The last line of defense. Matthew DeBord/Business Insider
How's this for a great job? As a quality inspector for Tesla, Jeff Hickenthier wakes up before dawn, jumps into his BMW 3-Series, nods toward the Audi R8 supercar that he saves for weekends, and sets off for Tesla's test track in Fremont, California, across the San Francisco Bay from Fog City.
Shaped like a tied shoelace, the test track consists of two straightaways with banked loops at either end. The Diablo Range looms to the east, and the view to the west is consumed by Tesla's 5.3 million-square-foot factory, where assembly lines are churning out the Model S and the Model X — and will soon begin rolling the Model 3 in significant numbers from an innovative, highly automated new assembly line.
He arrives 15 minutes before 6 a.m., parks in the carmaker's increasingly crowded lot, and heads for the track, a grayish-tan piece of aged tarmac that has been around since Tesla's factory was jointly owned by General Motors and Toyota in the 1980s.
After some early-morning meetings and maybe a quick chat with an engineer, Hickenthier, a wiry 50-year-old with full-sleeve tattoos and the laid-back draw of a Bay Area native, will spend the rest of his day outside, supervising the testing of Tesla vehicles as they emerge from the factory.
"Most companies do sample testing," he says. "They take one out of every couple thousand cars."
Tesla tests at a far higher rate. "There are so many quality checks it's ridiculous," he adds.
Hickenthier at work. Matthew DeBord/Business Insider
Hickenthier, who has been with Tesla for six years, and a half dozen guys who work for him, put vehicles through a series of tests that are designed to identify critical flaws.
"What we're checking for are items like alignment and brakes," he said, sitting in the driver's seat of a brand-new Model S P100D. "We're taught to focus on every little thing."
Hickenthier knows cars. Thirty years ago he started an aftermarket parts service out of his parents' house. After bouncing around a few mom-and-pop shops, he joined a larger operation, ascended to management, saw that company close, moved to another operation, and eventually landed at Tesla, where rather than dealing with the public he drives freshly assembled electric cars and fusses over every detail.
"The things that I find are usually not going to be anything that a customer would complain about," he says.
But Hickenthier complains about them. "Sometimes I'm too critical," he adds. "They'll tell me, 'Nobody's complaining — pull yourself back!'"
For Hickenthier, there is no such thing as too critical. Nor pulling back. He's the last line of defense for a carmaker that is under constant scrutiny, and he's not going to take a pass on a rattle or creak just because he has been at this long enough to have hypertuned his senses to problems that probably won't amount to much.
There's a Spartan aspect to Hickenthier's cheerful flintiness and dedication to what looks a lot like perfection. Tesla isn't up against financial collapse, as it was in 2008; more than 100,000 vehicles were delivered in 2017, and Hickenthier helped make sure they were as good as Tesla could make them.
The Tesla track. Matthew DeBord/Business Insider
But like King Leonidas, facing down a huge Persian army, Hickenthier serves a Tesla that is winning despite overwhelming odds against it. Perfection is victory. You can't work for the first new American car company to come along in decades, surrounded by powerful and far more experienced global competitors, and take it easy on quality control.
For Hickenthier, handing the stress is simply what he does. He runs each vehicle through a gantlet of challenges, ranging from strips of bumps and rusty chunks of metal to locate lose components or suspension flaws to speed runs around the track to double-check that a Tesla can live up to its reputation for velocity. All the while, he's scrutinizing the car for the types of nearly invisible flaws that he has spent years calling out. He may have a trainee sitting next to him, learning the ropes, or he may be in the passenger seat, passing on his obsessiveness to the next generation.
It's not an easy job. But it is disproportionately important — the only other Tesla employee who might spend as much time picking the cars apart is CEO Elon Musk, also the company's product architect and known for sleeping at his factory when Tesla has been in "production hell."
That's not something that has gone to Hickenthier's head. But he does grasp his good fortune. Not that he makes a big deal out it. Asked whether he has the coolest job at Tesla, he offers a matter-of-fact verdict.
"Probably," he says, with a grin and a shrug. "Yeah, probably."