'Dude, there's no way that's gonna happen': What it's like at Tesla when a new car is about to hit the streets

Hokuto UedaDrivemodeDrivemode cofounder Hokuto Ueda.
  • Hokuto Ueda, a Harvard Business School grad and former launch manager for the Tesla Model S and the Gigafactory, describes what it’s like launching a new vehicle at Tesla.
  • He says “the atmosphere is definitely intense” at Tesla as engineers scramble to cross the finish line with the first examples of a new vehicle.
  • The electric-car company plans to deliver the first 30 Model 3 cars on Friday at its Fremont, California, factory.

Elon Musk is getting ready to hand over the first batch of Tesla Model 3s to owners this week — and with 30 of those cars coming off the electric-car maker’s assembly line in Fremont, California, it’s safe to assume employees are living and breathing all things Model 3 as the clock winds down.

Tesla has been here before — three times before, in fact — with the Roadster, the Model S, and the Model X. For Tesla engineers and for Musk, shepherding a new vehicle from prototype to production is a labour of four equal, but opposite elements — innovation, creativity, grit, and hustle.

Due in part to a level of secrecy matched only by Apple, it is not possible to know exactly what’s happening inside of Tesla while those first 30 Model 3s are being built, but former Tesla Model S launch manager, Hokuto Ueda offered some insight into what’s going on behind Tesla’s factory doors.

Ueda, a Harvard Business School graduate who was on the team that took the Model S from prototype to delivery and launched Tesla’s Gigafactory, told Business Insider it’s a “surreal” experience.

“The atmosphere is definitely intense. When I was launch manager there, every goal, every timeline that Elon set for us seemed impossible,” Ueda said. “When he set it out, it was like, dude, there’s no way that’s gonna happen.”

“But, close to launch, you’re seeing the finish line. Long hours to try to cross that finish line, but it’s also very exciting.”

Ueda started at Tesla as an engineering intern, preparing the first prototype of the Model S in 2010, later building the Fremont factory and launching Model S production. He left Tesla after five years in 2015 to co-found Drivemode, a Panasonic-backed startup whose app turns smartphones into infotainment systems for cars that don’t have the latest tech.

The Model 3 has now joined the existing platforms on Fremont’s assembly lines.

Challenges ahead

Tesla Model 3Screenshot via Elon MuskThe first production Tesla Model 3, unveiled by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, July 8, 2017.

“The biggest challenge of building that factory,” Ueda told Business Insider, “was that we were going from planning stages of the Model S to production in less than two years.”

“The typical car model takes three-to-five years to launch — and that’s without having to build a brand-new factory around it, and with existing, known technology, not a brand-new EV,” he said, adding that his team worked around the clock when the first Model S cars were being assembled.

“You’re literally in the factory all day and all night, we ordered pizza and sandwiches for dinner, and then you go home for a few hours and come back and do it all again, but we had fun doing it,” Ueda said. “It was an extremely positive experience. I felt like everyone was committed to making that happen.”

Making history

Ueda said the team building the first Model 3s are likely feeling some pressure. Indeed, the mandate for the Model 3 is far greater. Tesla has taken no fewer than 400,000 orders for the entry level, $US35,000 electric sedan. A successful launch, Ueda said, will ultimately come down to the employees’ hustle inside the factory and Musk’s leadership.

“I think to be part of something like that is special and it’s what keeps people going and I think that’s what’s special about Elon and his leadership style, is the ability to really get people to feel like they’re making history, they’re a part of history — and that sort of brings 110% out of everybody,” Ueda said.

The Model 3, however, presents an entirely new set of challenges for Tesla: building lots and lots (and lots) more cars than the company ever has before. Tesla delivered 76,230 vehicles in 2016, just shy of its own projections, so Tesla’s goal to produce 20,000 Model 3s alone by December — and potentially fulfilling hundreds of thousands more Model 3 orders while still cranking out Models S and X — resembles another one of those “impossible” goals Ueda spoke of previously.

Nevertheless, the former Tesla engineer remains confident in Musk and his team: “The goal he had set for you seemed insurmountable in the beginning, and then you’re actually delivering a car on time and that just sort of reframes your thinking around what is possible and not possible.”

“Still, the first cars are the first cars,” Ueda said. “Then, suddenly, you’re like, ‘oh, crap I gotta make a whole lot more of these.'”

Get the latest Tesla stock price here.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.