I have written several articles on postings related to Big Tech, Social Media and Corporations. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these Industries.
This is an Article is about Tech Genius Elon Musk and the affect he has had on our country. I have written additional articles about Tech and industrial giants, Bill Gates and George Soros. They have both had unique effects on our country. Bill Gates has had for the most part had a positive effect on the country, though many tech and software CEOs might say differently. George Soros has donated billions of dollars to various causes, however, I believe that his humanitarian donations have been a smoke screen for a more nefarious end. His impact on this country will be felt for many yeas to come, and I am afraid, all in a negative way. But enough of the negative, this article is about a remarkable man that has had an entirely different impact.
In a perfect world, a world in which technology constantly advances, where there are people on board, eager to invest in those advances to keep the improvement going, Musk would be just another Silicon Valley engineer tinkering in a lab. But the world isn’t perfect…
Somewhere in the cloudless skies over the SpaceX proving grounds near McGregor, Texas, a gigantic 10-story rocket emerges from the smoke of liftoff and descends slowly, carefully to the landing pad. It comes to a rest just as spaceships should: balanced vertically, Buck Rogers-style, on four steaming hydraulic legs.
At mission control, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk watches the show with an unimaginable satisfaction. The vertical takeoff / vertical landing Falcon 9 rocket (aka “Grasshopper”) being tested out there represents the next big leap in the space industry — a cheap, reusable rocket that can not only withstand the stress of re-entry and multiple missions, but do so with comic-book style.
And that is the signature of a true Elon Musk project — one part hard science, one part cold business and one part straight up sci-fi.
It’s that combination that has earned the 42-year-old South Africa native his place behind the controls at SpaceX — a company he founded in 2002 to serve (and define) the commercial space industry.
It’s also that combination that has enabled his other company — Tesla Motors — to bring his utterly futuristic, utterly powerful electric cars from the narrow luxury market to mainstream America.
And, finally, it’s that combination that has earned him his rank as IndustryWeek’s 2013 Technology Leader of the Year.
A Clear Vision
Twenty years ago, IW began celebrating the scientists, leaders and visionaries who are responsible for shaping and advancing the progress of technology — be it high-tech gadgetry or lab science, software or hardware.
In the past, we have highlighted the work of Microsoft’s (IW 500/16) Bill Gates and GE’s (IW 500/6) Jeff Immelt, and even Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter, the pioneers of genomics. And now, Elon Musk, with his spaceships and Roadsters, his Hyperloop and software empires, joins their ranks. And deservedly so.
Musk, perhaps more than anyone in the industry today, maintains a clear vision for what real 21st century technology is supposed to do and what kind of future it is supposed to be creating.
In pursuit of that vision, through his early work at Paypal and Zip2, then SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity, and with projects like the Hyperloop, 3-D modeling and autonomous driving, Musk has recreated, rejuvenated and redefined every industry he has encountered, from media and finance to transportation and energy.
Somewhere in there he has created a new world of technology according to his own idea of the future — a future based equally on physics and 50 years’ worth of unfulfilled promises left by science fiction.
And in that vision is the logic of the future — the future according to Musk.
Creating a Perfect World
There’s no reason for Elon Musk to be fiddling around with trains. With a new mass-market electric car on the brink of release from one of his companies and nearly 50 space missions already booked for the other, he should have more than enough to keep him busy. But when California began its billion-dollar high-speed rail project earlier this year, he just couldn’t help himself.
“How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL — doing incredible things like indexing all of the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?” he wrote on Tesla’s website in August.
The train, he explained, would be both slower and more expensive to operate than flying, not to mention more dangerous by two orders of magnitude. The whole project, despite its potential — or maybe because of it — was just a disappointment, he said.
So Musk did what anyone would do in his position: He invented a whole new mode of transportation.
The Hyperloop, as he calls it, was drawn up in an epic all-night design session, and could one day connect distant cities via a high subsonic speed pneumatic-driven train that could take travelers from, say, San Francisco to L.A. in about 30 minutes.
The details for the project are still sketchy and still very much in progress, but that’s not the point. The point is the process.
Musk’s work on the Hyperloop illuminates the creative logic at work that has allowed him to contribute so heavily to American industry in his brief, 18-year career. It contains all the secrets to what has made him a technology leader unlike any other.
In a perfect world, a world in which technology constantly advances, where there are people on board, eager to invest in those advances to keep the improvement going, Musk would be just another Silicon Valley engineer tinkering in a lab.
But the world isn’t perfect. The U.S. has abandoned space exploration, alternative energies and sustainable transportation. Technology is not improving at the rate Musk and his generation grew up expecting. In short, the future Musk envisioned for himself and the world wasn’t happening on its own. So he’s had no choice but to create a better world himself.
The Grandest Adventure
“If you asked people in 1969 what 2013 would look like, they would have said there’d be a base on the moon… and maybe there’d even be a base on Mars or space hotels and awesome stuff in space,” Musk told students at the Khan Academy in April 2013.
“That’s what people expected,” he said. But with budget cuts and waning public interest in space exploration (or at least in paying for exploration), the United States in 2013 can’t even send an astronaut into orbit.
And that, he said, is unacceptable.
At the same time, another piece of Musk’s vision — the one that first brought him to Silicon Valley fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania in 1995 — has faced the same disappointing neglect.
Back then, the electric car industry seemed ready to explode — General Motors (IW 500/5) had its EV-1s on the market, Toyota (IW 1000/8) had its RAV-4 and the whole auto industry was buzzing with excitement. It was enough to convince Musk — and much of the world — that the market was ready for electric.
“But when California relaxed its regulations on electric cars [in 2000],” Musk recalled, “GM suddenly recalled all of its EV-1s and crushed them into tiny cubes.” And that, he said, was the end of the buzz.
Which was also unacceptable.
Facing those disappointments, Musk dedicated his teams at SpaceX and Tesla to rebuild both the space and electric vehicle markets from scratch, something he took only a little over a decade to accomplish.
He did so by digging deep into his reserves — investing about half of his piece of the $1.5 billion PayPal buyout in SpaceX alone — and pursuing a different business tactic.
“You can run a company where you’re really under the gun to make a lot of short-term optimizations,” he explained. “But that makes it difficult to make big technology advancements.”
Rather than betting on that model, Musk decided to play to the future — to forward the cause of space and electric vehicles even when it wasn’t exactly the most commercially viable or profit-maximizing option.
At SpaceX, that meant spending time and cash to develop a cheaper rocket, with new designs and fancy money-saving tricks like the Grasshopper’s Buck Rogers maneuvers.
The company also needed a customer — something it lacked for nearly 10 years of development.
And then it struck gold this year.
“We developed the Dragon spacecraft rather optimistically because NASA announced that they were going to retire their space shuttles and were going to put out a bid to commercial industry for the first time in NASA history,” Musk explained. “We were lucky enough to win one of those contracts.”
As such, SpaceX became the first U.S. private company to deliver supplies to the International Space Station — an event that marked a near flawless success from the company and a rebirth of the American space program in general.
On the Tesla side, Musk knew he had to do something a little different to break into the market.
“If you’re a newcomer product, it’s not really enough just to be as good as the incumbent product,” he explained. “In order to get people to change, you have to do something that’s meaningfully better.”
The goal, he said, was to change people’s thinking in respect to electric cars. With current technology, they didn’t have to be low-performance, low-range golf carts anymore.
“I wanted to have something that was really profitable, better than a gasoline car for driving long distances, not just equal to gasoline cars,” he said.
“I wanted to make something obviously better.”
To do so, Musk needed something big, something groundbreaking and expectation shattering. And he needed it in a hurry at a time when he was still refining the technology and still working out the manufacturing details.
What he came up with was the super fast, super powerful Tesla Roadster, a two-seat all-electric sports car that hit the market for about $100,000 — a screaming image of the future if ever there was one. And one that paved the way for a whole new industry.
The Roadster — a high-end luxury car at high-end luxury cost — provided Musk with enough capital and enough press to allow him to ramp up production of the next model that hit the showroom this year: the Model S — a feature-rich, accessible version of the car, which was dubbed “the safest car in America” by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year.
On the strength of that, and the excitement already building around the next iteration — the Model X SUV due out in 2014 — Musk managed to pull a profit out of the company this year for the first time in its 10-year history.
And this, one could say, is the real test of Musk’s vision and his ability to shape it. After 10 years of losses, 10 years of profitless labor and experimentation, Musk has begun to create a world where investors can buy spaceships online, where private citizens can break out of orbit or create new businesses in outer space. It’s a world in which families can drive across the country in electric cars charged through a network of solar powered stations or executives can dip across hundreds of miles in minutes without leaving the ground.
It’s a future that suddenly looks a lot like the one we have been promised.
The odds are good that you have been impacted by the network effect, or when a product increases in value when more individuals begin adopting and using said product.
A few examples include the telephone and the internet.
Company CEOs such as Elon Musk have recently expedited this process by using their personal brands to create a massive network effect in different industries.
To get a better understanding, we need to dive in further.
If you were to ask Elon Musk whether he was a disruptor, a term often used to describe either Musk himself or the companies he leads, you might be surprised by his answer.
Back in 2015, Musk spoke at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual convention. He stated that he is “not really a fan” of disruption, and that disruption can only happen when a “fundamentally better” option is developed. Yet, even with this statement, it is difficult to ignore the significant impact that Musk has on any field he’s involved in.
In fact, we saw Musk’s influence on the financial sector through the acceleration of secure online payments during his time at what eventually became PayPal.MORE FOR YOUHow Elon Musk Moves The Price Of Bitcoin With His Twitter ActivityTwelve States Have Yet To Pass A Medicaid Expansion—Nine Are Run By Republicans
Additionally, his company SpaceX currently challenges the notion that private space exploration is impossible while trying to make Mars travel possible within our lifetimes.
Moreover, Tesla modernizes how consumers think about electric vehicles while questioning our dependence on fossil fuels. Even though it is no small task to change perspectives on such a wide scale, Musk seems to do it effortlessly.
Whether any of these companies are truly “disruptive” in the sense that whole markets are or will eventually become obsolete because of Musk’s work is for more intelligent people to debate.
But what is apparent to me is just how much a strong brand authority can do for your life, your business and, especially in Musk’s case, the world.
Musk’s legendary brand impact on his audience often starts with a tweet. The Tesla CEO has recently shown his support toward different companies and projects on Twitter, instantly piquing the interest of his 47 million followers. Those endorsements range from Etsy to Gamestop (paywall) to Signal and, perhaps more surprisingly, Bitcoin.
If you need examples of how quickly people and businesses will adopt new processes, look no further than Tesla’s recently announced $1.5 billion Bitcoin investment. In what was seemingly the most shocking financial news that some people could see coming from a mile away, Tesla announced in an SEC filing that it may purchase “certain alternative reserve assets.”
Although Bitcoin is not new, I believe Musk’s strong brand authority was part of the reason this decision created an increase both in the value of Tesla’s stock after the announcement and the price of BTC. He pushed Bitcoin to a new record high that day.
And this is not the only time that we have seen how much influence Musk has on businesses, the cryptocurrency market and even the stock market. At the end of January, Musk’s tweet, “I kinda love Etsy,” was reportedly enough to send prices of Etsy stock soaring nearly 10%.
Earlier in the month, an even shorter tweet from Musk that read, “Use Signal,” drove so many downloads to the encrypted messaging app Signal that it caused issues with verifications.
More recently, we have seen just how much Musk can drive adoption to specific cryptocurrency projects, including more obscure ones like Dogecoin, which was originally made as a parody but still spiked in value after Musk tweeted about it.
All this is to say that a strong brand authority can lead to some significant shake-ups. These examples of disruption, where people support companies and projects because of a tweet from a respected figure, show the power of brand authority.
But they also highlight just how easy it can be for marketing to manipulate people and potentially disrupt their lives. Because of this fact, we must all focus on our marketing messages and be sure to use our influence in a way that benefits one another instead of leading to a dangerous herd mentality.
With this in mind, what should business leaders do to ensure that their influence is benefiting and not manipulating others?
Stick to your area of expertise.
Shortly after the announcement that Tesla was investing in Bitcoin, some economists began calling for an investigation into Musk for sharing tweets in support of Bitcoin, which one claimed was “market manipulation.” It is difficult to imagine that there would be a significant blowback had Musk been tweeting about electric vehicles and space exploration instead. Therefore, it is safe to say that those with brand authority should only make recommendations when they are qualified to do so.
Remember to lead by example.
When you have brand authority, people count on you for guidance. You can use this in a positive way when you tell the truth and act in good faith. Alternatively, you can act out of character, share incorrect information and forget that people see you as a source of information. Unfortunately, failing to lead by example has negative consequences. For instance, people may mimic the bad habits of those they aspire to be. Ensure that you are always making your best self the one that the public sees — and not only because it improves your image.
When you run a company, especially if it is prominent, you have a lot going on. It can be easy to disconnect from and take advantage of those who see you as an authority figure. You should be mindful by not taking your influence too far and always working to influence others positively.
Overall, brand authority can be used for good, for evil or for something in between. By sticking to your area of expertise and leading by example, you can avoid the potentially negative consequences that brand authority can bring.
SpaceX is soaring. Tesla is roaring. How the world’s most creative and controversial CEO is transforming one industry after another—and why he’s Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year.
Things get serious inside the 45-minute mark. That is a relative term, of course, because there is nothing unserious about placing a $62 million, 208-foot-tall rocket on a launchpad with plans to send it beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It is a balmy Sunday in November. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida teems with technicians nervously running through checklists. Nightfall has come and gone, and the disappearance of the sun’s warm hues lend the proceedings a clinical cast. Four astronauts—three from NASA; one from JAXA, the Japanese space agency—serenely sit in a row inside a Dragon spacecraft, which is in turn perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket that will carry it. Both are manufactured by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., otherwise known as SpaceX, the L.A.-area aerospace company led by Elon Musk.
SpaceX and NASA have partnered on this launch, which is not unusual—over the past decade SpaceX has completed more than 100 launches with its Falcon rockets, and SpaceX regularly transports government payloads. What is unusual, however, is that SpaceX, a private company, would be allowed to ferry American astronauts to and from orbit. NASA certification for that capability came less than a week before the planned mission. Launchpad 39A, where this SpaceX launch will take place, is the same spot where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins left Earth on the Apollo 11 spaceflight. A successful mission today will take the astronauts to the International Space Station for six months of science experiments. It will also offer further evidence demonstrating that commercial spaceflight is viable.
At T-minus 44:55, a male voice breaks the silence. “The team is ready for crew access, arm retract, propellant loading, and launch,” the launch director says.
T-minus 1:47. Feuling is complete. With a roaring hiss, the rocket and capsule are consumed by a gigantic white cloud, the result of gaseous oxygen colliding with the coastal air.
T-minus 0:42. A voice crackles over the intercom: “Go for launch.” Another, from inside the capsule: “This is Resilience,” the name of the Dragon capsule, “Roger’Go.'”
Three. Two. One. The rocket’s rear ignites with the unholy scream of burning chemicals. Its deafening blast drowns out the audio. “And Resilience rises!’ a ground observer excitedly proclaims as the thundering column of light races toward the stars. “Not even gravity contains humanity when we explore as one for all.
At 8:09 p.m. Easter, as the four astronauts hurtle toward low-earth orbit at 17,000 miles per hour and become the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, Musk–unusually out of sight, owing to a possible COVID-19 infection–publishes a new tweet.
Just another day in the life of Elon Musk. Some executives play golf in their spare time; others read, mediate, or go for a hike. Musk catapults people into space–and that’s only his night gig. At SpaceX, where he is founder and CEO, the 49-year-old Musk has buiklt a private company currently valued at $46 billion–and projected to be worth much more–that is hell-bent on colonizing Mars.
Then there’s Tesla, which, with a recent market capitalization of north of $520 billion, is now one of the world’s most valuable companies, worth more than quintuple the combined value of U.S. auto icons General Motors and Ford. Through sheer force of will and a healthy dose of operating genius, Musk has built an electric-auto maker and battery manufacturer that is seemingly dragging an entire industry into the 21st century–and captivated investors around the world. Over the past three years, Tesla has averaged revenue growth of 52% and it recently reported its fifth straight quarterly profit. In November, it was anounced that Tesla would be added to S&P 500 index as of Dec.1–giving the stock a further boost. That rocketed Musks’s personal net worth even higher to nearly $128 billion, according to Bloomberg–making him the world’s second wealthiest person behind Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and slightly ahead of Bill Gates.
Elsewhere, Musk’s Boring Co. aims to dig tunnels to relieve urban traffic congestion. His Neuralink Corp. is working to realize implantable brain-machine interfaces. OpenAI, which he confounded and funds but no longer holds a board seat at–owing to possibly competing work at Tesla–is trying to develop “friendly” artificial intelligence that won’t threaten society. And Hyperloop? Just a sci-fi transportation idea he decided to open-source to the greater technology community.
Elon Musk, it’s worth stating, has the same number of hours in the day as the rest of us.
If Musk, it’s worth stating, has the same number of hours in the day as the rest of us.
If Musk had accomplished any one of those feats, he would have a strong case to be Fortune’s Businessperson of the Year. But this five-tool player–yes, even Elon Musk can get an upgrade–has managed to achieve it all in the face of some losing odds. And he’s far from finished. Ask chief executives in any industry which CEO most inspires them, and far and away it is Musks’s name that most often crosses their lips. They say Elon Musk is the rocke man, the iron man, the savior of the sins of a fossilized auto industry. He is an ambition-emitting entrepreneur who has enough executive aptitude to make the impossible possible. He is a designer, a technologist, and a Renaissance man without peer. He is a turnaround artist with astonishing verve and little apparent peer. He is a turnaround artist with astonishing verve and little apparent fear.
Yet ask executives which CEO vexes them the most, and Musk’s name is first again. To some he is a con, a bully, a toxic male messiah who can’t take criticism. To others he is a hypocrite, a fake, a reckless distraction unfit to lead us into the future. Musk is a taskmaster who plays fast and loose with the rules. He’s a homeless billionaire who takes us all as fools.
But those who know the man best say the reality is somewhere in between. Elon Musk is complicated. Human, even. And that truth, paired with Musk’s audacious successes this year, tells us more about the sate of business in 2020 than anything else.
The sedans are lined up in a tidy rows at socially distant intervals, 12 deep and two dozen wide, mid-day sun gleaming off hoods of silver, white, blue, and red. Every single vehicle is a brand-new Tesla Model S.
A 21st-century drive-in movie for the Silicon Valley set? Not quite. It is Battery Day here at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, and the drivers assembled on this warm September afternoon have come to hear Elon Musk review the company’s annual performance and offer a glimpse into what’s in store for the future–including, they’ll soon discover, a racetrack-ready version of the Model S called Plaid, named not for its sartorial treatment but after the top speed of the spacecraft in the 1987 spoof movie Spaceballs.
Cheers and triumphant fists appear from rolled-down windows as Musk, in a black graphic T-shirt, takes the stage. Car horns blare in greeting. The CEO responds with a delighted chuckle. “Hi everyone,” he says, grinning, as he surveys the scene before him. “It’s a little hard to rea the room with everyone being in cars, but it’s the only way we could do it.” Musk laughs at the apparent absurdity. This year’s event in the age of COVID is a far cry fromlast year’s traditional slide-deck session held indoors.
And Musk is in far better spirits then he was a year ago–for good reason. In September 2019, Tesla’s stock price had slumped by one-third in nine months, depressed by sluggish sales of its pricier models, A Walmart lawsuit over fires involving solar panels made by Tesla subsidiary SolarCity, and escalating trade tension between the U.S. and China that threatened to affect the company’s soon-to-be-opened manufacturing plant outside Shanghai. When Musk took the stage then, his remarks were muted and aimed to reframe the conversation: “It’s been a hell of a year, but a lot of good things are happening.”
That, it turns out, was an understatement. As Elon addresses the car-bound crowd on this day. Tesla’s has shot up eight-fold in 12 months, in part owning to an August stock split that whipped investors into a frenzy. And there is plenty more good news. Reports suggest that partner Panasonic will increase its investment in Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, outside Reno, by $100 million. With its Shanghai plant online, the company is on track to produce and deliver a record number of vehicles. Construction of a Berlin factory–boosting the company’s capacity and further insulating it from global trade tensions–is well underway.
In other words, things are going according to plan–a plan that has led to Tesla controlling roughly a third of the nearly $200 billion global electric-vehicle market, which itself is slowly but steadily gaining ground in the boarder, multitrillion–dollar automotive market.
This is no small feat. Tesla’s vertical integration, software orientation, and product differentiation–the result of years of loss-inducing investment in automation, battery science, and other proprietary technologies–are starkly different from that of its more conventional automotive peers. Tesla has navigated the trickiest of financial tracks as it has worked to secure the tremendous capital necessary to start and scale a new automotive manufacturer. Along the way Musk has fought a prolonged war against short-sellers and survived a near-brush with bankruptcy between 2017 and 2019 as his company scaled up to begin producing its least expensive vehicle. the Model3. The skeptics are persistent: According to financial data from S3 Partners, nearly 6% of Tesla’s tradable shares are sold short–a massive $22 billion bet against Tesla that has not paid off so far.
There are plenty of Silicon Valley technology startups that craft a business plan, raise money, and fail. With Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Co., and so many others, the scale, timeliness, and stakes are exponentially greater. Though Musk will bend over backward to insist that the tens of thousands of people in his employ are responsible foe the innovations he is credited with–and for the most part, they are–it is his executive aptitude that has kept such big bets on track through so many challenges.
Matt Desch, chief executive of the McLean, Va., satellite company Iridium Communications, says he first met Musk 12 or 13 years ago, years beyond SpaceX logged its first successful launch. Today Iridium is SpaceX’s largest commercial customer, having launched 75 of its satellites on eight SpaceX rockets.
And when you find yourself working directly with the man himself? You have all your ideas buttoned up– because Musk will politely interrogate you, says a former executive of one of Musk’s companies who, bound by a non-disclosure agreement, declined to be named . If you didn’t properly prepare, he will know. And he will remember–to your detriment.
“He really is, most of the time, the smartest guy in the room.” the executive says. “He will think through decision trees quickly and thoroughly–10 to 15 chess moves in advance. He will close his eyes, flip his head back, and you can see his eyes darting. It can last for a while.” That dynamic can go away, too.
“Elon sees himself as the smartest guy in the room,” the executive adds. “Most of the time he is–but not all of the time. His mistakes come from this. He doesn’t defer to others with more expertise.” Musk may be brilliant and shrewd. But his personality can sometimes be a liability to his success, just as easily as it can be a boon. Part of maintaining innovation over time is that your tenacity doesn’t become pigheadedness, and that your optimism doesn’t disconnect you too far from reality.
Internally, within his companies, he is also known for his candor–for better or worse. That brutal honesty, coupled with a demanding and fast-paced atmosphere that former employees say they have yet to experience anywhere else, has made it hard for many execs to stick around for too long.
Musk’s drive for creative undertakings is relentless, and he seems to approach virtually everything in his life with the same level of tenacity, whether he is right or wrong.
From Energy To Transport To Healthcare, Here Are 8 Industries Being Disrupted By Elon Musk And His Companies
Elon Musk is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has plans to colonize Mars, and thinks AI may turn humans into its pets. But beyond the hype, his enormous net worth, and Twitter presence, here’s how Musk’s companies are actually taking on 8 industries.
Elon Musk thinks and acts on a larger, more cosmic scale than we’re accustomed to from entrepreneurs. Musk has become a household name synonymous with the future.
His main projects take on almost every major industry and global problem conceivable, and imagine a disruptive fundamental rewiring of that space or sector.
|Industry||How it Could Be Disrupted|
|SpaceX||Space Launches||Offering lower priced transport into space|
|Telecommunications||Offering lower priced service|
|Satellite Internet||Putting more satellites into space for cheaper|
|Tesla||Automobiles||Building the best, lowest-cost electric vehicle|
|Personal Transport||Eliminating the need for car ownership entirely|
|Solar Energy||Increasing access with Powerwall and Solar Roof|
|Fossil Fuels||Maximizing efficiency of solar panels|
|Car Sharing||Making idle Tesla cars available via app|
|The Boring Company||Tunneling||Reducing cost of tunneling through the ground|
|Infrastructure||Building more efficient transportation infrastructure|
|Real Estate||Increasing range people can live from their place of work|
|Freight Shipping||Reducing freight costs by a magnitude|
|OpenAI||AI/Machine Learning||Owning the best AI system in the world|
|Competitive Gaming||Consistently producing better-than-human AIs|
|Neuralink||Prosthetics||Reducing cost of effective prostheses by magnitude|
|Medicine (Treatment)||Treating serious illness with simple injection|
|Military||Allowing enhancement of human capabilities|
|Robotics||Better modeling of brain-machine interaction|
We take a look at the state of his companies and how they are — or aren’t — transforming the industries in which they operate:
- Automotive: Tesla has boomed in 2020. We take a look at the company’s rocky history and how Musk has propelled Tesla to become the most highly-valued carmaker in the world.
- Aerospace: Find out how SpaceX plans to build a “freeway” to Mars by reducing the cost of flying a spaceship to a fraction of what it is today, and to harness rocket technology for earth travel as well.
- Telecommunications: Musk’s work in space could revolutionize how we get online, and provide fast, affordable internet for those without access.
- Energy: According to a utilities lobbying group, Musk’s efforts with Tesla and SolarCity could “lay waste to US power utilities and burn the utility business model.”
- Transportation: We analyze the Hyperloop, Musk’s proposed “fifth mode of transportation” that’s a “cross between a Concorde and an air hockey table,” and the progress that’s been made.
- Infrastructure/Tunneling: We look at how Musk’s business, called The Boring Company, is trying to cut costs in the notoriously expensive tunneling industry, where a mile of tunnel can cost $1B to dig and each additional inch in diameter costs millions more.
- AI: We investigate why Musk, who is certain that the race for AI superiority will be the “most likely cause” of WWIII, is investing so much into building better AI.
- Healthcare: We dig into the high-bandwidth, minimally invasive brain machine interfaces that Neuralink is developing to create futuristic humans.
Elon Musk’s Companies
Elon Musk is the CEO, founder, inventor, or adviser for some of the world’s most-hyped companies, including:
- SpaceX (including Starlink)
- Tesla (including SolarCity)
- The Boring Company
Read on for a deep dive into how Elon Musk and his companies are transforming vital industries.
By many counts, Tesla Motors has thrived during the Covid-19 crisis. The company, which has been dogged by missed production targets in the past, remained profitable amid the pandemic despite a factory shutdown, is expanding rapidly with plans to build 2 additional factories in Texas and Germany, and saw its stock price quadruple to make it the world’s most valuable car maker.
WHAT IS TESLA’S MISSION?
Founded in 2003, Tesla is Musk’s second project post-PayPal, and still one of his most ambitious.
Tesla envisions a future of self-driving cars, where the majority of people travel by autonomous Tesla vehicles. It’s also a future where car owners seamlessly rent out their vehicles to serve as self-driving cabs while they’re not using them. Part of the company’s mission is to ramp up the global transition to sustainable energy.
However, production problems have plagued the California-based company, causing delivery delays and raising concerns from some Tesla shareholders. The enormity of the hype around Tesla has made the company an attractive target for short sellers, but the bets have lost more than $20B this year as Tesla’s stock has more than quadrupled YTD.
WHY BET ON ELECTRIC VEHICLES?
Expecting electric vehicles to become mass market makes sense. Great Britain and France voted to ban diesel and gasoline auto sales starting in the year 2040. China has said that 20% of cars sold in the country should run on some alternative source of fuel by 2025. GM plans to have 20 electric vehicle models on the road by 2023. Volvo is expecting to sell 1M electric cars by 2025.
Bloomberg’s growth forecast for electric vehicles over the next several decades. Source: Bloomberg NEF
In this landscape, owning the electric vehicle market begins to look a lot more like eventually owning the entire automobile industry.
THE PROMISE OF TESLAS
Americans spend an average of nearly $3,000 a year on gasoline. Freight companies pay as much as $200,000 a year to fuel up each semi.
Though electric vehicles like Teslas still rely on the grid for energy, they could help reduce that economic burden.
The Tesla Semi will reportedly save drivers up to $200,000 a year on fuel costs.
Another distinguishing point of Teslas is their self-driving technology. (We cover other corporations working on autonomous vehicle tech here.)
The vehicles are equipped with 8 external cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and a radar that are used to generate a model of the surrounding environment. Those models are uploaded to Tesla, where they’re studied and compared with millions of hours of footage compiled from other Tesla vehicles.
The resulting “Autopilot” technology, available in all 4 Tesla models, enables features like auto steering, self parking, and summoning. Fully autonomous driving without driver input is not yet available.
A driver uses a smartphone to summon his car during a rainstorm.
However, questions regarding the safety of autonomous driving tech and regulatory approval remain obstacles. For example, Tesla’s Autopilot system was being used during a fatal crash in 2018. After 3 crashes involving the Autopilot system in early 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an official investigation.
TESLA’S ROCKY HISTORY
The Tesla Model 3 — Tesla’s first true mass market electric vehicle — became the best-selling electric vehicle globally in March 2020.
But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
Within 48 hours of announcing the Model 3 in March 2016, the car had almost 250,000 preorders. That amounted to over $10B in potential sales. But delivering on those orders proved to be a problem.
Musk promised 1,500 Model 3 units in the third quarter of 2017, up to 20,000 per month by December. In reality, only 260 units were produced in the third quarter.
In November 2017, the date for hitting 5,000 Model 3 units a week in production was moved from December to March 2018, and the company sold about 100,000 vehicles that year.
Production issues for the Model 3 continued to plague Tesla throughout 2018. The goal of 5,000 cars/week was finally reached in the last week of June, which required Musk to:
- Build a tent in 2 weeks to house an entirely new assembly line
- Stay at the facility “24/7” and work 120-hour work weeks to help solve production bottlenecks
- Call employees from other business functions to try and speed up production
However, production has ramped up since then, with Tesla delivering 499,550 vehicles in 2020. The company aims to deliver up to 1M vehicles in 2021, although that goal may be hindered by a global semiconductor shortage.
TESLA’S RECENT SUCCESS
A number of developments have helped Tesla gain momentum:
- Less than a year after breaking ground, its China plant hit early production targets for 1,000 Model 3s a week in December 2019. This helped sustain revenue as Tesla’s lone US plant shut down during the pandemic.
- The company also began work on its third assembly facility in Germany in early 2020.
- Enthusiasm swelled when the car maker began delivering its newest Model Y — a compact SUV expected to become a bestseller — ahead of time in March.
- In July 2020, Tesla Motors announced that it notched its fourth-straight profitable quarter for the first time in its 17-year history. It also revealed plans to build a second US assembly plant in Austin, Texas, slated to build the Cybertruck pickup, which was unveiled in 2019.
However, Tesla’s future isn’t necessarily smooth sailing from here on out. Critics have been skeptical about the sustainability of profits in recent quarters, and some analysts are questioning the company’s sky-high valuation. Meanwhile, US tax breaks for purchasing Tesla’s electric vehicles have expired, potentially dampening buyer demand.
Tesla is facing growing pressure in China as well. The Chinese government has reportedly banned Tesla vehicles from entering its military premises, sensitive facilities, and key agencies. The government expressed security concerns over the multiple cameras installed onboard in Tesla cars, fearing that the “data the cars gather could be a source of national security leaks.”
Troubles in China are a major source of concern for Tesla. The company sold 147,445 cars in China in 2020, almost a third of its deliveries. The company also runs Shanghai Gigafactory.
It comes as no surprise that Musk reacted quickly to spying concerns. In March 2021, he said that Tesla has “a very strong incentive” to protect sensitive data because otherwise it risks being shut down. It remains to be seen how Tesla will maintain its position in China amidst a growing tech rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
Another potential source of volatility is Tesla’s foray into cryptocurrencies. The company purchased $1.5B worth of bitcoin in February 2021 and announced it would accept the cryptocurrency as payment.
Musk often encourages people to buy digital coins on Twitter, driving the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But cryptocurrencies are volatile, and their price drop could cost Tesla billions. The carmaker’s stock is now directly affected by the value of Bitcoin.
Tesla is also considering a move into insurance, a more traditional finance sector. The company briefly offered insurance in 2019 before pausing the program. In July 2020, Musk told investors in an earnings call that Tesla plans to build “a major insurance company.” The new service has yet to be rolled out despite Musk promising the launch by the end of 2020.
Analysts point out that insurance could help the company improve profit margins and get more value out of its vehicles.
Leaving humanity as a single-planet species is a surefire path to extinction, according to Musk.
The further we explore and settle away from Earth, the more resilient our species becomes in the face of threats like superhuman AI or the depletion of Earth’s natural resources.
WHAT IS SPACEX?
In 2002, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, with the goal of making humanity multiplanetary.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great — and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” per a Musk quote on the SpaceX website. “It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
In the summer of 2020, SpaceX became the first commercial company to send 2 NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and back. The mission also marked the first manned launch from US soil since 2011, when NASA ended its space shuttle program.
High launch costs have been prohibitive to the expansion of space travel. However, typical launch costs have declined by a factor of 20 in the past decade thanks to commercial rocket development.
There are a host of technical reasons for the high costs, including the capital requirements of building single-use rockets, low failure tolerance, and high system complexity.
For Musk, reusable rockets are the key to making space exploration accessible.
Currently, at the top end of the price spectrum are the “expendable launch systems,” such as Arianespace’s Vega launcher and Boeing/Lockheed Martin Atlas V (manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between the 2 companies).
These are big rockets that can put a lot into orbit, but cannot be reused. The Space Shuttle (NASA) sits in the middle of the cost range. The shuttle was designed to be cheap and reusable, but the price of the expendable solid rocket boosters and main fuel tank added to the cost and ultimately restricted the value of the program.
At the bottom of the spectrum sit SpaceX’s Falcon rockets, which have already shown a decrease in cost of up to 5x for getting a spacecraft into the sky.
In August 2020, SpaceX celebrated its 100th rocket launch as well as a new milestone of reusing a single orbital rocket 6 times.
In the long term, Musk wants SpaceX to put 1M people on Mars by 2050. To do that, he said that the “cost per ton to orbit needs to improve by >1000% from where Falcon is today for there to be a self-sustaining city on Mars.”
WHY DOES ELON MUSK WANT TO GO TO MARS?
Musk has said that humans need to set up a presence on Mars to protect “the continuance of consciousness as we know it.” Mars isn’t exactly hospitable, but it is one of the better nearby options for humans to settle.
The Martian day is just a bit longer, the temperature range is not too extreme, and the amount of land is similar. There is water under the surface and an abundance of resources that could help to sustain human life.
HOW SPACEX IS WORKING TOWARD MARS
Getting to that cost improvement to make commercial interplanetary space travel a reality requires more than just reusable rockets. That is just the first of 4 envisioned components that are needed to set up a return service to Mars economically:
- Reuse of rocket technology. This is where SpaceX has found success so far.
- Refill the rockets in orbit. So much fuel will be needed for a trip to Mars, the rockets may need to refuel in orbit.
- The ability to produce propellant on Mars. If it’s a challenge to launch with enough fuel to get there, then transporting the fuel to get back would be even more prohibitive.
- The ability to produce the right type of propellant on Mars.
The SpaceX vehicles will use Methalox, a combination of methane and oxygen. To make the methane, SpaceX will collect carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere (96% of the atmosphere is CO2) and mine water from the surface. Through this, the company can produce all the fuel its needs for the return trip.
The SpaceX plan for shuttling between Earth and Mars includes finding a way to generate enough fuel to sustain a return trip on the red planet itself.
The vehicle won’t be the Falcon rocket/Dragon capsule combination currently in use. Instead, SpaceX is developing Starship (previously named the Big Falcon Rocket). A prototype was successfully launched 500 feet into the air for the first time in early August.
But ensuring that the Starship prototypes land has been a challenge. In April 2021, the fourth Starship prototype in a row failed to land and exploded in midair.
The ambitious vision for Starship outlines a 400-feet tall, 30-feet wide ship, propelled by 37 Raptor engines, that will be capable of transporting up to 100 people at a time.
Source: Ken Kirtland IV
WHAT’S NEXT FOR SPACEX?
Before SpaceX takes anyone to Mars, it plans to bring Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa close to the moon. In September 2018, Musk announced that the Japanese billionaire and his 6-8 guests will be the first humans to see the moon up close since the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. Initially slated for 2019, SpaceX has pushed back the trip to concentrate on developing the more powerful Starship, with plans to launch as soon as 2023.
SpaceX also plans to send the world’s first all-civilian mission to space by the end of 2021. Called Inspiration4, the 4-person mission will be led by billionaire Jared Isaacman and will also include Hayley Arceneaux, Christopher Sembroski, and Dr. Sian Proctor. SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 rocket to launch the crew.
The crewmembers will be aboard a Dragon spacecraft that will orbit the Earth along a specific flight. At the end of this mission, the spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere and hit the ocean off the coast of Florida.
Inspiration4 crew: Christopher Sembroski, Hayley Arceneaux, Dr. Sian Proctor, and Jared Isaacman. Source: Inspiration4
Musk hopes this mission will inspire others to sign up for these flights. And although most people can’t afford space tourism, Musk says that missions like Inspiration4 are like “when America went to the moon in ’69 — it wasn’t just a few people, humanity went to the moon.” As technology progresses, he hopes all-civilian flights will become more affordable.
Musk’s ambitions with SpaceX aren’t just focused on interplanetary travel. The rocket company is using its space-faring experience to build its own internet service, which will be delivered by a constellation of thousands of satellites.
For all the talk of Musk’s innovation, his average project seems to revolve around a set formula: find an old idea that failed because of lackluster technology, and attack it with some of the world’s best engineers.
That’s exactly how Musk and SpaceX are going after the $400B satellite internet industry to provide online access to those in rural, hard to reach locations.
WHAT IS STARLINK?
SpaceX’s ambitious $10B Starlink project isn’t intended to provide high-speed internet to everyone, everywhere, but instead targets the population that terrestrial networks have failed to reach.
“I want to be clear: it’s not like Starlink is some huge threat to telcos,” Musk said in a March keynote. “In fact, it will be helpful to telcos because Starlink will serve the hardest-to-serve customers that telcos otherwise have trouble dealing with.”
THE STATE OF SATELLITE INTERNET
The idea of beaming the internet down from satellites is an old one. Teledesic was founded in the early ’90s to build a constellation of satellites that could provide a wide network of broadband internet. It, and a few other similar companies, failed and went bankrupt given the logistical challenge of getting so many satellites into space and maintaining low-latency connections.
There have been a number of prominent satellite internet company flame-outs in the last few decades — Iridium, Teledesic, Globalstar, and OneWeb, to name a few. But the Starlink project differs in some significant ways:
- Cost: As discussed above, SpaceX has brought (and continues to bring) the cost of launching a satellite down to a fraction of what it once was
- Speed: Previous satellite internet attempts capped out at about 25 Mbps, while SpaceX is targeting about 1 Gbps
- Latency: The amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel between Earth and a satellite — current high-orbit providers post about 600+ milliseconds (ms) latency, while SpaceX is aiming at below 20 ms for its low-orbit satellites, a significant improvement
HOW SPACEX IS REVOLUTIONIZING SATELLITE INTERNET WITH STARLINK
Elon Musk first talked publicly about satellite internet in early 2015. In 2018, SpaceX received the go-ahead from the FCC to launch up to 11,943 broadband satellites.
SpaceX plans to deliver global broadband internet from orbit, creating a mesh network that could cover the entire globe.
A few months later, SpaceX flew a used rocket into space for the first time.
SpaceX has already brought the cost of a satellite launch down to about $62M, compared to competitors’ rates that go upwards of $165M. It’s also pioneered reusable rockets, which can bring down the cost to below $30M per launch, according to SpaceX’s director of vehicle integration.
The first 2 Starlink satellites — Tintin A and B — were launched into orbit in February 2018. As of March 2021, Starlink has deployed over 1,000 satellites, surpassing the 800 satellite mark when the network is expected to be functional.
Most of the world still doesn’t have access even to a land-locked gigabit internet connection.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR STARLINK?
Two challenges remain for SpaceX:
- The FCC requires that half of the satellites be launched by March 2024 — SpaceX had only planned on launching one-third, or 1,600, by that time. Since the FCC is reserving a band of telecommunications spectrum for the Starlink system, it wants SpaceX to fully deploy the satellites as soon as possible.
- SpaceX also has to provide an updated “de-orbit plan.” This shows how SpaceX is going to deal with all of the space debris from deteriorating satellites, which, in the worst case scenario, could trigger a chain of devastating satellite collisions. With close to 6,000 tons of material in low Earth orbit as of 2019, the FCC wants to make sure SpaceX isn’t contributing to the problem of space junk.
The FCC also awarded SpaceX with nearly $900M in subsidies to bring internet to rural areas. The subsidies will be paid out over a decade. Participation has traditionally been limited to fixed broadband providers, but recent beta tests have shown that Starlink’s broadband speed clears the low-latency threshold.
In October 2020, SpaceX launched the initial public beta test called the Better Than Nothing Beta program. Users in the US, UK, and Canada can sign up to join the program. To participate, they have to pay $499 for the Starlink ground equipment as well as a $99 monthly service fee.
SpaceX also developed a Starlink mobile app for both Android and Apple devices that helps users manage the equipment. In an email sent to beta testers, the company said that it expects latency “to decrease to between 16ms and 19ms by summer 2021.” SpaceX is pursuing further international expansion, with Austria, Germany, South Africa, Mexico, Japan, and Italy on the list of countries where Starlink service may eventually be available.
Competition for the market is also growing. Apple is reportedly building out a satellite internet team, while Amazon recently gained FCC approval for its $10B Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites.
Ultimately, Starlink’s progress has brought momentum into an industry that has been stagnant for decades.
Eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and instead drawing energy from the “giant fusion reactor in the sky” (i.e. the sun) has been one of Musk’s priorities for more than a decade.
WHAT IS SOLARCITY?
Elon Musk originally suggested the concept for the company that became SolarCity to his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, in 2004.
SolarCity, which creates and sells solar panels and roof tiles, was Musk’s first attempt to make solar power mainstream and ubiquitous. The company was at the forefront of the early 2000’s “solar gold rush.” In some ways it was a failure, but it remains important to understand its trajectory to understand how Musk and Tesla plan to approach renewable energy.
SolarCity grew to become the country’s largest provider of residential solar energy, then suffered some very public financial problems before being purchased by Tesla for $2.6B.
That 2016 acquisition was controversial, with many observers calling it a thinly veiled bailout, and gave rise to a multi-year shareholder lawsuit — with $2.6B in damages at stake — that has yet to be resolved.
WHY SOLAR ENERGY?
The concept for SolarCity emerged out of a simple realization: the clock was running low on fossil fuels. The need for a replacement was emerging fast. “If they started now,” as Men’s Journal reports Musk telling Lyndon in 2004, “They might rule the market.”
Coal production had been in a plateau since the late 1990s, as had electricity generation from nuclear. And while some predicted a “nuclear renaissance” in the early 2000s, as of 2004, that had not arrived either.
Electricity generation from nuclear power has remained fairly steady since 2000 — though growth has all but stopped. Source: EIA
As of 2004, a majority of the generators of nuclear and coal-based power in the US were also starting to reach end-of-life status. They would soon need either expensive upgrades or maintenance, or to be refashioned into generators for alternate sources of energy.
The average nuclear or coal installation lasts about 40 years. Today, about 250 gigawatts of our total energy consumption comes from generators that are in imminent need of upgrade or maintenance or replacement.
At the same time, solar looked like an attractive alternative. Prices on solar power had been dropping for decades, going from about $76/watt in 1977 to less than a dollar per watt in recent years.
The Swanson Effect observes that the price of building photo-voltaic cells for use in solar power generation tends to fall by about 20% every time the volume of solar panels produced doubles. Source: Wikimedia
The price of installing solar panels on roofs decreased as well — and has continued to do so in the ensuing years.
SolarCity launched in July 2006 and took on the last-mile challenge of making solar truly accessible and mainstream. By 2013, it was the leading installer of solar systems in residential buildings in the United States.
Its key innovation, though, was less on the technology side and more on the accounting side. Before SolarCity, the cost for getting a solar roof installed was between $30,000 and $50,000 upfront. SolarCity pioneered the “solar lease” strategy, which allows homeowners to get their roofs installed for free and pay back the installation costs over time. GTM Research reports that solar leases made up 72% of new solar installations as of 2014.
February 2014 was SolarCity’s stock price peak. But cancellation rates on SolarCity contracts soon spiked to 45% or more, according to Fast Company.
Some critics pointed to SolarCity’s aggressive sales tactics as the culprit. SolarCity salespeople would book installations using savings promises that critics say “bent the truth” on the numbers. Customers, once they realized they wouldn’t be saving as much as they had been promised, canceled their installations in droves.
All the while, the SolarCity sales team was growing by hundreds of people a week, and they were incentivized to book installations. Revenue, however, was not increasing at nearly the same rate.
Toward the end of 2015, SolarCity promised investors it would right the ship — by reducing its growth rate. Wall Street wearied. After SolarCity announced a particularly bad quarter in February 2016, its stock price dropped by a third.
“This is a company that I regard in a first-class crisis that acts as if everything is fine,” TV anchor Jim Cramer said afterwards. “You know I’m an aficionado of conference calls. You may have found the bottom. Yes, [this is] the worst conference call of 2016.”
In February 2016, Musk proposed that Tesla buy SolarCity.
Tesla was developing the technology to help people charge their Teslas at home and on the road. These so-called Powerwall batteries were being installed in homes and connected to solar generators by third parties.
After the deal was approved, SolarCity’s business became organized under the Tesla “Solar Roof” product offering — allowing Tesla to provide end-to-end residential solar energy rather than just the battery.
WHAT IS TESLA DOING WITH SOLAR ROOF NOW?
At a 2017 National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island, Elon Musk announced that — with solar technology from SolarCity and battery technology from Tesla Powerwall — a 100 square mile patch of land could provide enough power to supply the entire United States.
But that promise remains to be seen.
Rollout of the Solar Roof has been slow: the first preorders were in May 2017, and the first non-employee installations began in spring 2018.
The earliest results suggested some success. Amanda Tobler’s Solar Roof was one of the first to get hooked up to a local energy provider and to start producing electricity for her family. The full roof cost about $50K (including federal tax credits) for about 2K square feet of roofing, of which 40% were solar tiles.
In the summer, the solar panels started producing higher amounts of electricity, getting to the point where, even with A/C use and 2 electric vehicles charging, Tobler was pumping electricity back into the grid, according to her Twitter account.
In just one week, the solar roof produced 394 kWh of electricity, far more than the average US residential electricity use of ~225 kWh/week.
During this phase, her family used just 2.9kWh from the grid but gave back 101 kWh to other Californians.
Though the technology is promising, Tesla has not been able to roll out the tiles to many buyers.
In Tesla’s Q2’18 earnings call, Musk stated that the company “now [had] several hundred homes with the Solar Roof on them,” though the company later clarified that he included roofs that are scheduled for installment or partially installed.
However, in May 2018, only 12 roofs had been installed and connected to the grid, according to Reuters.
In October 2019, Tesla launched a third iteration of the roof, which the company claimed would be cheaper and easier to install.
The launch of this new version also expanded availability to 25 states, up from 8, and solar roof installations have ramped up some: Q2’20 solar roof installations tripled compared to Q1, according to an earnings call.
Further, Musk said in a Q2’20 earnings call that Tesla solar energy costs just $1.49 per watt after the federal tax credit.
Musk also claimed in February 2020 that the product would be expanding to international markets, though global rollout has yet to happen.
He later announced that the rollout in Europe and Canada might happen in 2021. Tesla already filed a Solar Roof patent, called “Packaging for Solar Roof Tiles,” with the European Patent Office in June 2020. The company has also optimized Model 3 production, which took many of its resources in previous years. Musk says that means “now we got a little more bandwidth, we’re putting a lot of attention on solar, and it is growing rapidly.”
In Q4 2020, the amount of annual solar energy generation capabilities deployed by Tesla rose to 87 megawatts, up from 54 megawatts in Q4 2019. The company thus quickly recovered from a brief slump in sales caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tesla will also provide Apple with 85 Megapack battery energy storage systems. The phone maker will use these batteries to store 240 megawatt-hours of energy in its future California-based solar farm. Once built, this facility will power Apple’s headquarters.
Tesla is exploring other revenue streams for its home energy products division as well. Musk said on Twitter that he plans to eventually produce HVAC systems with air filtration capabilities. This move would especially benefit owners of solar roofing products by allowing them to achieve a higher level of off-grid self-sufficiency and get more value out of their Tesla batteries.
TESLA’S ONGOING LEGAL OBSTACLES WITH SOLARCITY
Meanwhile, the company has faced legal struggles.
In August 2019, Walmart sued Tesla after its solar panels caught on fire at 7 of its stores, but quickly reached a settlement a few months later.
Tesla also remains ensnared in a major ongoing lawsuit originally filed in September 2016, right after the SolarCity acquisition.
Tesla shareholders alleged that Musk misrepresented the financial crisis SolarCity was in at the time, and that the $2.6B deal was essentially a bailout for the solar installer. In a June 2019 deposition, Musk admitted that he transferred every solar employee to work on the Model 3 car, which further damaged SolarCity’s shot at revival. After Tesla directors settled for $60M in January 2020, Musk remains the sole defendant in the case and will go to trial in March 2021.
Transportation by vacuum tube is a centuries-old idea. In 1812, an Englishman named George Medhurst was the first to propose building tunnels underground and shooting passengers in pods through them pneumatically.
In 2012, Elon Musk was one of the first to convince people that this vision could be realized.
WHAT IS THE HYPERLOOP?
Musk first started talking publicly about the Hyperloop in 2012, at a PandoDaily event in Santa Monica.
This “fifth mode of transport” (after cars, planes, trains and boats) would be a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table.” Riders would travel in a low-pressure tube, inside pod-like capsules supported by air and powered by a “magnetic linear accelerator.”
Musk’s original model of a Hyperloop pod from SpaceX’s 2013 whitepaper on the topic.
In a whitepaper, he worked with the SpaceX and Tesla teams to test the idea’s feasibility and understand its economics. They wrote that a “pod” would be able to travel a distance of 30 miles in just 2.5 minutes, cutting a 6-hour trip to just 30 minutes. And it would only need to cost about $20 USD each way to sustain itself.
According to this projection, it would be cheaper than the high-speed rail California was planning to implement at the time.
The Hyperloop was envisioned as a form of commercial transportation that’s much faster than traditional approaches.
Commercial airlines can move passengers at an average speed of 575 mph. The Hyperloop would travel at about 760 mph.
This is also double the speed of Japan’s planned Maglev bullet train, which set a speed record for trains of 374 mph during its 2015 test run.
WHAT INDUSTRIES COULD HYPERLOOP IMPACT?
The Hyperloop could have a major impact on a few different industries.
For one, the $765B+ airline industry. With the exception of travel over oceans, the Hyperloop could transport passengers faster and for less money than an airplane.
That speed could alter where and how Americans live, dramatically changing both residential and commercial real estate. One could feasibly work in Manhattan and live a 6-hour drive away, in Burlington, Vermont — a 30-minute Hyperloop commute.
It could also revolutionize freight shipping. Almost half of all American import goods flow through the ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. 14,000 truck drivers bring those goods to warehouses and rail yards all across Southern California, according to SCPR. They move about 11,000 containers a day and burn about 68M gallons of fuel every year, according to PwC.
While you would still need trucks for last-mile delivery, a Hyperloop-like system could transport goods an order of magnitude faster at much lower expense (with far less pollution).
WHO’S WORKING ON THE HYPERLOOP?
Musk has remained largely hands-off in making this vision a reality, but other firms have made progress, including:
- Virgin Hyperloop One, which is working on hyperloop projects in India as well as the US, and was the first to construct a test track
- Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), which has signed deals with China, Ukraine, and France to build hyperloop systems
- Netherlands-based Hardt Hyperloop, which aims to develop a pilot route by 2023 and operate commercially by 2028
- Canada-based TransPod, which unveiled plans to build a 3-km test track in France in 2019
In a landmark move for the industry, the US Department of Transportation issued guidance regarding Hyperloop technology in July, the first government agency to do so. The framework placed Hyperloop proposals under the jurisdiction of the Federal Railroad Administration, making future projects eligible for railway grants.
Critics of Hyperloop technology highlight the difficulty of achieving the right-of-way to build a train above-ground as well as the cost of construction, which has stymied high-speed rail projects for decades.
And tunneling technology isn’t there yet.
These challenges haven’t prevented Virgin Hyperloop from running its first-ever trial with passengers in November 2020. Its director of customer experience, Sara Luchian, and chief technology officer, Josh Giegel, traveled in a futuristic pod 500 meters along a test track in the desert of Nevada.
The pod covered this distance in 15 seconds, reaching the speed of 107mph (172km/h). The company hopes that its pods will eventually achieve travel speeds of over 1,000km/h. But reaching that speed will require traveling at longer distances and enabling pods to properly accelerate.
One day, when Musk was sitting in traffic outside LA, he tweeted out a complaint that became the impetus for the company that would attack this problem head-on.
“Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…” he tweeted in December 2016.
WHAT IS THE BORING COMPANY?
And so started The Boring Company (TBC), Musk’s solution to “soul-destroying traffic.” The company aims to “construct safe, fast-to-dig, and low-cost transportation, utility, and freight tunnels.”
Source: The Boring Company
The major problem with tunneling is cost.
The cost of tunneling typically ranges between $100M up to $1B/mile. TBC said it has reduced this to $10M per mile.
Reducing cost comes down to 2 things: size and speed.
The cost of a tunnel is proportional to the cross-sectional area of the tunnel. The wider the tunnel you want, the more you have to pay for it. The NYC Second Avenue Subway tunnel is 23.5 feet wide. A one-lane road tunnel has to be 28 feet. The two-lane A-86 West tunnel in Paris, completed in 2011, is 38 feet wide.
The Boring Company intends to build tunnels of just 14 feet. This is half the diameter of the current required road tunnel, and leads to approximately one-fourth of the cross-sectional area. Reducing the diameter can save millions of dollars.
The majority of space in traditional tunnels is for the ventilation of the fumes from combustion engines. The Boring Company’s tunnels look much slimmer because they were originally designed to jettison electric cars on skates, catapulting them through the tunnel network at speeds up to 150 mph.
Whether this vision will come to fruition is unclear: Musk tweeted in May 2019 that he had abandoned the electric skate idea. Instead, the electric vehicles would simply travel autonomously on their own through the tunnel, which some have said undermines the revolutionary public transport concept that was initially promoted.
The other problem is speed. Tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are slow — typically only digging 1 mile of tunnel in 8 to 12 weeks. Musk’s company said its boring machines will aim to tunnel at least 1 mile per week.
Musk is also looking to offset the environmental impact of The Boring Company through one of its main assets: dirt.
Boring Bricks will reuse the dirt from tunneling — each one will cost 10 cents or will be free for affordable housing projects.
Source: The Boring Company
Recycling waste into building materials could reduce the emissions derived from traditional concrete builds, furthering Musk’s vision for a cleaner planet.
WHAT IS THE BORING COMPANY WORKING ON?
Currently, the Boring Company has 4 projects in varying degrees of completion. The first is the test tunnel at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, built solely for R&D, which was completed in December 2018.
Source: The Boring Company
The second project is the Boring Company’s first paying contract. The Las Vegas Convention Center loop is a 0.8 mile network that would transport convention attendees across the center in modified Teslas. It would reportedly shorten a 20-minute walk to a 1-minute ride.
Excavation of the second of 2 tunnels was completed in May and the completed loop was scheduled to debut in January 2021 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was moved online. The pods were not going to be operated autonomously for the event anyway, according to Las Vegas Convention Center President and CEO Steve Hill.
Still, two more Vegas casinos, the Wynn Resort and Resorts World, have already submitted proposals for additional tunnels connecting the LVCC loop to their resorts.The Boring Company envisions expanding the loop to reach the McCarran International Airport, Allegiant Stadium, downtown Vegas, and eventually, Los Angeles.
However, the $50M project has changed significantly since its contract approval.
Initial designs mapped out a vision of platooned 16-passenger trams that would travel at speeds up to 155 mph. Recent renderings from July 2020 show Tesla Model 3 sedans, which can fit roughly 5 people.
When asked about boosting capacity, Musk replied, “Individualized mass transit is the future.”
Source: The Boring Company
Other Boring Company projects have also faced challenges.
A project called the Dugout Loop, announced in 2018, aims to ferry passengers from East Hollywood to Dodger Stadium in less than 4 minutes. However, the project remains under review by the city of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Engineering, which reportedly aims to present an environmental impact report this fall.
Also in 2018, the Boring Company was selected for a Chicago high-speed train bid, after Musk promised that he could build an 18-mile loop that would connect downtown Chicago to the O’Hare Airport in just 12 minutes using $1B of his own money and no public subsidies.
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has yet to advance that bid and appears unlikely to. Lightfoot previously said in an interview with the Sun Times: “The notion that he could do this without any city money is a total fantasy. And in thinking about what our transportation needs are, I’m not sure that an express train to O’Hare in the current proposal rises to the top of our list.” The Chicago Express plan has also been taken off the projects page of the Boring Company website.
Finally, the Boring Co’s East Coast loop, which would connect Washington DC to Baltimore, also remains under review. An environmental report revealed the project to be similar to the Vegas contract — i.e., twin tunnels for electric vehicles — a far cry from its initial hyperloop proposal. Virginia’s chief of rail transportation called it “a car in a very small tunnel.”
Source: The Boring Company
Critics have pointed out issues with Musk and the Boring Co’s lofty promises, with some lambasting that these ideas as ranging from the reinvention of the subway to private tunnels for Tesla owners. Furthermore, some transportation solution advocates warn that providing more space for cars may not actually fix traffic congestion, as the approach may simply incentivize more people to drive while diverting resources from mass transit approaches like subways.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE BORING COMPANY?
For Musk, the Boring Company almost comes across as a hobby, as he said in 2018 it takes up just 2-3% of his time. But the Boring Company’s advancements could be helpful to his other projects.
The first is Tesla. The cost projections for the inner city tunnels are lower because they will be exclusively for electric vehicles, reducing the need for ventilation and boosting speed. Proponents say that this could alleviate traffic congestion on the surface streets by transferring traffic underground. When the first tunnels hit capacity, the company plans to add more, creating a network of tunnels under each city.
The second is Hyperloop. These tunnels will have to be larger, but with the advancements learned through the smaller tunneling projects, the Boring Company may be able to increase the efficiency of digging these as well.
The third is SpaceX.
Musk aims to put 1M people on Mars, and tunnels are central to this vision. With inhospitable conditions, humans may need to live underground. If Musk is going to build a colony on Mars, building a network of tunnels could be essential.
OpenAI garnered headlines in July 2020 when it released GPT-3, the most powerful language model to date. Trained on 175B parameters — its predecessor, GPT-2, was trained with just 1.5B — the model is sometimes described as a super-smart autocomplete program.
But its capabilities run far beyond autocompleting text: it’s been used to generate short stories, guitar tabs, technical manuals, images, and even computer code.
OpenAI’s GPT-2 model can be used to automatically complete images. Source: OpenAI
Some call GPT-3 a huge step forward for AI given the program’s impressive facility for unsupervised learning, i.e. picking up patterns from unlabeled, unstructured data. But others argue that its capabilities should serve as a warning — what’s to stop such a system from “building up a model of the world and knowledge of everything in it,” per independent researcher Gwern Branwen.
WHAT IS OPENAI?
Elon Musk has long been vocal about the dangers of AI, donating $10M to the Future of Life Institute in 2015 to run a global AI research program. That year, he founded OpenAI with the intent of strengthening AI research.
However, Musk stepped down from the company’s board in 2018 and has said that he is no longer involved closely with OpenAI, citing a need to focus on his other ventures and potential conflicts of interest with Tesla’s AI ambitions.
Current AI research is largely concentrated within big tech companies that have a commercial imperative to keep developments secret. In contrast, OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit to conduct AI research without commercial considerations — though in 2019 it moved to a “capped-profit” organizational structure to help attract investment.
WHY IS AI A THREAT?
AI research is progressing at a significant rate, and Musk sees this as an existential threat to humanity. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and an ocean of startups are contributing to the upside of AI: higher efficiency, higher productivity, less work for humans, and, ideally, a higher quality of life for humans.
But the race for these upsides is also a race towards a massive potential downside — a super-intelligent general artificial intelligence that is vastly smarter than humans and sees no use in keeping them around.
Fears about AI are two-fold:
- An AI will unintentionally do harmful things
- An AI will intentionally do harmful things
The first could be a problem even with current deployments of AI, but more advanced iterations could end up trying to “solve” problems using perverse logic.
Say we build an AI cleaning bot. All this bot wants to do is make sure the world is as clean as can be. If the bot just wants to make sure everything is clean, it has a few options. One option is to just clean up all the mess. This is the outcome we want and that the AI developer is expecting.
But that isn’t the only option. Another possibility is that it will try and stop the mess occurring in the first place. Humans cause mess. “If there are no humans, there is no mess, so let’s get rid of all humans” increases the AI’s utility function and is a perfectly legitimate solution to the AI’s problem.
In 2016, the OpenAI co-authored a research paper titled Concrete Problems in AI Safety. The paper identified 5 areas of research that AI researchers need to strongly consider as they push forward with any type of AI:
- Avoid negative side effects. How can we make sure that an AI won’t follow its programming such that it will do anything to perform its function? For the cleaning robot, this could be destroying the room in an effort to clean faster.
- Avoid reward hacking. If the AI uses a reward function to determine the right course of action, how can we make sure it doesn’t just try and maximize that reward function without performing the action? For the cleaning AI, this could include switching off its visual system so it can’t see the mess.
- Scalable oversight. How can we make sure that an AI can train safely even when training examples are infrequent? The cleaning robot would know that it should clean up coffee cups, but how does it learn not to “clean up” the phone that’s been left overnight on the desk?
- Safe exploration. Can the AI explore possible outcomes and train without serious repercussions — say, learning how to mop the floor without trying to mop an electrical outlet?
- Robustness to distributional shift. As the data or environment changes, can the AI continue to perform optimally, or at least define its ambiguity and “fail gracefully”? Can the cleaning AI adapt to cleaning a factory floor if it learned to clean in an office?
There are already ways to test the limits of AI. Robustness is a particular concern for narrow AI. How well do they work when you test them outside of their comfort zone. As of today, not well. Image recognition machine learning systems often misclassify “adversarial” examples — images that have specific noise injected into them to confuse algorithms.
This is a benign example. It’s not hard to imagine a malicious implementation of this approach, however. Imagine an adversarial attack on the AI in your self-driving car that changes its recognition of “stop sign” into “green light” in its programming. Not only would it potentially be as deadly as something like cutting the brake lines in someone’s car, but, depending on the vulnerability the malware exploited, it may also be highly scalable across different vehicles.
HOW IS OPENAI TACKLING THE ISSUE?
OpenAI’s stated mission is to “ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI) — by which we mean highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work — benefits all of humanity.”
One of the core concerns is the learning rate for AI. OpenAI Five — an AI that learned to play a multiplayer video game called Dota 2 — played the equivalent of 45,000 years of Dota 2 against itself over a time span of 10 months.
This graph measures OpenAI’s best bot’s TrueSkill rating — similar to an ELO rating in chess — which is a summary of the bot’s win ratios against the other OpenAI bots it trained against. Source: OpenAI
In April 2019, OpenAI Five became the first AI system to defeat Dota 2 world champions OG in an e-sports game, according to a research paper OpenAI published. It went on to win 99.4% of all games played in a public experiment that let anyone play the AI.
OpenAI Five demonstrates the potential for deep reinforcement learning, as the model learned by playing games against itself at an astonishing speed.
It also served as a reminder of the law of accelerating returns: AI that learns quicker is being developed quicker. An artificial general intelligence (AGI) could test millions of iterations of itself, picking the best parameters from each, combining them and immediately becoming smarter. That smarter AGI could then start the process anew.
“I don’t believe in comparing OpenAI Five to human performance, since it’s like comparing the strength we have to hydraulics,” said Johan Sundstein, captain of OG, the first 2-time Dota 2 world champion team.
OpenAI researchers reported another breakthrough in March 2021. They had found a way to peek into neural networks and gain insights into how the software operates. The team, led by research scientist Gabriel Goh, discovered that neurons — nodes through which data in neural networks flows — are associated with specific concepts. For example, OpenAI found a neuron that’s activated when AI is fed with the image of gold, while another neuron activates in response to images of spiders.
The team also demonstrated how the latest discovery could help uncover hidden biases. Researchers found a “Middle East” neuron that is triggered by images and words associated with this region. But the neuron is also fired with images associated with terrorism.
Another, called an “immigration” neuron, responds to words and images associated with Latin America. There was also a neuron that activated for both gorillas and dark-skinned people, OpenAI said. Discovering these neurons is the first step in finding and removing biases in “black box” algorithms.
OpenAI also trained software called DALL-E to generate images from short text captions. The algorithm was fed with a dataset of over 12B images found on the internet. DALL-E is unique compared to other neural networks because of its ability to produce coherent illustrations using nothing but text inputs.
OpenAI’s co-founder Sam Altman is confident that advances in AI will have positive effects. Just like Musk argued that automation will lead to a universal basic income of some kind, Altman says that the wealth generated by AI should be taxed and distributed to citizens. He estimates that AI will generate so much wealth that “a decade from now each of the 250 million adults in America would get about $13,500 every year.” Altman calls for the government to work on plans that would enable a fair distribution of AI-generated wealth.
With OpenAI, one of Musk’s goals was to make the public sufficiently aware of the threat that AI could represent so that it becomes more likely to be regulated and controlled proactively. OpenAI isn’t, however, the only iron Musk has in this fire. He’s also investing in a hedge against the bet that humanity will save itself from AI in time.
It’s called Neuralink — and the idea is to digitally augment humans before we get replaced.
As Musk once tweeted, “If you can’t beat em, join em.”
Most of Musk’s endeavors exist on a big scale: spaceships to Mars, tunnels from DC to New York, electric car-producing factories all across the globe.
Neuralink, however, focuses on the microscopic level.
WHAT IS NEURALINK?
Launched in 2016, Neuralink is Musk’s project to build a brain-computer interface (BCI) that will link human brains directly to computers. Per a Wall Street Journal article,
“Building a mass-market electric vehicle and colonizing Mars aren’t ambitious enough for Elon Musk. The billionaire entrepreneur now wants to merge computers with human brains to help people keep up with machines.”
In a recent product update, Musk described it as a “Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires.”
For Musk, this is the only way the human race will survive given the ongoing encroachment of AI.
As Musk sees it, AI advancement is driven by competition. Companies like Amazon need to invest millions into developing AI because if it doesn’t, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook will, and so on. As a result, the creation of AI that will leave regular humans in the dust seems inevitable.
“Even in the [most] benign scenario,” Musk says, “We would be pets.”
The worst-case scenario would be the complete end of mankind.
With Neuralink, the goal is to augment the human level of intelligence and preemptively mesh us with the digital world so we can build ourselves up before an AI can surpass us.
Musk sees BCIs as the way to bridge the gap and fuse humans with computers. BCIs are brain implants, usually a chip of electrodes a few millimeters square, that are surgically implanted directly into the brain.
The electrodes pick up the electrical activity from brain cells, neurons, and transmit them to a computer. While the brain activity is being recorded, the participant performs a task such as moving a joystick to guide a cursor around on the screen.
The scientists can then use algorithms to correlate the brain activity to the movement, teaching a computer that when certain neurons fire, the cursor should move left. Then you can turn the joystick off and move the cursor purely through brain activity.
The driving force behind BCIs in the past decade has been the military. As the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became widespread in Afghanistan and Iraq, limb loss became more common among soldiers. Body armor improved, meaning soldiers were less likely to die in the blast, but extremities weren’t protected. From 2000 to 2015, approximately 1,600 soldiers had amputations.
Helping these soldiers was the goal of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. Funding was given to research groups around the US with specialties in neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and robotics to develop new implants, new prosthetics, and new understandings of how to control the latter with the former.
Though BCIs have existed in research for decades, major technical challenges remain:
- The invasiveness of the interface is high. The implant requires neurosurgery and a constant, hardwired link into the brain.
- The bandwidth of the systems is low. We have billions of neurons but BCIs only record a few neurons at any given time. This makes using them for any high-fidelity system difficult.
The most immediate problem with these BCIs is how to implant them.
Non-invasive BCIs exist, but have low bandwidth as they can’t discern the individual neuronal activity needed for close robotic control.
Wireless BCIs are a compelling approach, but they present their own problems:
- How do you get power to the device? Wireless radios are power-hungry and processing and sending high-bandwidth information will also require significant power.
- How do you dissipate heat from the device? Chips, radios, and batteries all produce heat. The brain can only heat up by a degree or so before damage occurs.
Additionally, the electrodes themselves cause damage as they are inserted. The brain’s natural defenses encapsulate them over time, cutting them off from the rest of the brain and rendering them useless.
Once implanted, the question of extracting, decoding, and processing data remains.
There are about 86B neurons in the human brain. As of 2017, the record for the most neurons recorded simultaneously was approximately 700.
Source: MIT Technology Review
Only a fraction of all possible information is extracted by current BCIs. Millions of neurons are involved in the decision and movement when you move your arm to pick up a cup of coffee. To allow an amputee with a prosthetic limb the same degree of control as they had with their original limb requires the ability to record from significantly more neurons at one time.
Once a human is hooked up to a BCI, a learning phase starts. The person learns how to control the robotic arm with the limited bandwidth. The algorithms learn which neurons are signals and which are noise and get better at processing the information. The two symbiotically adjust until the person incorporates their new “arm.”
Another challenge is that scientists simply don’t understand how the brain works. Neuroscientist Christof Koch says that “we do not understand how large-scale neural activity is organized to give rise to thoughts, percepts, consciousness and actions.”
On top of that, it takes decades for techniques tested on laboratory animals to be deployed in clinical trials. Legal, regulatory, and medical approvals take a lot of time. There is also a real danger that brain implants could get hacked by cyber criminals, which would lead to a whole new set of problems.
However, decades of research in this field by lab researchers have already shown stunning progress, allowing people with paralysis to walk again without surgery, enabling people to control robotic prosthetics with their minds, and treating depression by manipulating neural signals.
In late August 2020, Musk unveiled Neuralink’s latest brain implant prototype as well as a new version of its surgical robot in a livestream.
Neuralink’s sewing machine robot will thread ultra-thin electrodes — what Musk terms “neural lace” — through brains to measure the brain’s electrical signals, which represent memories, movements, thoughts, and more. The threads will be connected to a wearable device that collects and transmits the recorded signals, a new prototype of which was also unveiled during the livestream.
Source: Woke Studio
While the initial design of the “Link” featured a credit card-sized wearable designed to go behind the ear, the latest version is coin-sized and would replace a chunk of the skull, sitting flush with its surroundings and rendered invisible when covered by hair.
The Link is novel in packing 1,000+ channels onto its interface, on par with the state-of-the-art Neuropixel, which has 960 channels. Furthermore, the Link device boasted onboard processing that is reportedly 15x better than current systems used in humans. Current neural spike processing is typically recorded offline and processed via computers, but Neuralink’s team was able to develop algorithms to process, filter, and transmit data in a much more efficient way.
Also revealed were 3 pigs that are subjects of Neuralink’s experiments. One pig, which had been implanted with a Link, had her real-time brain activity broadcast on a large screen. Another had successfully had the device implanted and removed.
Musk has said that human trials could be launched by the end of 2021. Neuralink is communicating with the FDA regarding the implant’s safety. He also revealed to Clubhouse users that Neuralink successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain, and the animal was able to play video games using its mind.
FUTURE POTENTIAL OF NEURALINK
While the future of full AI symbiosis is far off, Neuralink’s more near-term potential is in medical applications, specifically neurological diseases or injuries — a mission current research labs are already working on.
The FDA granted Neuralink a breakthrough device designation in July, according to Musk, and is working with the company to run trials for patients with quadriplegia — paralysis of all 4 limbs.
Neuralink’s device could help people suffering from stroke, neurodegeneration, cancer, spinal cord injuries, amputations, and dozens of other healthcare issues. And if the Neuralink project is successful, years of expensive treatment and therapy (and in many cases risky surgeries) could be replaced with a relatively simple microscopic brain implant that restores motor, memory, or other cognitive functions.
During the August demo, Musk acknowledged the long path ahead before a commercial product is available, but underscored the importance of the “overall aim” of the company.
“On a species level, it’s important to figure out how we coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis,” according to Musk, “such that the future of the world is controlled by the combined will of the people of the earth. That might be the most important thing that a device like this achieves.”
Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves
If all goes well, on May 27 two American astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will ride in a Tesla electric car to a Florida launchpad, hop out, and then climb into the nose of a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They’ll strap in before a bank of superslick touchscreens, as opposed to a Cold War-era clutter of buttons and knobs. The rocket will blast off at 4:33 p.m. EDT and dock with the International Space Station about 19 hours later. It will be the first privately built rocket and capsule ever to put humans into space, as well as the first time in almost a decade that an American spacecraft will ferry Americans into space from American soil.
In another era and under slightly different circumstances, this event would be the whole, glorious story. Immigrant rocket man ferries brave patriots into the heavens. Plop some ice cream on the apple pie, pass the Budweisers around, and let the livestreamed adrenaline loose on the imaginations of millions of kids.
Alas, we do not live in such times. We have a Twitter President and all the tremendous, very big, super-duper baggage that comes with him. We have a Space Force. We have a virus run amok. And, in Musk, we have a Twitter Business Icon with his own impressive set of baggage. So the moment of achievement is complicated. Sort of like The Right Stuff meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where the idea that “anything is possible” is as unnerving as it is encouraging.
As Musk’s biographer, I’ve spent years watching how he operates and affects everyone and everything in his orbit, from SpaceX to that other company he runs, Tesla Inc. During interviews, he can be loquacious to the point of oversharing—and then shut down for weeks or months after some perceived slight. We’ve had periods of intense and fruitful interactions, though my book left me in the Musk doghouse for quite a while. The odd e-mail returned. The odd phone call about his desire to reenact the police raid on Kim Dotcom’s compound if he ever visits New Zealand. But silence, mostly. Yet here we are, at the leaving-the-planet part of the pandemic, which would certainly qualify as a giant leap for Musk. Sure enough, he called late on May 17.
“It’s pretty intense days,” Musk says, revealing nothing about his whereabouts other than being two hours late for a dinner.
A lot can go wrong with a rocket launch, obviously, from inclement weather to much worse. The only reason NASA entertained the idea of putting astronauts in a rocket built entirely by a private company is that SpaceX has proven itself a remarkably dependable, relatively low-price, competently managed operation. Over the past decade, it’s launched about 100 rockets, landed many of them safely back on Earth, and come to dominate the industry, while being valued at close to $40 billion. It took the effort of many clever, hardworking people to pull this off, but it’s Elon Musk in all his audacious, volatile glory that made such a thing possible in the first place.
Even the most fervent Musk hater, of whom there are plenty in the U.S., has to feel some twinge of pride. At a moment when the American Empire can seem to be in decline, here’s a clear sign that great things remain possible and that humans have much left to achieve. “America is still the land of opportunity more than any other place, for sure,” Musk says, waxing patriotic. “There is definitely no other country where I could have done this—immigrant or not.” That it’s a multibillionaire, Covid-19-truthing, entrepreneurial huckster/hero delivering this message is pretty much perfect for America in 2020.
“It’s not like I stand by all the tweets I’ve ever done. Some of them were definitely extremely dumb. On balance, the good outweighs the bad”
Like President Trump, Musk uses Twitter as a mainline into the id. But even by Musk’s flamboyant standards, the last couple of months have been exceptional. He’s vowed to sell almost all his possessions, announced the birth of his son, named X Æ A-12 (pronounced ex-ash-A-twelve), described Tesla as being overvalued, recited the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, and made sure that everyone knows “Facebook sucks.” The real juice, though, has come on the topic of the coronavirus, where Musk has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates of reopening society and one of the most vocal downplayers of the virus’s effects.
He predicted in March that the U.S. would see “probably close to zero new cases” by the end of April, which was obviously wrong. Like Trump, he’s promoted the use of chloroquine, which doctors have warned is unproven to help with Covid-19 and can be very harmful. There have been no calls to inject Lysol but plenty of armchair epidemiology. And, on the subject of reopening, Musk has been less than subtle with such memorable tweets as “Give people their freedom back!” and “FREE AMERICA NOW.”
Ricardo Reyes, who served two tours of duty as Tesla’s communications chief, saw all of this and tweeted, “My lord. Seems Gorilla’s way out of the cage … And knows exactly what he’s doing.” As if to prove his former employee right on both counts, Musk on May 11 announced he would reopen Tesla’s Silicon Valley car factory in the most high-on-Twitter-dopamine way: “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,” he posted. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” After additional threats to pull Tesla out of California and move to a more hospitable state, Musk got his way, and Tesla was given the all-clear to reopen.
As for the virus and his predictions of its imminent disappearance, Musk refuses to back down, despite clear evidence to the contrary. “I think the statistics became unreliable at the point at which they included those who weren’t actually tested for Covid but simply had Covid-like symptoms,” he says. “The statistics became bogus probably around mid-April. There’s about a hundred Covid-like symptoms. Basically anything. And then the stimulus bill gave a major incentive to have someone regarded as having Covid. The data is no longer valid. That said, I would say I was off by maybe three or four weeks.”
Suggesting that Covid-19 cases are faked sounds especially abhorrent coming from someone who tends to celebrate science. But Musk has always been a provocateur. It’s only in recent years that those outside his inner circle or who don’t work at his companies have been able to witness the Full Elon firsthand.
He’s basically become a religious figure on Twitter. The true believers think he can do no wrong and celebrate any position he takes even if it seems to contradict past positions or simple common sense. As in, is he pro-science and fighting climate change or anti-science and denying the spread of the coronavirus? The true believers don’t care. Conversely, there are the hordes of people who detest everything Musk does. They think he’s an outright fraud who lies and cheats and will do anything to make a buck.
The pandemic tweets, though, have made it harder to tell what’s up and what’s down in Musk Land. He’s been distrusted by a certain breed of conservative for years simply for producing electric cars and sounding the alarm on climate change. And now suddenly Musk’s reopening demands—combined with tweets supporting fringe right-wing causes—have aligned him with plenty of voices on the right. Texas, which tried long and hard to ban Tesla from selling or servicing its cars in the home state of Big Oil, has politicians stepping over each other to welcome Musk and his factories. True, many people, even in Texas, have bought Teslas to virtue-signal their love of the planet and hope for a better future. But the symbolism turns quickly if you believe the workers making the car are risking their health on the factory line.
Among the many questions Musk’s recent behavior raises is, Why tweet at all? Why risk alienating your base and fraying the goodwill of the superfans? Also, why spend your limited free time in a virtual cesspool?
“It’s hard to make everyone happy, especially on Twitter,” Musk says. “Look, you can either say things that are not controversial at all, and then you’re boring, and nobody cares. Some of the things I say, I would like to retract them. It’s not like I stand by all the tweets I’ve ever done. Some of them were definitely extremely dumb. On balance, the good outweighs the bad. It’s a means of communicating directly to the people without having to go through the press.”
The great irony in Musk’s pandemic denialism is that pandemics are the sort of thing that SpaceX was built to free us from
Billionaires are not in vogue at the moment—especially tech billionaires. To Musk’s point about going around journalists, the tech press—after years and years of celebrating young, rich geeks—seems to have decided they can now do no right and have ruined civilization. But to the extent that there’s still room for nuance and complexity in the world, consider Musk’s unlikely and remarkable story.
He grew up in South Africa and had the good fortune of doing so in an upper-middle-class home. But that’s more or less where the good fortune ended. His parents divorced. He was bullied at school. And he had a disastrous relationship with his father. At 17, Musk decided to leave home, heading first to Canada and then the U.S. for university. “When I told my father I was leaving, he said I was going to fail and would be back in three months,” Musk says.
Some of his most vocal detractors have promoted the idea that Musk, like Trump, began his career backed by the deep pockets of dear old dad. Errol Musk, an engineer, owned a small percentage of an emerald mine and had a couple of good years before the mine went bust and wiped out his investment. Musk readily jumps onto Twitter to refute the charges that his empire was forged with the aid of family wealth, and part of the reason he wanted to talk to me—rather comically given the rocket launch and, well, trolls—was because the jabs bug him, and he hopes to set the record straight. For what it’s worth, my reporting, based on conversations with hundreds of people, confirms Musk’s story. Regardless of your opinion of him, he is a self-made billionaire.
“I paid my own way through college—through student loans, scholarships, working jobs—and ended up with $100,000 of student debt,” Musk says. “I started my first company with $2,500, and I had one computer and a car that I bought for $1,400, and all that debt. It would have been great if someone was paying for my college, but my dad had neither the ability nor the inclination to do so.”
Fast-forward to 2001. Musk is sitting poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The Nasdaq has crashed. Sept. 11 is coming. But life is pretty good for Musk. The company he co-founded, PayPal, is about to go public. His stake will soon be worth roughly $160 million, and he’s celebrating in a cabana with some friends, amid the boozy, nearly naked masses. Only he’s celebrating like Musk celebrates. “Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on EBay,” Kevin Hartz, one of the PayPal crew, told me for my book. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and changing the world.”
The Musk sitting by that pool was coming on 30 and, while wealthy and plenty full of confidence, was far from the outsize persona that rampages across Twitter today. That Musk was closer to the awkward loner from South Africa who still had room for self-doubt. He was wandering around in an existential funk, trying to figure out what to do with his money and his life.
Among the least financially advisable projects imaginable for someone in that position would be to start a rocket company. Rockets are national projects. They cost billions of dollars to develop and manufacture. Governments make them via the hard work of thousands of people spread out over many years. The handful of wealthy space enthusiasts who’d tried to make rockets in the past gave up after setting fire to their fortunes. The lesson being that one does not pivot into rockets on a midcareer whim. And you definitely don’t do it because you think it would be cool to put a small greenhouse on Mars that earthlings could all watch via the internet, Musk’s actual founding idea for SpaceX.
Cut to 2008, and things are not going well. SpaceX’s first three rockets have either blown up or failed to reach orbit. Tesla is verging on bankruptcy after struggling to get its first car to market. Musk has ripped through his PayPal money, trying to keep both of his companies alive. In the background of all this, the financial markets are cratering, real car companies are going under, and Musk is getting a divorce from the mother of his five boys. The only way out of the financial part of this mess is to persuade investors watching their portfolios collapse to take one more chance on Tesla and make NASA, if not you, believe in a space startup by getting the last remaining SpaceX rocket in the factory to orbit. (The way out of the personal mess turned out to be dating a talented and beautiful young actress, Talulah Riley.)
That Musk somehow emerged from this with both companies intact is lottery-odds improbable. If we really are living in a simulation, as Musk has suggested, it’s the only one you could run where both SpaceX and Tesla survive.
Since then, Musk has built vast rocket, car, and battery factories. He’s employed tens of thousands of people, created a worldwide car-charging network, figured out reusable rockets, started an artificial intelligence software company, dug tunnels for high-speed transport, founded a brain-machine-interface startup, and constructed a high-speed internet system … in space. (How’s your sourdough starter going?)
That he can be a tyrant to those helping him create all of this stuff is no secret. And, as regulators would attest, his business tactics and behavior can oscillate between infuriating and appalling. Yet at a time when America doesn’t seem the best at doing stuff, the guy gets a lot of stuff done. Part of the reason Musk is under fire for pushing to open his factories is because he actually has factories to open. “People should value manufacturing—the world of atoms vs. the world of bits—far more,” he says. “It is looked down upon by many, which is just not right.”
Musk has railed against Silicon Valley’s squandered brilliance for years, and he has a point. The Bay Area, home to Tesla and its car plant, boasts the world’s top engineers, biggest tech companies, and wealthiest people, as well as some of the finest universities and hospitals. Yet precious few ideas have emerged here about reopening the economy, even as the local daily deaths from Covid-19 have neared zero. The Silicon Valleyites who talk often about saving the world with their apps and baubles have been missing in action when the world actually needs saving.
Musk, true to form, says he won’t wait for people to figure out how to turn the economy back on. “SpaceX has been working this entire time, because we have a national security exemption,” he tells me. “We’ve had 8,000 people working full time through the whole pandemic. We’ve had zero serious illnesses or deaths despite working in L.A., Washington, Texas, and Florida. It’s more of the same in China [for Tesla], with 7,000 people. I think when the dust settles it will be obvious this was much less of an issue than people thought.”
The great irony in Musk’s pandemic denialism is that pandemics are the sort of thing that SpaceX was built to free us from. While the mission to the ISS may be a defining moment in his career, it’s only a steppingstone toward his company’s much bigger ambitions. Musk wants to build a human colony on Mars, in part to make people dream big, and in part to give us a backup plan for the human species in case of an asteroid strike or, you know, a plague. SpaceX engineers are busy constructing a massive craft called Starship meant to take humans to, as it says on the website, “the Moon, Mars and Beyond.” Where such a quest might have seemed laughable decades ago, it now feels very real, especially when you consider the other great irony of Musk: SpaceX, the crazy rocket company, is his most consistent and successful venture.
Following the launch of the astronauts, SpaceX is on the hook to fly several resupply missions to the ISS and to put up military satellites, communications satellites for commercial customers, and thousands of its own satellites at the heart of its Starlink space internet system. It’s also in the running to take people to the moon with NASA and apparently to fly Tom Cruise to the ISS to film a movie. This flurry of activity is part of a booming new space industry Musk and SpaceX catalyzed.
It’s because of Musk and SpaceX that I’ve turned into a space nerd. I’ve traveled from California, Texas, and Alaska to French Guiana, India, New Zealand, and Ukraine to see rockets get made and watch them go up. At every launch, the excitement comes from the unknown. There’s a thin, tall metal tube filled to the brim with liquid explosives, and it seems to huff and puff as the countdown heads to zero. At liftoff, the might of gravity becomes obvious, as this object blasts great streams of fire at the ground but struggles to gather momentum. Will it? Won’t it? Just like with Musk, you want to see what happens next.
His behavior of late will no doubt color how SpaceX’s May 27 launch is perceived, and that’s unfortunate. People can understand a businessman wanting to restart the economy, and plenty of arguments can be made that support such a position. It’s the straight-up denial of a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people that casts a pall. But then, Musk will always do as he wishes and operate in the reality he creates. It’s this very trait that led to the formation of SpaceX.
For anyone who can look past Musk’s antics, a successful launch will be a moment of pure shared bliss at a time when the world could use some of that. At the very least, it would affirm that the government—in this case, NASA—can take intelligent risks and be courageous by partnering with a private company while keeping its safety standards intact. “There might have been 10,000 meetings,” Musk says. “There are probably 10,000 tests of one kind or another that have taken place.” Should all go well, Musk, NASA, and all of SpaceX—from its indomitable and thick-skinned president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, to every engineer, coder, and metalworker—will provide the rest of us with proof of what government and industry can accomplish when they execute on a well-thought-out plan.
Between now and the launch, Musk intends to keep on Musking. He really is doing what he tweeted: selling his possessions, including his many homes. “I’d rather just stay with friends and rotate among their houses and stay in the factories when there are issues,” he says. “I kind of like that better. It’s less lonely.” His comments may not have been thought through at, say, a NASA-like level. Asked where his six boys will stay, Musk allows that he might need some kind of residence in Los Angeles, near SpaceX headquarters. “I’ll probably rent a place or something. Renting a place that’s sort of small. But I actually don’t know where it would be.”
When the launch does take place, Musk will head to Cape Canaveral and sit with the SpaceX and NASA teams as they do their final engineering reviews. If the weather cooperates and all the technology performs as designed, two humans will safely exit the pandemic and head for the stars.
“Assuming it’s successful—I don’t want to seem presumptuous—then it will be an incredible moment for humanity,” Musk says. “I think it’s something that everyone should be able to celebrate.”
As in parties? In person? Seriously?
“I think we can have parties,” he says. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
Nobody is perfect, and that includes Elon Musk. He is certainly driven and he is certainly brilliant. What billionaire isn’t? He sometime lets is ego gets the better of him. But he has the ability to turn his setbacks around. He certainly has a proven track record. I just hope that his aspirations and promises aren’t his downfall. He certainly has a lot of promising projects in the works. He just needs to see them through tom completion. Otherwise he will seem like and billionaire with Attention deficit disorder or ADD.
industryweek.com/ “The World According to Elon Musk,” By Travis M. Hessman; forbes.com, “The Elon Musk Effect: The Timeless Power Of Disruption And Brand Authority,” By Ben Constanty; fortune.com, “Elon Musk’s rocket ride,” BY ANDREW NUSCA AND MICHAL LEV-RAM; cbinsights.com, “From Energy To Transport To Healthcare, Here Are 8 Industries Being Disrupted By Elon Musk And His Companies,” bloomberg.com, “Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves,” by Ashlee Vance;
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