Tesla’s Engineering Chief Takes Leave of Absence at Pivotal Moment

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Tesla
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top engineer overseeing vehicle development 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, according to people familiar with the matter.

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.

“Doug is just taking some time off to recharge and spend time with his family,” a Tesla spokesman said in a statement. “He has not left Tesla.”

Mr. Field couldn’t be reached for comment. His absence was announced to some employees on Thursday, one of the people said.

Mr. Field has been a key leader at Silicon Valley auto maker since joining in 2013 from Apple. He oversees the engineering of Tesla’s vehicles, and last year he was also given oversight of production to better align the two efforts. That changed this spring when Chief Executive

Elon Musk

acknowledge he retook control of production.

The Silicon Valley 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 the company can create its first mass-market vehicle.

Tesla has struggled to crank up Model 3 production since it began in July at the company’s Fremont, Calif., factory. It has has twice delayed a critical goal of producing 5,000 Model 3s a week, expecting now to meet it by around the end of June. Any further delays could significantly impair Tesla’s cash position, analysts say.

In April, Chief Executive Elon Musk acknowledged on Twitter that he had would handle direct oversight of production and was back to sleeping on the factory floor. At the time, he praised Mr. Field as “one of the world’s most talented engineering execs.”

In a little over a year, Tesla has seen many of its senior leaders leave, including its chief financial officer and sales president.

Tesla has a history of key executives departing on so-called sabbaticals.

Jerome Guillen,

Tesla’s current vice president of truck and programs, for example, took a sabbatical in 2015 from his role as vice president of worldwide sales and service only to return in the new role. He had led development of the Model S sedan.

The hiring of Mr. 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 the electric-car company. Mr. Field had also worked at

Ford Motor
Co.

and Segway, giving him unique experience in both the tech and autos industry.

“Tesla’s future depends on engineers who can create the most innovative, technologically advanced vehicles in the world,” Mr. Musk said in a statement at the time. “Doug’s experience in both consumer electronics and traditional automotive makes him an important addition to our leadership team.”

The challenge for Tesla has been to implement Mr. Musk’s vision for the company’s cars with the hard reality of building them.

The Model X sport-utility vehicle, which began production in 2015, faced months of challenges in ramping up assembly. Mr. Musk had said the company learned from those troubles and would design the Model 3 for easier assembly.

In 2016, Mr. 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.

The CEO has since said 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,” Mr. Musk told shareholders in Tesla’s quarterly update earlier this month.

Tesla is facing a cash crunch. The company finished March with $2.7 billion in cash on hand. While Mr. Musk says the company won’t need to raise more money this year, many analysts say they expect Tesla will raise additional capital.

Write to Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com

Appeared in the May 12, 2018, print edition as ‘Top Tesla Engineer Takes Leave of Absence.’



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