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Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has spent more than a decade trying to disrupt the traditional auto industry, is sounding more and more like the man most closely associated with it: Henry Ford.

Why it matters: In his quest to build affordable electric cars for the masses, Musk is starting to embrace many of the ideas pioneered by Ford's founder — things like vertical supply chains and an obsession with manufacturing efficiency. A century ago that approach helped to popularize the American automobile by lowering the cost of the Model T.

What's happening: Musk is making batteries, computer chips and many vehicle components in-house — and securing supplies of raw materials.

  • He's either bucking the prevailing industry trend that favors outsourcing to lower-cost global supply chains — or coming full circle.

Like Henry Ford in the early 20th century, Musk was ridiculed at first. But even Tesla skeptics are surprised by the leaps the electric vehicle company has made in its manufacturing capability and efficiency.

  • Two years ago, after taking apart a Tesla Model 3, "I couldn't believe how bad the body was [put together]," says Sandy Munro, a former Ford Motor engineer whose consulting firm, Munro & Associates, specializes in reverse-engineering and competitive analysis for the auto industry.
  • "Everything else blew me away," he tells Axios, referring to Tesla's electric power train.
  • Now, after poring over every inch of a disassembled Model Y, its newest product, Munro says Tesla's improvement is remarkable.
"They're going to go from worst to first in a short time."
— manufacturing expert Sandy Munro

Details: Tesla still has work to do on paint quality and fitting body panels together, but several engineering innovations stood out, says Munro, whose findings are summarized in this video.

  1. Tesla's new proprietary computer chip. Designed in-house to one day enable full self-driving capability, the new chip is manufactured in Texas by Samsung.
  2. The "mega-casting" of the car's body. The entire rear of car is shaped from a single aluminum casting, rather than hundreds of pieces of steel welded together. That translates into better quality, less weight and easier assembly.
  3. Tesla's unique materials. By inventing its own aluminum alloy, Tesla eliminated multiple steps in the body manufacturing process.

What to watch: With Tesla adding factory capacity on three continents (including Austin, Texas, next year) and competitors entering the EV space, too, demand for batteries is increasing, and raw materials could become an issue.

Flashback: Henry Ford's mission was to build a simple, reliable and affordable car that average Americans could afford. Efficient manufacturing was the key.

  • Aside from inventing the moving assembly line in 1913, his biggest idea was an "ore to assembly" manufacturing complex that became Ford River Rouge.
  • "He bought all the different elements so that the raw materials would go into one side of the Rouge and 28 hours later come out as a finished automobile," said Ford Motor corporate historian Ted Ryan.

One other similarity: Like Henry Ford in the 1930s, Elon Musk has a history of anti-union behavior.

The bottom line: A century apart, these two automotive pioneers shared many of the same ideas.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 27, 2021 - Economy & Business

What to watch for in Tesla's Q4 earnings report

Data: FactSet; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Tesla will report Q4 2020 earnings after markets close today, with analysts expecting a sixth consecutive quarterly profit for the electric vehicle maker that was reeling just a few years ago.

Why it matters: Tesla is the country's dominant EV company, and its trajectory affects overall adoption of the tech, even as more and more models from other companies are hitting the market.

U.S. women's soccer team beats Netherlands, moves on to Olympic semifinals

Members of the U.S. women's soccer team celebrate after beating the Netherlands. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The U.S. women's soccer team beat the Netherlands in a penalty kick shootout on Friday, propelling them to the semifinals of the Olympic Games.

Why it matters: The win brings the U.S. team one step closer to its quest for a historic back-to-back double — winning the Olympics after emerging victorious at the Women's World Cup. The U.S. will play Canada in the semifinals next week.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
57 mins ago - World

SEC clamps down on Chinese IPOs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese companies will be unable to go public in the U.S. unless they make new risk disclosures, according to a statement released Friday morning from SEC chair Gary Gensler.

Why it matters: Chinese companies, and tech startups in particular, are already under growing pressure from their own government. Now they're also getting squeezed by U.S. officials.