Tesla's CEO Feared Microsoft Would Make His Car Racist And SlowS

I'd just taken over as Tesla's PR guy and had been contacted by old friends at Microsoft Game Studios about including the Tesla Roadster in Project Gotham Racing 4. Darryl Siry, my boss, took me into Martin Eberhard's (Tesla's Co-founder/then CEO) office to broach the topic. That's when it went very wrong.

"So, Martin, you know David has a background in licensing and product placement.”

"Mmph... that's right"

(This section is excerpted from the book "Reboot: The (Previously) Untold Story Of Tesla's Electric Sports Car" by author David Vespremi, the former Director of Public Relations for the company who recently won a lawsuit against the company.)

"Well, he recently connected with the folks at Microsoft Game Studios about including the Roadster in a game..."

Martin's face turned ashen as he turned to face me. "Are you crazy!?!" were, I'm fairly certain, the first words out of his mouth.

“I will not have you doing any business with Microsoft! They are evil!”

Here, I threw what must have been a hopeless glance to Darryl, and began to speak…

“I can’t speak for the rest of the company, but I have worked with their game development team before, and they have always been a pleasure to work with. Plus, we would be getting some premium placement in the game for free and, in the past, I have paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars for that kind of placement…”

“Free?! What good is free if I don’t want it?! If someone gave me a case of lipstick for free, would I want it?”

I resisted the urge to smirk at this comment during what was already feeling like a very tense moment that was escalating rapidly out of control. I began to try to diffuse the situation with logic.

“Well, our fans and customers might appreciate the opportunity to race the Roadster against other cars like Ferraris, Porsches, and all that. Not to mention, there will be some great exposure by piggybacking off their media buy. I understand they will be running promotional theatrical trailers in movie theaters followed by network and cable TV with clips from the game. This could be millions of dollars of exposure for Tesla…”

Tesla's CEO Feared Microsoft Would Make His Car Racist And SlowS

At this point Martin rose from his desk, walked around Darryl and I out of his office into the common area, and began shouting for all the surrounding cubes to hear.

“So you think it’s a good idea to give our IP over to Microsoft?!?”

All of the conversations in the room stopped. All eyes were now on me as Martin paced the room walking past rows and rows of cubicles, shouting and waving his arms dramatically.

“And what makes you think they aren’t going to turn around and take that IP and leak it just to bury us?!”

A phone was ringing at a desk nearby and no one was picking it up. Martin was clearly just getting started.

Tesla's CEO Feared Microsoft Would Make His Car Racist And SlowS

“And what control do you think you would have over how the car performed in the game?! What if they made it suck on purpose?! Maybe it will be the slowest car in the game!! Maybe they’ll have Volkswagen Bugs that are faster!”

Martin was a good twenty feet away by now, but his voice continued to boom as he gestured in my direction.

“And that’s if you’re lucky! They may just have it be a car that runs over black people. Now, Mr. PR guy, what are you going to do?!”

“Black people?”

“Sure, why not!? Maybe they will turn it into a racist car that runs over black people. And that’s the image you want for this company?!”

I wasn’t sure where to go with this. To be candid, I was already well out of my element back at the VW Bug comment.

Alina Dini, Martin’s assistant at the time, shot me a sympathetic smile and a profound look of pity.

“What if we insisted on contractual provisions to review content? I have used those in the past…”

My voice must have been breaking by now, and this came out more of a plea than anything.

“Sure. Because we would be so well equipped to fight Microsoft in court if they chose to breach that agreement, right?!?”

And with that, Martin continued to walk towards the main workshop.

I was gutted. What made me think this was a good idea? Running over black people? Lipstick? Volkswagens?

I took a long lunch. By myself.

I resolved to apologize to Martin on my return.

When I came back, I found him sitting at his desk with his office door open. He looked up, without saying a word, and motioned me in.

“Martin, I obviously didn’t expect my idea to be so badly received and you’re right, I can’t control all of those variables. I apologize for bringing it up.”

Martin began to smirk a bit and this turned into a kindhearted smile.

“No, its OK. In a past life, I had some deeply unpleasant dealings with Microsoft. So, if I were to entertain this idea, which I’m not sure I should, what would they need from us? Exterior drawings? Photos?”

“A little bit more than that…” I began sheepishly.

After I explained that they wanted technical schematics (Solidworks files) for their renders as well as access to the car itself so that they could mic it for “engine” sounds on a dyno (whatever that meant in this context) a discussion followed where Martin seemed surprisingly open to granting them limited access. He had apparently done a 180 on this. Needless to say, I was floored. Maybe I wasn’t fired after all?

At the close of this, I was given some names of engineering staff to follow up with for files that could be turned over (only after Martin had reviewed them first and had an opportunity to redact sensitive info) together with his proviso that I may, possibly, be given some after hours access to one of the two Validation Prototypes (cars that were used for final fit and finish checks just prior to production) – but that I would need to make it crystal clear that they would have to work on our clock, not theirs, and that when we said “go” they would need to be ready to work fast since there would be no second chances.

In the days that followed, both sides ended up getting everything they needed to move forward and the turbulent seas had apparently calmed, with the one deliverable on our part still outstanding: Providing access to the car for audio recording.

In the middle of wrapping up a customer walkthrough of the car on afternoon, something I had grown very adept at doing, I was pulled aside by the workshop manager and told that a car would be ready for me at 7:00 pm that night and to make any necessary arrangements. I was told only that it needed to be back by morning, ideally with at least half a charge. No other restrictions or admonishments were mentioned.

At 7:00 pm on the dot I was en route to San Rafael, with colleague Zak Edson, who I had roped in to help me out. The plan was to meet Pete, my friend and former business partner at WORKS, the Evo tuning shop that played no small part in kick starting my automotive career many years ago.

Pete – the same Pete that first introduced me to Jon Hall, the Tesla engineer that was my first Sherpa into the world of Tesla – had a couple of items that would be of use to us. The most of important of these was something Tesla lacked – a chassis dynamometer. Although Tesla had a motor dyno on site for testing the output of the AC motor itself (separate from the car), at the time, they had no way of strapping the car to a machine to measure its horsepower at the wheels. And they certainly didn’t have a dyno that could attach to the cars wheel hubs to accomplish this.

But measuring horsepower wasn’t in fact what we were after. Because electric cars are virtually silent, the concern was that simply driving around on the streets as would normally be done with other cars would fail to catch the “engine” sounds needed for the game – the wind noise would actually be louder than the motor at speed.

Tesla's CEO Feared Microsoft Would Make His Car Racist And SlowS

But in a controlled environment — like inside a closed room — the car could be driven at full speed, without the noise of wind and traffic drowning out the motor. Better still, since Pete’s dyno didn’t use giant in-ground metal rollers like most, we were also eliminating the noise of the tires and resistance drums from the equation. We could even plot out which sounds matched which specific rpms if we did this correctly, by noting the time marks in the audio recordings. If we were able to record and match “engine” sounds to various points in the rev range, this, we felt, had the best possibility for a good result.

Just as importantly, Pete had a wealth of experience and considerable inventory in high-end tuner parts at his disposal. Although I had promised to have the car back by 7am (with half a charge, hopefully) Zak and I were already frantically working our connections with engineers in the company to allow us to sneak off with the car the following day.

As it turns out, Microsoft’s ad agency was closing down some city streets in downtown L.A. to shoot a movie trailer and commercial for their new game and we had been invited to join. If we could get the car down to L.A in time for the shoot and, we were told, get it to drift around a corner in a cloud of tiresmoke, there was a good chance we would be featured in their TV commercial and movie trailers.

Now, apart from my earlier faux pas in front of Martin, I had never seen a Tesla drift before, much less initiate and hold, on command, an intentional drift. Clearly this would be a concern, so I had every reason to believe that Pete’s expertise in the world of tuner cars might come in handy in helping us figure out if a Tesla could be made to do lurid power slides on demand.

As it happens, Zak’s follow car for the event was his Chrysler SRT-8, as good a benchmark of a long wheelbase, RWD power-sliding monster as one could hope for. The question of the night was, when it comes to tire smoke, would the Roadster deliver the goods?

Getting to San Rafael, establishing that we had a means of recharging the car there, and picking out a couple of industrial frontage roads that we could use to run the Roadster up and down when fully mic’d went smoothly enough. As expected, wind noise, even with directional microphones shielded from the brunt of it, made most of the outdoor stuff unusable.

Once on the dyno, the Roadster seemed to levitate off the floor as its wheels were removed and the Dynapak boxes were mounted to the wheel hubs. Hours of recording and checking the sound quality at everything from 1,000 rpm to redline followed, and it was monotonous work that took us late into the night. Through it all, the Roadster performed flawlessly, without so much as a need to cool down or recover, even after spinning its tiny motor well into five figures in the rpm range.

With the Microsoft guys satisfied that they had received what they had traveled down to California for, we still had seven hours and counting before the Roadster needed to be back at headquarters. Surrounded by a bevy of aftermarket parts at our disposal and the time and air tools needed to have some fun, everyone descended on the Roadster in unison and parts began to fly off the car –not by Tesla’s engineers, but by a motley crew of aftermarket tuners, game developers, and marketing guys. What could go wrong?

One issue that needed immediate attention was the fact that the Roadster had no mechanical limited slip differential. This meant that to even come close to spinning the kinds of donuts that Zak’s SRT-8 could do, we would be fighting the car’s natural propensity to spin a single rear wheel, instead of both in unison – even with the factory traction control fully defeated. A second issue was that the Roadster had a safe amount of “push” or understeer designed into it, meaning that if the car was going to lose traction, the front would wash out well before the rear tires broke loose. Both of those variables would need to be addressed.

We couldn’t do much about the open differential, but we could try to cheat it by installing a set of Ohlins remote reservoir coilovers for the Lotus Elise, and playing with the camber alignment settings to make the car as tail happy as possible. We also played with the tire pressures to eliminate as much rear grip as we could in the hopes that this might help.

With the car transformed into a subjectively more flattering stance of a street tuner/drift car, we just needed a place to try it out. At 2 a.m., just blocks from the shop, we found a traffic circle that seemed like it would do. Banking on the fact that there would be no engine roar from the Roadster to alert authorities, we commenced our drift trials attempting to create a cloud of tire smoke drifting all the way around the traffic circle in one continuous burnout.

Zak, Pete, and I all took our turns with various levels of success, most often ending with the car spinning mid way through, generally without hitting any hard objects along the way. Just as I was in the midst of one of my better attempts, about ¾ of the way around the traffic circle in a cloud of acrid smelling tire smoke, I heard Zak and Pete, almost in unison shout and gesture in my direction. As they began to run for Zak’s car, I accelerated out of the thick cloud of tire smoke and away from the traffic circle in a hurry, the SRT-8 just moments behind. The faint glow of red and blue lights in the distance told me everything I needed to know.

Pete’s worker back at the shop quickly raised the rollup door without my so much as needing to stop (someone must have called him) and the door closed behind me. Zak ditched his car alongside the building and he and the rest of the guys entered from the side entrance.

Moments later, there was a loud banging on the door as a uniformed officer shouted for us to open it. Pete and I shot each other uneasy glances and slowly opened the door.

“Yes?” Pete asked.

“Everything alright in here?” the officer asked, suspiciously eyeing the Roadster.

“Fine. Thanks.”

“Mind if I…” he asked, gesturing towards the car.

“Uh, no,” he nearly stammered, “Go ahead.”

The officer approached the Roadster, walked alongside it, and glided his hand just inches from the surface of the front hood, and then the engine cover, all the while, locking eyes on Pete.

“Thanks. You have a good night,” he announced and showed himself out.

Pete lowered the rollup door. We couldn’t believe it. Although the Roadster’s headlights had clearly given away our antics (we should have turned them off) along with the clouds of tire smoke and screech of tires (not much we could have done about that), at least it didn’t have the heat signature of a combustion powered car.

When the car seemed “cold” to the officer, he had apparently second guessed himself and decided that this vehicle had been sitting in the shop the entire time. Phew. We couldn’t believe our luck.

As promised, the car was delivered back to Tesla headquarters with (nearly) half a charge, albeit with most of the tread worn off its rear tires and gooey rubber strings covering the insides of the wheel arches.

The following night, with implied permission (really an assurance to look the other way) the much maligned marketing prototype EP2 – dubbed “the deuce” — was converted over to the same Ohlins coilover suspension and ultra low, fully cambered out alignment settings that VP1 had returned with. The techs that assisted with this covert operation referred to this process with wide smiles and no shortage of giggles, as “dropping the deuce.”

EP1 was then loaded onto a transport trailer and Aaron Platshon, Marketing Manager, and I were en route to downtown L.A. without a moment to spare, scheduled to arrive by the crack of dawn for the TV commercial shoot. Having driven all night, and napping in a nearby parking lot for a mere hour before we were scheduled to be due “on set” – we awoke just past sunrise to find the streets that had previously been open to cars were now all closed and the engines of an assortment of exotics, from a Ferrari to an SLR McLaren, and even a classic Sting Ray Corvette, revving in anticipation. We were minutes from being ready to run a simulated race.

Crowds gathered on the sidewalks and office workers could be seen pressed against high rise windows as off duty LAPD worked crowd control on the sidewalks and streets below. We were working at an amazing pace as the permit secured for the shoot only allowed for the briefest window of access to the downtown circuit before it would be opened back up to cars and pedestrians. With a cursory introduction to the stunt driver, the Roadster was unloaded and taken out for a quick shakedown run. The driver returned saying only that it would work fine, but had some choice words for the McLaren he had driven earlier, complaining that it just wouldn’t drift no matter what – apparently the traction control was not fully defeatable.

Expecting fireworks from the McLaren – we figured the driver would have to find a way to chuck it into the corner pretty violently to simulate a drift – imagine our surprise when, after a few near accidents between the Tesla and the Corvette, it was the red Ferrari F430 that paid the ultimate price, slamming into a concrete barricade with a resounding crunch. The Roadster, at least, emerged from the shoot unscathed and, I’m happy to report, made the final cut for both the theatrical footage and TV commercials.

All in a days work, I suppose.

The Vision Behind Tesla

Tesla's CEO Feared Microsoft Would Make His Car Racist And SlowS

'All in days work' was an interesting concept at Tesla. Although I began my career as an attorney and had pulled an all-nighter here or there, I’d never logged the kinds of hours I was routinely putting in at Tesla – either before or since. Staying up all night to turn the Roadster into a drift car, sleeping a few hours, and then driving all night to get the car to L.A. was par for the course.

My personal record was 72 hours with no sleep during the east coast tour. I was literally so sleep deprived, I had started to lose my peripheral vision and had begun to see shadows moving where there were none. A good friend, Jared Holstein, actually saved me from certain death by pulling me back from almost getting run over by a speeding bus that I stepped in front of in midtown Manhattan, not even seeing it there – plain as day.

Even my blogs from back then reflected this dreamlike state somewhere between being fully conscious and not-all-there, like the cab ride in NYC where I remember being entranced by the Haitian music playing from the taxi driver’s stereo as the sun was just starting to rise.

And in pushing myself to my physical and psychological limits, I was certainly in good company. Engineers, techs, and upper management – we all toiled away night after night, often going a day or two before returning home to see loved ones. Despite the high-end car we were working on bringing to market, there wasn’t anything particularly glamorous about our day-to-day existence. We were working in a cube farm. We were eating a lot of fast food. People frequently stank from not showering or changing clothes.

And everyone was on edge.

One morning, as you could just about feel the mutiny from a bunch of over educated, under paid, exhausted staff collect in the main workshop for our weekly meeting – expecting to be chastised for being behind schedule or over budget in some critical path to getting the car to market, a strange thing happened.

We walked in to Martin standing before us for our weekly all hands meeting, but behind him was a new face staring at us from a projected image on the back wall – that of a little girl.

“Hello Everyone,” Martin began.

“I’d like to introduce you to Katy. She’s two.”

We all began looking around at each other, completely bewildered.

“Katy likes horses,” he continued.

“She also likes dancing.”

“Have you figured out yet why I’m showing you a picture of Katy?”

A brave soul from among the ranks, shouted out, “because we’re building the car for her!”

“No,” said Martin, shaking his head and pausing, “she’s much too young to drive, even with our schedule slips. This car isn’t for her.”

Martin continued, “Katy has never seen a phone handset attached by a corded wire.”

“If we are successful, what we are building today – something that is so challenging for us to build because we are literally inventing it as we go –will be as familiar to Katy as a cellular phone. And if we’re really successful, a gasoline powered car will be as common place for Katy as an adult, as a corded telephone handset is to us today.”

In that moment, you could just about have pushed anyone of us over. It was as if a giant light bulb had illuminated over our heads. It wasn’t about building a rich man’s toy. It wasn’t about us cashing in on an IPO, that at the time, seemed like a remote pipe dream. None of us could ever afford to own a Roadster, not then, and not likely anytime soon. And yet, years from now, in the off chance that we could actually pull this off, we would have a shot at changing history.

If Martin didn’t have the troops won over before then, that day we were all believers. And although his audience that day was filled with mostly young men in their twenties and thirties, most of whom had no wives or children of their own – myself included – looking back now as a father of two small boys, I can say Martin was right.

Our sons are motivation enough to justify all the intense work we put into putting Tesla Motors on the map.

This story originally appeared in Reboot: The (Previously) Untold Story Of Tesla's Electric Sports Car" by author David Vespremi. The author wants everyone to know that the price for the first part includes the other updates.

You can read another excerpt from the book here

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Photo Credits: AP, Tesla Motors, Microsoft Game Studios