For Tesla Motors founder Martin Eberhard, getting news of his ouster was like glancing at the review mirror and seeing one of his electric Roadster supercars approaching at 130 miles an hour without a sound.
In other words, he was blindsided. “Somebody in the company asked me if I would be leaving at a certain date and I said, `I don’t think so,’ but that turned out to be the case,” Eberhard told Fortune’s Green Wombat.
The date was last Friday and Tesla left Eberhard by the side of the road just months before the Silicon Valley electric car company rolls its hotly-anticipated Roadster off the production line and into the hands of celebrity customers like the Google founders and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Green Wombat spoke to Eberhard and Tesla chairman Elon Musk Monday afternoon about the changes at Tesla and the company’s plans for the future.
Eberhard, long the public face of Tesla, stepped down as president of technology and gave up his board seat in a move that is — depending on who’s talking — either part of a planned transition or a hit-and-run take-out of the founder following the appointment of a new chief executive last week. The shakeup comes as Tesla wrestles with a transmission problem that has delayed production of the $100,000 all-electric car that does zero-to-60 in four seconds and can go 245 miles on a single charge.
In August, Eberhard, who started Tesla five years ago with the financial backing of PayPal alum Musk, relinquished his CEO spot so the San Carlos, Calif., startup could hire a top executive with experience in large-scale manufacturing. Former Flextronics chief Michael Marks took over as interim CEO, but Eberhard says he never expected to be booted from the company.
“I truthfully thought I’d be spending quite a few more years at Tesla Motors,” says Eberhard before boarding a flight in Burbank to San Francisco. “The only surprise was that the board no longer wanted me as part of the company. There wasn’t any major disagreement going on, not that I know of anyway.”
As Eberhard recounts it, Musk told him about a month ago that he wanted him to leave at some unspecified future date. “I thought it was a strange notion to kick the founder out of the company anyway, where there wasn’t a big ideological difference on the board where we wanted to go,” Eberhad says. “For all Elon’s character and personality, he’s trying to solve same problem as I am. ”
The end came suddenly last week. On Wednesday, Tesla announced the replacement of Marks with a permanent CEO, tech veteran Ze’ev Drori, founder of chip company Monolithic Memories. Two days later Eberhard was packing up his office. “Elon did talk to me about leaving the company without having a [board] vote,” Eberhard says. “I left voluntarily when it was clear that I wasn’t going to win a vote anyway.” Eberhard, who will serve on a Tesla advisory board, says Musk explained why he was being ousted “only in the vaguest terms.”
When I reach Musk on his cell phone and put the question to him, he pauses and laughs a bit nervously. “I don’t know what to say without being negative,” says Musk, whose other post-PayPal ventures include rocket company SpaceX and solar systems installer Solar City. “It did not make sense for him to be at the company. Of course, if the board thought if it would be better for him to stay he would still be there.”
“I don’t think its ideological, it was more operational, I suppose,” he adds. “There wasn’t an obvious role for Martin.”
That rankles some at Tesla, acknowledges Darryl Siry, the company’s vice president of sales, marketing and service. “I think for a lot of people who have identified with Martin for many years and who are emotionally connected to Martin as a leader at Tesla, this transition is a bit jarring,” he says. “But we have to all adapt and move on. ”
As CEO, Eberhard used Tesla’s blogs to interact with electric car enthusiasts and customers, giving them an unusually detailed look at the development of the Roadster. As his final act he posted a farewell on a Tesla fan site. “I am also not going to lie about it. I am not at all happy with the way I was treated,” he wrote, “and I do not think this was the very best way to handle a transition — not the best for Tesla Motors, not the best for Tesla’s customers (to whom I still feel a strong sense of responsibility), and not for Tesla’s investors. ” (Tesla has attracted a roster of investors that include Google (GOOG) founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as well as venture capital firms VantagePoint Venture Partners, Technology Partners and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.)
Some Tesla insiders tell Green Wombat they believe Eberhard’s departure is more the result of personality clash with Musk rather than the speed bumps Telsa has hit as it gears up to get the Roadster on the road to meet the expectations of the tech titans, Hollywood celebs and others who have have plunked down six figures for the car. Telsa put plans to sell electric car batteries to other manufacturers on hold while it focuses on the two-seater’s transmission, which hasn’t met the company’s durability standards.
“It’s our biggest issue,” says Musk. “Unfortunately the company picked the wrong supplier, not once but twice, and now we’re on to our third. I feel pretty confident the way things are going but I personally had to take a hand in getting us there.” He says in recent months he’s spent up to a third of his time at Tesla.
“The first production cars should be out in the next few months,” Musk says. “It’s going to be a fairly slow stream until we clear up the production issues. We need to work on production costs as well.”
Musk offered a preview of what’s next for Tesla, saying that early next year the company will unveil its second model, a sports sedan code-named WhiteStar. Tesla also is developing a next-generation transmission, battery and drive train, which it expects to be production-ready in a couple years. “What we’re working on in the shop is a significant advance,” he claims.
Rather than just sell batteries to other electric car manufacturers, Musk says Tesla aims to provide the complete drive train package — motor, transmission, battery and software.
“I think the right path for Tesla is as an independent company,” he says. “As soon as the timing is right we’ll take the company public and use that capital to fund additional product development. We see Tesla as being one of the great car companies of the 21st century and not as a nameplate of some big auto company. We really want Tesla to branch out and have a wide range of models. Our primary interest is how do we get as many electric miles as possible.”
Eberhard says it’ll be difficult to watch from the sidelines. “I wish things were different, for sure. I still feel a strong sense of loyalty to the company. It’s been my life for the past five years. It’s not just a business. It’s a company I started for ideological reasons as well as business reasons — to deal with climate change, oil dependence.”
Under Eberhard Tesla almost single-handedly revived the electric car just a few years after it was declared dead, pushing General Motors (GM) to develop its own EV, the Volt. (GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz acknowledged as much in a recent interview with U.S News & World Report. “When Tesla announced they were building a car, that kind of tore it for me. I thought, ‘If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by.’ “)
Eberhard says he’ll take a few months to figure out his next step. In the meantime, he still has his Roadster to look forward to.
He’s No. 2 on the waiting list, right behind Musk.