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Tesla hit an unexpected team with hundreds of layoffs

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This week Tesla laid off hundreds of people. That is not surprising. The company had announced job cuts earlier. But what was surprising was who got the pink slip - the team responsible for Tesla's wildly successful supercharger network. NPR's Camila Domonoske covers cars, and she joins us to talk about this pretty unexpected turn of events. Hey there.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So why is it so expected - unexpected, Camila?

DOMONOSKE: Well, superchargers are - in a word, they're important. They're very fast. They are reliable. A lot of other chargers aren't. They just - they blow the competition out of the water. And these are specifically road trip chargers, not the kind that most EV drivers used for day-to-day charging. But road trips are important psychologically. It's a big source of anxiety for Americans who are thinking about EVs. These are also tied into this other huge win Tesla had, which is - Tesla managed to convince every major automaker in the U.S. to switch to Tesla technology - they're designed for plugs - in exchange for getting access to these superchargers. It's also worth noting the Biden administration is putting a lot of money into new chargers, and the Tesla team that just got laid off won a ton of that money.

SUMMERS: OK. Help me understand this, then. Why would Tesla lay off a team that seems, on its face, to have been so successful?

DOMONOSKE: I will not pretend to be able to explain what Elon Musk is thinking. That's sort of a blanket statement. On its face, this is a head-scratcher, but I can lay out some theories that I've heard, right? One, he's clearly trying to cut costs. Maybe cuts this drastic are a sign that Tesla's financials are worse than they seem. Another option - he's really emphasized autonomy robotaxis as Tesla's future. Maybe this is a strategic move. On the other hand, another idea - maybe it's not strategic at all. One analyst called it emotional. Based on an email first reported by The Information, Musk told senior leaders they need to take these layoffs seriously, leading a lot of people to say, maybe, you know, some executives were resisting, and Musk laid off their entire teams just to send a message. If that's the case, he might just hire them all back. That's possible. There's precedent for that.

SUMMERS: OK. What does this mean for the future of this charging network, though?

DOMONOSKE: Right. So it's not going away. Most of the country's fast chargers are Tesla Superchargers. But Musk has posted online that growth is going to be slower, and it's going to be focusing on improving and expanding existing stations instead of adding new ones. Meanwhile, you have all these other carmakers who are adopting this technology. The design is standardized. They don't need to talk to Tesla to build the plugs. But to get access to that existing network, you do have to talk to Tesla. Ford and Rivian already have it, but GM, Hyundai, Kia, everybody else - they're still working on it, and now the team that was doing it has been gutted. So GM says they're monitoring the situation, and there's just a lot up in the air there.

SUMMERS: So do you think other charging companies can fill in the gaps?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. There are a lot of other charging companies out there, but none of them are anywhere close to Tesla's league in terms of quality or cost. That said, Beia Spiller with Resources For The Future, she points out...

BEIA SPILLER: You know, there are all these people who just got laid off from Tesla, so - right? - there's people that other companies can bring on to provide them that expertise.

DOMONOSKE: An awful lot of charging experts just hit the job market.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske. Camila, thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.