Zero to Sixty
- BY FRED SANDSMARK '83
- PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARVIN TSO
- November 7, 2016
The car that Tesla Motors founder and CEO Elon Musk drives is unlike any other. It may appear to be a normal Tesla Model X on the outside, but look closely at the car’s 259-horsepower front motor (762 combined) and you’ll find the initials ‘SP’ hastily written with a Sharpie pen.
Scott Pallesen (BS ’14, Physics) was working as an engineering technician in the dynamometer lab at the Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto when a spark of excitement flew through the department. The team learned that the motor they were testing would soon be installed in the famed entrepreneur’s car. Pallesen, caught up in the excitement, couldn’t help himself.
“As I’m uninstalling the unit after a test, I signed the motor,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s actually still in the car. Elon’s driving [it], and I tested it.” Pallesen’s route from Cal State East Bay’s College of Science to Tesla’s dyno labs has been fast and exciting — not unlike the cars themselves. And similar to Tesla’s built-to-last electric vehicles, Pallesen is looking forward to a long ride in the car business.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Pallesen graduated in 2014 with a physics degree and an uncertain future. He was working at an athletic shoe store in Livermore and considering applying for grad school or a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Then one day his father, who does high-end custom metal fabrication, invited him along to install stainless steel staircases and handrails at the Tesla Motors headquarters in Palo Alto.
“I saw a bunch of people on computers doing what looked like AutoCAD (2D and 3D design) and modeling,” Pallesen recalls. He has never considered himself a stereotypical “car guy,” but he has a mechanical and technical aptitude — from years at his father’s elbow — and the work looked appealing, so he submitted an application.
Pallesen’s timing was perfect; just a few hours later his phone rang. After a three-part interview (a sit-down conversation, a mechanical skills test and an assessment of his ability to read technical drawings), Pallesen was hired as a production associate — basically, an assembly-line worker — in the fall of 2014.
The labor Pallesen began doing on the shop floor was a far cry from the design work in sleek offices that had inspired him to apply.
He began with a physically demanding 12-hour swing shift — 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., five nights a week — building doors for the Tesla Model S, the brand’s flagship electric car. Over the course of several months he got to know the equipment engineers who maintained the assembly-line robots (the plant is renowned for its cutting-edge automation) and, intrigued by their work, asked if he could learn from them — on his own time.
The engineers and Pallesen’s supervisor agreed, and soon he was working an additional 12-hour shift on the weekends, repairing and maintaining the factory’s robots.
After nine stimulating but exhausting months, he was primed for another challenge. “I went to my supervisor and said, ‘I’ve got experience doing all this other stuff,’” Pallesen says. “And he said, ‘We need to get you out of here. I’ve been looking at other positions for you already.’” Pallesen embarked on another series of interviews, one of which included a geometry problem on a whiteboard. (He aced it.)
“[The manager] was looking for critical thinking — could I break down the problem?” Pallesen notes. “Then he took me on a tour of the lab. I was like, ‘What did I just get into?’ Because it’s loud, things are spinning, and I [had] never touched equipment like [that] before.”
But in June 2015, Pallesen indeed began testing motors on those loud, spinning machines — they’re called dynamometers, and they measure force, torque and power.
“It was a lot of fast-paced work,” Pallesen says. “Engineers would bring their motors down, and we tested them. The tests ran for two hours, then you’d take the motor off [the dynamometer] and put another one on it. It’s a very tight schedule.”
In spite of the breakneck pace, Pallesen once again found time for side projects.
The motors, weighing between 200 and 350 pounds apiece, are kept on tall racks and retrieved using a forklift. Some 40 motors are on the racks at any given time waiting to be tested, and retrieving the next one in the queue used to take technicians 20 minutes or more. But thanks to a database application Pallesen developed, which tracks the motors by serial number and uses a scanner to identify each one, the retrieval time dropped to under a minute. “All the departments were impressed,” he says with a slight grin. “They all wanted the code for the application.”
Pallesen’s willingness to do more than expected doesn’t surprise Cal State East Bay Associate Professor and Department of Physics Chair Erik Helgren. Helgren recalls an upper-division physics class Pallesen took with him that covered the Compton generator — a device invented by Arthur Holly Compton to detect the Coriolis force (a principle of physics that explains the motion of objects relative to a rotating frame of reference). Helgren assigned a related homework project and, the professor recalls, “I half-jokingly said that I’d be impressed if someone built one over the weekend.
“Sure enough, on Monday morning Scott came walking in with a homemade Compton generator,” Helgren says. The class was able to spend much of the next session reproducing Compton’s experiments using Pallesen’s device. “Scott did his best work in lab-based activities, whether it was in a lab class or the research lab,” Helgren says.
BUILT TO LAST
Within four months of starting work in Tesla’s Palo Alto dyno lab, Pallesen was promoted to a different lab — this one in Sunnyvale — to perform long-term tests that simulate actual driving conditions. (Tesla founder Musk has set a goal that his cars last a million miles or more, and these long tests are key to meeting that goal.) Here, Pallesen is one of just two people conducting tests that can run for weeks or even months on end, generating up to 300 channels of data.
Although his current assignment at Tesla is less physically demanding than the 72-hour weeks he spent building Model S doors on the shop floor, his drive for excellence is just as intense. Case in point: A single long-term test generates at least 10 gigabytes of data, and Pallesen strives to deliver those results as cleanly as possible.
“I’m very particular, and I want the tests to be run perfectly,” he says. “There’s hundreds of data columns, and my job — depending on the test — is to put [the data] on a big graph and analyze it. I look at the highs, the lows, the averages. This is what the senior engineers want to see. I want to get as much data as I can to the engineers, because I don’t want to hear that [a] part I tested is suddenly failing. Because then I can’t be proud of what I do.”
Pallesen clearly feels a sense of belonging to — even ownership of — Tesla and its vehicles. And when he talks about his work, it’s with phrases such as, “I want you to have your car forever.”
He attributes his attitude to Tesla’s culture, which seems more akin to that of a technology company than an automaker. Team-building exercises include video-game marathons, trips to the Tesla battery-manufacturing “giga-factory” in Nevada, and even an outing to watch one of Musk’s rockets launch into space.
Through it all, Pallesen says his habit of asking for (and finding) more work has only been encouraged, and he takes little credit for how he’s pushed himself at every turn to get ahead: “This just kind of happened,” he says, “but it’s been really cool, so I don’t think I’m ever leaving.”