy." And both those numbers are going up.

Everything at Tesla is going to move even faster, Musk said. Then he said that long term, the company plans to make about 20 million vehicles per year. That one got a lot of honks.

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