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Electrically Charged

Last October, Tesla Motors posted a video on YouTube consisting of about three minutes of undeniably compelling dash-cam footage. It shows the view from the forward-looking camera of a Tesla Model X saloon driving itself to work. The soundtrack is Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones.

Last October, Tesla Motors posted a video on YouTube consisting of about three minutes of undeniably compelling dash-cam footage. It shows the view from the forward-looking camera of a Tesla Model X saloon driving itself to work. The soundtrack is Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones.

There is a person in the driver’s seat, but he never touches the wheel, he just taps his fingers along to the music. After a couple of minutes on California’s Highway 280 the car takes an off-ramp, heads into the hills and stops outside Tesla’s headquarters. The ‘driver’ gets out, leaving the car to find a parking space and back into it.  

 Full disclosure: I have taken that off-ramp, parked in that car park and met Tesla’s mercurial co-founder, Elon Musk. For readers new to the Musk phenomenon, he is the South African-born co-founder of PayPal, who inspired the Tony Stark character in the Iron Man films, and is Chairman and CEO of electric car firm, Tesla Inc.

On a mission

Musk is on a mission to rebuild the future. He appeared as if from nowhere at the open plan desk he uses when at Tesla, wearing a blue polo shirt and an earnest look that he often uses to avoid appearing arrogant. Instead of small talk he offered an opening riff on battery power output and drag coefficients. We moved swiftly on to capacitors, rockets and a trip he once took to Moscow in search of intercontinental missile casings.  

He kept returning to what unifies his work – the need for a wholesale switch to clean energy. “We’re talking about changing what will probably be two billion cars,” he said. “We know we have to move away from oil because it’s a finite resource. It almost seems like the behaviour of a three year old not to act soon.”

That was on the eve of the launch of the Tesla Model S, and Musk has not let up since. He confounded doubters again with the world’s first all-electric SUV, which can out-accelerate a Buggati Veyron. He has made colossal bets on car-charging networks, reusable rockets that can deliver satellites to orbit then land backwards on barges floating hundreds of miles offshore, rooftop solar power, electric lorries, lithium-ion batteries and driverless technology.

When I met him, he was upbeat. “I’m actually very confident that it will work out,”’ he said. As ever, he was able to draw strength by thinking bigger and over a longer timescale than anyone else. On being asked whether he was attempting to change the buying and refuelling habits of an entire culture, he replied: “Of course we are. Absolutely. We used to feed horses, didn’t we?”

Forbes puts his net worth above US$15 billion. Tesla’s market cap regularly exceeds that of General Motors. That is how he has earned a hearing whenever he opens his mouth.

Musk told investors recently he “could be completely delusional”, but even when he talks about one day colonising Mars or digging tunnels underneath LA – as he does from time to time – he can carry people with him. The prevailing view, which Wall Street broadly shares, is that if part of him is mad it is only a small part; the marbling in the steak. Whatever else he is, Musk is an engineering genius and a social visionary who is already changing the way we live and the places we call home.

Goals and predictions

Bloomberg Businessweek has a blog devoted exclusively to tracking Musk’s goals and predictions as they are announced and achieved, or delayed. It lists 47 of them under Tesla alone, including forecasts that half of all US vehicles will be driverless by 2027, and that the first hands-free journey across America will be made this year.

Musk’s supporters have learned that he should not necessarily be taken literally. The point is not whether he will build a vacuum tube to shuttle people between cities by a given date. The point is that he has popularised the ‘Hyperloop’ concept, given it a name and challenged others to make it real, which they may do. Coming from anyone else, the idea of travelling at 700 miles an hour in an underground tube would have been dismissed out of hand. Coming from Musk, the Hyperloop concept has been seized on by engineers who want to emulate his chutzpah.

In the engineering under Tesla cars’ aluminium skins, Musk has made myriad innovations but sought few patents. His goal is critical mass for electrification – and we will get there, he insists, without the need for human drivers.

Fully automated

Driverless cars were not Musk’s first obsession and he was not first on the scene – that was Google – but as of 2017 Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are the portal to his view of the future. Through that portal lies a world where cities are clean and quiet because personal transport is electric. Time in traffic is no longer wasted because you can work (or sleep, within “about two years”, he says) as you roll. The smokestacks that used to rise over power stations will be history, replaced by billions of photovoltaic cells disguised as roof tiles, drip-feeding electricity into wall-mounted batteries that power not just your house and car, but the grid. 


At a recent TED Talk, Musk, was asked if he truly believed the part about ending traffic jams. Did AV technology really mean commuters would get dropped off at work, then rent out their cars to others for the middle of the day like driverless Ubers? “Absolutely this is what will happen,” he said. “There will be a shared autonomy fleet where you buy your car and you can choose to use it exclusively [or] you could choose to have it be used only by friends and family, [or] only by other drivers who are rated five star. You can choose to share it sometimes, but not other times. That’s 100% what will occur. It’s just a question of when.”The prediction is met by a ripple of applause.  

In the places where he works people hang on his every word, and work 100-hour weeks to meet his targets. In the outside world he has his skeptical critics for sure, but what no one disputes is the likely impact of driverless cars generally. 

In Singapore, where self-driving taxis were launched last year, a research project led by MIT’s Professor Carlo Ratti estimates that the city’s ‘mobility demand’ could be met by 30% of the vehicles now on its roads once they ditch their drivers. The number falls to 20% if passengers are willing to share vehicles.  

This is a huge change, although whether it happens depends on people’s readiness to abandon private car ownership in favour of a subscription model. Musk’s strategy is to be ready either way. His ambition is to tip the entire global auto industry towards batteries, and be the market leader as two billion petrol and diesel cars are replaced by electric ones. For this to happen his latest model, the US$35,000 Model 3, needs to be a mega-seller. 

❝We know we have to move away from oil because it’s a finite resource. It almost seems like the behaviour of a three year old not to act soon.❞

Re-imagining LA

In LA, planners are reimagining whole swathes of the city on the assumption that, thanks to ride-sharing and driverless cars using roads more efficiently, six-lane boulevards can eventually be turned into multi-purpose ribbons of relaxation. If current ride-sharing trends continue, the share of urban American road space taken up by cars could drop by one estimate from 80% to 20% in a few years.

His latest scheme is a network of car tunnels under LA. Musk announced his plans with the tweet: “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging”. So he has – a giant trench and the beginnings of a tunnel on land he owns next to the SpaceX headquarters in LA. He has been photographed there with the mayor of the local municipality, and has teased the web with an animation of cars zipping through tunnels at three times the speed limit on electric ‘skates’.  

Essentially Musk’s career since PayPal has been defined by a two-stage master plan. Stage one was about electric cars. Stage two is about enabling them to drive themselves and juicing them with solar power. Depending how things turn out over the next ten years he could really end up being thought of as the Sun King. Even if he turns out to be closer to Icarus, given what he has achieved already he probably would not mind.

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