Deepak Ahuja, former CFO of Tesla Motors, speaks at UC Berkeley

Forum_ EVAN MADDEN SHEAHAN_courtesy
Evan Madden Sheahan/Courtesy

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Deepak Ahuja, former chief financial officer of Tesla Motors, spoke to approximately 150 students gathered at Wurster Hall on Monday to hear his vision for the future of the automotive industry.

Ahuja’s talk centered on what he described as the currently “sluggish” automotive industry and outlined the three major disruptions the industry should soon expect — electric vehicles, battery storage and autonomous driving. The engagement was hosted by the Berkeley Forum, which frequently receives requests for Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, indicating interest in the company’s work.

Ahuja started in 2008 as Tesla’s first CFO, guiding the company through its initial public offering and retiring from his position in 2015. He is a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business and rose to the position of product development controller for small cars at the Ford Motor Company before joining Tesla.

Given Ahuja’s “unique background,” said Sergey Mann, the Berkeley Forum’s vice president of communication, the event was meant to attract a wide range of students interested in technology, business and finance.

The hourlong presentation began with a brief overview of the history of motor and air vehicles. Ahuja said while the rate of innovation for aircraft vehicles has increased progressively, the rate of progress for the automobile industry in the past 50 years, in comparison, has been lagging. Current innovations — such as the Tesla Gigafactory, a factory which will produce lithium batteries for electric cars at significantly lower costs — he said, are transitioning the world toward sustainable transportation.

Ahuja’s presentation also centered on problems with climate change that autonomous vehicles could potentially alleviate. Global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels were 36 billion tons in 2013, which according to Ahuja is a huge problem for future generations.

“Electric vehicles are inevitable for our future,” Ahuja said.

After Ahuja’s speech and a moderated interview section from Jackson Rigley, head of the Berkeley Forum’s moderating division, the event opened up to questions from the audience. Students in attendance asked questions ranging from the legal implications of autonomous cars to range anxiety for charging electric vehicles.

Hassaan Shakeel, a campus senior in the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences in attendance, enjoyed hearing Ahuja’s vision for the future of automobiles but was skeptical of Ahuja’s optimistic outlook on the ability to lower costs of battery technology and noted that it might be more challenging of a task.

A campus junior majoring in history, Hayley Davis, noted similar concerns with battery toxic waste but thinks a solution isn’t so far away.

A major concern with autonomous driving, according to Ahuja, is the potential disruption it would pose for the car manufacturing industry for companies who fail to quickly adapt.

Many automotive companies like Ford, Toyota and Audi and even technology companies such as Google and Apple have already announced timelines of autonomous vehicles for the future, Ahuja noted.

Nevertheless, Ahuja predicted that autonomous cars could soon create huge efficiencies in safety and utilization of road infrastructures.

“Autonomous driving does not need to be perfect, it just has to be better than human beings,” Ahuja said.

Contact Roann Pao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @roann_pao.