A little over a month after Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter that he has taken over direct control of the division that’s in charge of the production-challenged Tesla Model 3 (one day after cracking April Fools’ jokes about Tesla filing for bankruptcy) replacing Doug Field, the company’s chief engineer overseeing vehicle development and former Apple executive, who was “pushed aside” after Tesla missed its goal of 500 Model 3 sedans per day…
About a year ago, I asked Doug to manage both engineering & production. He agreed that Tesla needed eng & prod better aligned, so we don’t design cars that are crazy hard to build. Right now, tho, better to divide & conquer, so I’m back to sleeping at factory. Car biz is hell …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 2, 2018
… late on Friday the WSJ reported that Tesla’s top engineer is taking a leave of absence from the company “at a crucial moment when the electric-car maker is struggling to boost production of the Model 3 sedan.”
Doug Field, Tesla’s senior vice president of engineering, is stepping away from the company for several weeks, these people said. One person described the absence as a “six-week sabbatical,” and Tesla declined to say when he would come back.
Seeking to downplay the split, Tesla told the WSJ that “Doug is just taking some time off to recharge and spend time with his family. He has not left Tesla.”
Translation: Field – the company’s head of engineering – has left Tesla, but the company is hoping to delay confirmation for another month and a half. After all, it was just a year ago that Musk asked Field to manage both engineering and production to better align the two departments, the CEO said in last month’s tweet in which he reported he was splitting engineering and production duties, saying it was “better to divide & conquer.”
In a separate tweet Musk also wrote that he regarded Field as “one of the world’s most talented” engineering executives; as Bloomberg notes, Field is one of only four executive officers named in the company’s recent proxy statement.
Should Field indeed be departing, it would be a crucial blow to the company which has been scrambling to reach its target of 5,000 Model 3 units per week; Field has been a “key leader at the Silicon Valley auto maker since joining in 2013 from Apple” according to the WSJ and oversees all engineering of Tesla’s vehicles. As noted above, that changed this spring when Chief Executive Elon Musk said he retook control of production.
Ironically, the hiring of Field from Apple, where he was vice president of Mac hardware engineering, was touted as a win for Mr. Musk, who had big ambitions for Tesla. Field had also worked at Ford Motor and Segway, giving him unique experience in both the tech and autos industry.
When Field first joined Tesla, he said driving a Tesla for the first time “was like using the first Mac with a mouse. He knew that eventually everyone would want to drive one.” It appears that the Mac may have encountered its first BSOD.
Meanwhile, as is well known, the electric auto maker is at a critical juncture as it tries to produce enough Model 3 cars to generate cash to fund the business and instill confidence in investors that the company can create its first mass-market vehicle, even as the competition is breathing down Tesla’s neck.
The other problem, of course, is homegrown: in 2016, Musk suggested Tesla would make as many as 200,000 Model 3s sedans, which are supposed to start at $35,000, in the second half of last year, a milestone the company came nowhere near meeting. Tesla instead made about 2,700 during that period. The company hasn’t yet begun making the lower-priced version.
Realizing how far behind schedule the company is, Musk effectively threw Field under the bus, claiming Tesla relied too much on automation to make the Model 3. “A step change in manufacturing doesn’t come without its challenges, particularly early in the process, and we made a mistake by adding too much automation too quickly,” Musk told shareholders in Tesla’s quarterly update earlier this month, just before Musk cut off questions from two sellside analysts in what has now become an infamous meltdown on par with Jeff Skilling “asshole” moment, just as Enron was about to implode.
All this comes as Tesla is facing a dire cash crunch: the company finished March with $2.7 billion in cash on hand, an amount that barely covers the portion of its long-term debt and capital leases due this year. While Musk has claimed the company won’t need to raise more money this year, many analysts say they expect Tesla will raise additional capital, a confirmation Tesla made in its 10-Q filing.
Finally, if Doug Field is indeed leaving, he certainly won’t be the first senior level exec to part ways with Elon Musk as the following list of recent and not so recent departure clearly shows.