Q&A with Tesla co-founder and ECE alumnus Martin Eberhard
Tesla co-founder and ECE alumnus Martin Eberhard
Martin Eberhard is an engineer, veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and best known for his role as co-founder of Tesla. He is also an ECE alumnus with an undergraduate degree in computer engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering. In 2015, he was inducted into The Grainger College of Engineering Hall of Fame. During his recent visit to campus as Leader in Residence at the Illinois Leadership Center, we spoke with him about his memories of campus, advice for students and aspiring entrepreneurs, and the future of electric vehicles.
What advice do you have for current engineering students?
Take advantage of all the resources here on campus. Try to get a broad education, not just the fun engineering classes, but learn how to write, take some cool history classes, philosophy, whatever you like. I didn't do as well at that as I could have.
Also, and this is borrowing from Neil deGrasse Tyson, always take the hardest classes. Even if you don't do well, you're learning things that other people won't know, and you'll become more specialized and skilled. Lastly, if you're unsure of what you should be doing next, choose the path that gives you the most options.
And career advice for students who are about to graduate?
Do what you love. And when you choose your job, choose it based on the people more than anything, not based on who offers you the most money. The people are what matter. While you're here as a student, the people you meet will be your first network. I'm still friends with at least half a dozen students I knew here, even 30 or 40 years later. The network of people you build over your career, starting at the U of I, is one of your best resources as you go forward, particularly if you want to be an entrepreneur.
Were there any questions from students that surprised you during this visit?
I was surprised by the questions that weren't asked. There’s a lot of thought about entrepreneurship here and programs to help students think about their ideas and how to make a product. The missing piece was understanding how startup companies work from the perspective of stock. Stock, and stock options, are the jet fuel that powers Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs need to understand that.
How did The Grainger College of Engineering prepare you for your career?
The Grainger College of Engineering started my career. In high school, I was into electronics, and I built my own computer, but it was all trial and error and the best I could figure out on my own. What I got from U of I was filling in all the details and understanding how everything works. And I came away with the tools I needed to get a good job. I knew the right programming languages and design methodologies, et cetera. But, what I really got from this university were the tools I needed to keep learning and succeeding as my career changed throughout the years.
What are your fondest memories from Grainger Engineering?
Some of my fondest memories are of being really challenged by the professors I had. I’m thinking in particular of Professor Mac Van Valkenburg’s classes and my advisor Ricardo Uribe, both of whom have passed. But just the feeling of my mind expanding as they asked me the hard questions, and I had to figure out how to answer them.
How would you describe Grainger Engineering's impact?
It's a phenomenal engineering school. I came away with an education that has served my whole career. As far as impact goes, I spent my career in Silicon Valley, and although University of Illinois graduates tend to be less braggadocious than other universities, I see U of I grads all over Silicon Valley in every major company. So the impact is there, but less bragging than you might find from some bigger-named universities you might have heard of.
What does the future hold for electric vehicles?
We need to get away from fossil fuels as fast as we can. And as long as we have vehicles running on the ground, electrification is the way to go. For two reasons: one, it's the most efficient way to move on the ground, and two, it moves the choice of fuel away from the vehicle. My electric car gets electricity from the solar panels on the roof of my house, but it could be from nuclear power, or someday maybe fusion, natural gas or whatever we want. Electrification separates the driving from the fuel choices. I think it’s a bit early to be thinking about other modes of transportation being electrified, for example, commercial air travel, just because the energy storage for that isn't good enough yet – that’s an opportunity for future generations to solve. But right now, on the ground, I can't see why we don't electrify everything.
Share this story
This story was published April 26, 2023.