The Future is Now for Elon Musk
By Jerry Brownstein
There are a few people in each generation who dramatically change the world, and Elon Musk is doing just that for the new millennium. He has a comprehensive vision of how the world needs to evolve, coupled with the unique ability to make those visions into present day reality. Over the past 14 years Musk has changed the course of an incredibly wide range of industries and activities: Aerospace, Automobiles, Energy Storage, Solar Energy, High-Speed Transportation, Artificial intelligence... and there is much more to come...
Elon Musk was born and raised in South Africa, but at the age of 17 he moved to Canada (his mother’s home country), and soon after to the US. He was an excellent student in applied physics and computer science which led him to start an internet finance company at age 24 in 1995. This grew and merged with other companies, and finally became Pay Pal – the dominant internet payment method. In 2002 Pay Pal was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion, and young Mr. Musk became a very wealthy man... but what was he to do with that wealth? He could have retired and devoted his life to philanthropy as many others have done, but Musk was driven by his desire to implement his visions for the future.
One of his passions was rocket technology because he felt that with intelligent innovations space travel could be revolutionized by drastically reducing its cost. Using the money from the sale of Pay Pal he started one of the most ill-advised business ventures you could imagine: a rocket company called SpaceX. Up until that time no private company had ever ventured into space launchings. It was thought that only governments had the ability to undertake such expensive and complex projects. But Musk was undaunted, and by 2004 SpaceX had started to construct experimental rockets. However, this was not enough for the fertile mind of Elon Musk, so he decided to launch yet another ill-advised venture. This one was an electric car company called Tesla which was going to compete with the giant carmakers throughout the world.
Musk’s vision was to revolutionize the automobile industry by significantly accelerating the adoption of clean and efficient electric vehicles; to move humanity more rapidly toward a sustainable energy future. Once again he was starting a business that most people thought was sure to fail – how could this one small company possibly survive in such a competitive market. Two years later, while the car company was still in the planning stages, Musk started yet another company in support of his vision of a planet with sustainable energy. This one was called Solar City, and its goal was to install solar panel systems in millions homes in the US.
In the four years following the sale of PayPal, Musk had followed his visions and spent virtually all of his money on these three improbable businesses. Many people looked upon him as a delusional internet millionaire who was in over his head, and by 2008 it seemed like those critics were right. SpaceX had figured out how to build rockets, but unfortunately they were rockets that did not work very well. Three launches had been attempted and all three had blown up before reaching orbit. On top of that, the Tesla car company was having trouble getting started, and Solar City was a long way from becoming a reality. But just when it seemed like all of his dreams would go up in smoke... everything suddenly turned around!
In September of 2008 SpaceX launched their fourth rocket – the last one they could afford to build – and it succeeded perfectly by putting a satellite into orbit. As a result SpaceX became a regular client of NASA sending up satellites and supplying the International Space Station with a 100% success rate. On a recent mission they did what had never been done before – landing the used booster rocket on a floating platform in the ocean. In the history of rocket launching it had always been standard procedure that the large booster rocket, which gets the spacecraft into the air, had been jettisoned and never recovered. This made no sense to Musk, so he has figured out how to make these expensive boosters reusable, and thus more economical and less wasteful. Refilling a used booster costs about €250,000, whereas making a new one each time costs over €50 million.
Meanwhile, the Solar City project has become the largest installer of solar panels in the US, and they are building the country’s biggest solar panel factory. And what ever happened to the impossible dream of producing an all-electric car that was ahead of the competition? About the same time that SpaceX took off, the first Tesla car, the Model S, was announced. These went into production in 2012, and they were the beginning of a very innovative marketing strategy. Musk hopes to sell millions of affordable electric cars to the general public, yet his first car was very luxurious, very fast... and very expensive. Why begin with a car that almost nobody could afford to buy?
The idea was to create a car that was a technological marvel and very beautiful so that people would get interested in electric cars and respect the Tesla name. The lessons learned from building this expensive car were then used to create the Model 3, which will be available for sale next year. It is also a very beautiful car with the most advanced all-electric engineering... but at an affordable price. The Model S gave Tesla credibility... the Model 3 can make it a formidable player in the world car market. In addition, Musk is tackling the challenge of having enough electric car charging stations with his usual enthusiasm. Tesla is building thousands of super powerful stations throughout the US, and will soon expand to the rest of the world. These will all be solar powered and free for Tesla cars... and they re-charge 10 times faster than current models.
So all three of the visionary projects spawned after PayPal have become successful... but that is just the beginning of Musk’s crusade to bring the future to the present. Tesla will need a vast amount of high quality batteries for the millions of cars they expect to sell, so they are building a giant “Gigafactory” in Nevada (US) which will more than double the world’s total annual production of lithium-ion batteries. Musk has also turned his attention to the development of a whole new mode of mass transportation called the ‘Hyperloop’. Like most Musk-inspired creations, the Hyperloop concept seems like something out of science fiction, yet a test system is already under construction in California. It consists of a network of above-ground tubes that are filled with very low pressure air which allows its bus-sized capsules to travel at speeds close to 1,200 kph. Musk’s goal is “To move people and cargo faster than was ever thought possible. It will make the world smaller, cleaner and more efficient.”
This year he has also created ‘OpenAI’, which aims to develop artificial intelligence (AI) in a way that is safe and beneficial for humanity. By making AI freely available to everyone he hopes to “counteract large corporations who may gain too much power by owning super-intelligence systems, as well as governments which may use AI to control their citizens”. This initiative is in line with Musk’s desire to take on the world’s most pressing challenges in order to give humanity the best chance for a positive future... and this vision goes beyond the confines of Earth itself. His goal in starting SpaceX was not only to launch satellites and supply the International Space Station... he wants to make humans a multi-planetary species by colonizing Mars with at least a million people over the next century! SpaceX is currently working on a large rocket that will be capable of bringing people to Mars. This may sound fantastic... but don’t bet against the man who has proven that he can turn science fiction into living reality. •