Many a sonnet is being written about Tesla’s Gigafactory right now. Here’s a short summary of what they’re saying:
It’s so gigantic that I don’t actually know how to visualize it. The number of battery cells it will produce is so large that I’m not sure I know how to count that high. It’s going to allow Tesla to produce a lot — like, a lot — of cars. It’s a big deal. Really. Believe me.
We’ve written at length about the Gigafactory (actually, “Gigafactory 1”), and have ~70 articles in the Gigafactory archives. Thinking about what to write as it officially opened this week, I wanted to step away from the same narrative we’ve used for years, that websites and TV stations are using in their own way this weekend, and that you’ve probably read a few times too many.
Yes, I’ll throw all the amazing stats down on the bottom of this monologue, and we’ll all pretend we can imagine the scale of this beast by looking at some record-high numbers (which will be multiplied many times over as Gigafactory 2, Gigafactory 3, Gigafactory 4, Gigafactory 5, etc., come online). But, on this momentous day, I want to step back a bit further.
The big deal about the Gigafactory can’t be captured in dry numbers. The big deal about the Gigafactory can’t be captured in photos, drone flyovers, or even seeing the already-legendary treasure chest in the middle of a dusty desert. The big deal about the Gigafactory can’t even be captured in Elon Musk’s beautiful Danielle Steel–style love confession (full disclosure: I’ve never read a Danielle Steel book, so I can’t confirm that the style is actually similar, but I’ll quote Elon again here since this description of the factory is so awesome):
“It may sound a little strange and sentimental, but I find it to be quite romantic. The final shape will be a diamond, aligned on true north, I like that. It seems incredibly romantic. By the way, there’s 10,000 wild horses in the area. They just hang out. We have construction ponds for water, so it’s quite cool to see the horses drink from the construction ponds.”
This romantic vision of a machine that makes machines can easily be skimmed over as 1) Elon being quirky, 2) one of the effects of chronic sleep deprivation, 3) a sign that Elon is on the market again, or 4) that Tesla needs money, TSLA is going to crash, and it’s time to short the stock (/s).
Nah, I wouldn’t recommend skimming over this bit.
The big deal is, like the theme of many a story, the human hero one.
Tesla could have died in a staggering number of ways in the past several years. If you go through the detailed history of the company and try to count up the death notices, you may go to sleep with nightmares. If you go back even further (if I have the history correct), Elon was keen to hold onto PayPal (not sell it for a fortune), and if his colleagues hadn’t essentially forced a sale, there’s a strong chance we’d never have heard of Tesla Motors. Somehow, though, this impossible dream turned into a reality. Somehow, we have Tesla Motors, and Tesla Motors is driving innovation and a transition to clean transport faster than the conventional auto industry wants you to know.
However, “somehow” skims over what I’m supposed to finally claim the Gigafactory is about, and why it’s such a big deal.
The big deal is that a human being has had the idealistic but realistic vision to transform society’s transportation and electricity markets; that this funny-talkin’ boy from the south has repeatedly tried to achieve things so ridiculous that people routinely thought he was either crazy or an idiot (or, most likely, both); that every time something giant was achieved, he put the rewards back on the line to double the winnings; that this guy wants to positively disrupt not 1, but 2 or 3, ginormous industries; and — here’s the beautiful thing — that none of it (aside from the fun) is really for him.
It’s for society.
It’s for the other humans on the planet today, other humans who will be on the planet in 100 years, and other humans who will be on the planet as far into the future as we can see. Even if they don’t appreciate it, even if they fight it, even if they ridicule it, this romantic physicist+engineer+historian+armchair comedian is trying to save their asses — and the asses of their kids, their grandkids, their dogs’ grandkids, Donald Trump’s great-great-grandkids (I had to throw “great” in twice, right?), etc.
The big deal about the Gigafactory is that it’s about vision. It’s about (I’ll use the phrase again, and encourage you to listen to Roberta Flack singing it): “the impossible dream.”
It’s about slingshotting humanity into another phase of its fascinating evolution.
The Panasonic executive leading his company’s work with Tesla to put the Gigafactory on its stilts and pump out battery cells as fast as a machine gun can shoot bullets seems like a pragmatic and successful guy. He admitted this week that he originally thought the idea was crazy. Heck, Elon and JB probably thought the idea was like something out of Looney Tunes. But it didn’t matter — they had the vision, they did the math (conservatively, since it turns out the Gigafactory will be able to produce a lot more batteries than initially planned), they quickly got to work, and now they’re about to shatter some world records and destroy the internal combustion engine (thank goodness).
But let me clarify: The big deal isn’t even about Elon or Tesla. The big deal is the capability of humans to dream, the capability to risk a great deal for an extremely slim but worthwhile possibility. The big deal is the human capacity to dream of things that seem impossible at first glance, and then to actually get to work achieving those dreams. We’ve seen this clearly at different points in time, and Gigafactory 1 is another potent example of this quality of human nature.
- By the end of 2018, the Gigafactory is supposed to be producing batteries quickly enough to supply 500,000 Tesla electric cars per year.
- In case you missed the initial announcement or many subsequent articles, that’s more lithium-ion batteries than the entire world produced in 2014.
- The Gigafactory has 1.9 million square feet of floor space and an 800,000 square-foot footprint … 14% done.
- Eventual target: 10 million square feet of floor space.
- When the Gigafactory is finally fully done, it is supposed to be producing batteries quickly enough to supply 1.5 million Tesla electric cars per year.
- Battery cell production starts in a few weeks.
- Battery production machines rise 38 feet in height.
- >800 construction workers are currently busy putting the Gigafactory up, on two daily shifts.
- The Gigafactory is currently 1 mile long.
- The Gigafactory has 4x more land than the country of Monaco.
- Building footprint is bigger than Vatican City.
- 93 large airplanes (747s) could fit tip to tip inside the building.
- 5 Dallas Cowboy stadiums would fit inside its footprint.
- 50 billion hamsters would fit in its footprint.
Gigafactory in units of hamster pic.twitter.com/9BAchcBX73
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2016
1 mile for Tesla, 1 trillion miles for humankind.
Elon Musk photo by Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0 license)