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Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk may be a billionaire several times over but he also personifies the rather precarious nature of success in Silicon Valley, where the line between goat and genius often blurs.

Speaking at a recent panel discussion in San Francisco, Musk told the audience that his high-powered electric-car company had come within a few days of bankruptcy at the end of 2008. Without missing a beat, he later described plans to build battery-swapping stations for Tesla’s popular Model S sedan and outlined his vision for self-driving cars.

Within the next few months, Tesla will open a facility for replacing car batteries rather than recharging them at one of the company’s Supercharger stations. Tesla demonstrated the idea in June, showing how an automated process could remove and replace the car’s battery pack in 90 seconds.

We plan to implement that between L.A. and San Francisco to start off, and then see what the customer interest is and what percentage of people use that versus supercharging, Musk said. We’re a little late on that, because we got preoccupied on a few other issues.

He also said the company would introduce in the next couple of years technology similar to Google’s self-driving car. But Musk noted that the cars would not be fully autonomous.

I think what we’ll have is what we call ‘auto pilot,’ similar to what you have in an aircraft. You still have a driver, but you massively reduce driver workload and effectively improve safety and just make it easier to go from one place to another, he said. I think we’ll have some pretty exciting things in terms of the auto-pilot capability in the next couple of years from Tesla.

But I think we’ll need drivers, just as we need pilots, for quite a long time in the future.

That anyone would care about anything Musk has to say seems remarkable given Tesla’s brush with mortality six years ago. Even more striking, the 42-year-old entrepreneur actually thought Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX — his most famous creations — would fail.


With Tesla, we had multiple near-… experiences, he said. What are the odds of a car company succeeding? Pretty darn low. And in fact, at Tesla we came within a few days of being bankrupt.

We closed the financing round at the end of 2008 in the last hour of the last day in which it was possible to do that, which was basically 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, 2008. We would have gone bankrupt a few days after Christmas.

So these were real close calls.

Reports at the time said Tesla was down to its last $9 million. But to be fair, many companies faced failure as the Great Recession began to wreak havoc on the American economy in late 2008.

But Tesla has produced two electric-car models, bought a factory in Fremont, collected a spate of awards for the Model S, gone public and watched its stock price soar. With survival no longer in question, Musk can turn his attention to other pursuits.

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