Tesla founders Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning talk about the early days and bringing on Elon Musk

Technology

Contrary to popular belief, Elon Musk did not start Tesla.

He certainly made it his own over the years, investing early on and then overseeing its growth from niche luxury carmaker to mass production, adding on a solar business, and pushing self-driving technologies. However, the tech titan — and now the world’s richest man — was actually Tesla’s 4th CEO when he took that role in October 2008.

The creators and founding executives of Tesla, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, sat down with CNBC to share memories of what it was like to build and deliver the first Tesla Roadster vehicles, what it took to convince the world electric cars could be as enticing as luxury sports cars, and how they brought Elon Musk on board.

Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard during the early days at Tesla Motors.

Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard

They first met with Musk at a gathering for Mars Society members, and bonded through their shared love of space exploration. (That was even before Musk had started his re-usable rocket company, SpaceX.)

Eberhard was eventually “voted off the island,” he said, resulting in a contentious lawsuit and eventual settlement. But he is still rooting for Tesla, believes electric vehicles are key to protecting the planet, and remains a Tesla shareholder.

An electrical engineer and inventor at heart, Eberhard is working on technology to make electric vehicle batteries more affordable than they are today, without sacrificing safety, power or quality.

Tarpenning said he still speaks with Musk occasionally, and resigned from Tesla just as they were developing their flagship Model S sedan. Looking back, he said he has no regrets. “The whole thing was wonderful from the beginning to the end. It was, you know, the worst and the best. And it’s worked out great.”

Tarpenning is now mentoring the next generation of environment minded startups, and investing in them as a venture partner with Pierre Omidyar’s Spero Ventures.

This interview originally took place in late 2019, and excerpts of it were included in the CNBC’s “Tesla: Hell of a Ride.”

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