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Tesla’s newest hire may be proof Elon Musk is ready to hear some hard truths about batteries

CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk attends an environmental conference at Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Norway April 21, 2016.
Reuters/Heiko Junge
Stuff to prove.
By Steve LeVine
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Jeff Dahn, a leading battery researcher who teaches at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, will go on an exclusive contract with Tesla Motors on June 8, just as CEO Elon Musk is facing serious skepticism over his plans to rapidly transform into a mainstream carmaker. And Dahn says he is arriving with marching orders to do “whatever it takes” to improve the company’s battery performance.

Musk has made Tesla the nascent electric car industry’s pacemaker, striking terror in the hearts of his rivals through styling and technology, all while ignoring one of the biggest questions in the business: How do you invent a relatively cheap superbattery to propel an electric vehicle? Instead of inventing a new battery, Musk has embraced adapted Panasonic commodity batteries that look like large AAs, and installed thousands of them under the floorboard of his cars.

On May 4, Musk set a goal of selling half a million cars in 2018, including hundreds of thousands of Model 3s; he aims to make 1 million cars in 2020. Rivals, analysts, and even suppliers have cast doubt that he can meet those objectives.

Dalhousie University
The new guru: Dahn.

But Tesla’s hiring of the outspoken Dahn suggests that Musk is interested in hearing a clear-eyed view of the challenges at hand, and prepared to question his own assumptions. Dahn is known for publicly calling out the shortcomings of his colleagues’s inventions, all in the name of honest science, he says, and himself is a pioneer of one of the world’s leading energy chemistries, known by the acronym NMC. Musk, meanwhile, has publicly ridiculed NMC while championing a rival chemistry called NCA.

The decision to bring Dahn into the fold perhaps indicates that Musk is open to the idea that reaching his goals may require hearing some ugly truths, and possibly abandoning some of his battery orthodoxies. Whether that is sufficient to reach his objectives—even if a bit late—is another matter.

Dahn told Quartz that at Tesla, he will be seeking the same objectives as everyone in the industry: low cost, high energy density, and long battery life. But “whatever it takes,” an operational mantra he said he picked up in conversation with Kurt Kelty, Telsa’s battery director, will be his rule.

“Those are the goals, and that’s how we’re going to do it,” Dahn said. “We’re open to anything that makes sense.”