Powering the electric car revolution

Tesla battery engineer Sam Paterson is right where he wants to be: facilitating the clean energy shift

Alumnus Sam Paterson started with Tesla a few months after graduating.“Being able to say in my interview: ‘look, I was involved in a Guinness record, a world record and three World Solar Challenges, and I project-managed the design and build of a new solar car…’ Well, I came in as a pretty good candidate.”

So says Sam Paterson when he initially threw his hat in the ring with the electric car giant Tesla a few months after he graduated in 2014.

Paterson studied Mechanical Engineering at UNSW and in his spare time project-managed the Sunswift solar car project. He says his involvement with the solar car definitely paved his way to the top tech company.

“I made great friends with my counterpart on Stanford University’s solar car team over the 2012-2013 World Solar Challenge (WSC) cycle. When I graduated, he put me in touch with someone working at Tesla who recommended me for the job. The recruiters at Tesla get over a million applications per year – which is absolutely insane – so if they get a recommendation from someone within the company, they take it pretty seriously.”

Paterson says he is thrilled to have been able to extend the network even further. “I’ve referred five or six outstanding UNSW engineers to Tesla – particularly engineers I met through the solar car project – and most of them have roles here now,” he says. “This really shows just how valuable the project is in creating networks and opportunities.”

When he started at Tesla, Paterson was working predominantly on battery module products, everything from battery modules going into Tesla’s Model X and Model S, to various sized battery packs, different cell chemistries and the modules going into the first generation of stationary storage. He is currently working on the high voltage battery pack for the upcoming Model 3.  

Although his first degree was in music, Paterson says he found himself drawn towards the big problem of energy, particularly clean energy. “I knew I wanted to come to UNSW, and initially thought I might do a photovoltaics degree, but when I got in touch with the solar car team and discovered they were building a new car, I decided to get involved. I soon realised I was more interested in the myriad opportunities available via mechanical engineering.”

Little did he know it at the time, but that decision would lead directly to his role at Tesla and, more interestingly, his work as a battery engineer. “Batteries are going to be a big story,” Paterson says emphatically. “And I’m very glad to part of it.”

If there is one thing Paterson is certain about, the work he is doing on batteries is not just about electric cars. “We’re in really interesting times as far as energy goes. I was speaking to another UNSW alumni recently who works at one of Australia’s largest, and biggest polluting, energy companies. He said they know their business model of burning coal is headed for the rocks, so are putting serious effort into figuring out how to make renewables work, particularly from an energy storage point of view,” he says.

“I believe the battery products we’re making at Tesla will go some way to solving that renewable energy storage problem.”

We have to make renewable energy a no-brainer. As we make batteries cheaper and higher energy density, they will become a serious problem for the fossil fuel industry. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to that.

Sam Paterson

In referring to the recent US election and the arrival of a climate change sceptic as President, Paterson believes the work they are doing has taken on extra gravity. “With the government set to become much less proactive about paving the way for green technologies, it means the work we’re doing is even more important,” he continues.

“We have to make renewable energy a no-brainer. As we make batteries cheaper and higher energy density, they will become a serious problem for the fossil fuel industry. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to that.”

Five minutes with Sam Paterson 

What’s your fondest memory from UNSW?

We had just got the 2013 solar car to a point where it could drive, about one week before we headed off to the WSC. We drove it down campus from the Scientia building to the Tyree building where we met the 2009 solar car. It was a momentous occasion for me. It felt like this was my big contribution. Between those two cars there are two world records.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve done with Tesla?

I got to see the first Model 3 car before we even launched it. That car has received over 350,000 pre-orders. That’s right up there as one of the highlights.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in the industry at the moment?

Electric cars are going mainstream. In the last six to 12 months, every single large automaker has announced the intention of [building] an electric car and by when. I think it’s great to have more electric vehicles out there – the more, the merrier – and I’m looking forward to seeing what the competition looks like.

What’s it like working in Silicon Valley?

It’s a really interesting time to be in the Bay area. Autonomous and artificial intelligence are two big things just bubbling below the surface right now but they’re coming soon. There are also some pretty wild projects going on. A couple of my friends are even working on a flying car project for one of the billionaires in the Bay! 

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