Elon Musk

Elon Musk

4 July, 2016
His Vision for Tomorrow
Learn more about his “secret master plan"

Business magnate, engineer, inventor and investor Elon Musk was born in Pretoria in 1971 to a South African engineer and a Canadian model. His predisposition for innovation emerged early: by the age of ten, he had taught himself to program a computer, and at twelve, he had written and sold a video game.
College for Musk consisted of two years of undergraduate studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned two degrees: one each in physics and economics. He later enrolled in the PhD programme in applied physics at Stanford University – and stayed for a grand total of just two days. Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and a host of other tech idols, Musk left his studies to pursue what became a list of stellar accomplishments during the dot-com boom.
Musk’s first coup was to start a software company called Zip2 with his brother, which they sold to Compaq in 1999 for just over US $300 million. Using the money from the sale of Zip2, he quickly co-founded X.com, merging a year later with Confinity to become the online money transfer service PayPal. In late 2002, eBay acquired PayPal for US $1.5 billion.
After the sale of PayPal, Musk says that he had a realization that would drive his future projects. Instead of searching for the best way to make money, he asked himself which problems were most likely to affect the future of humanity. And that’s when the really cool stuff began to take shape.
Having always entertained dreams of space exploration, and particularly the possibility of sending humans to Mars within his own lifetime, Musk used the money from his digital successes to establish Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX) in 2002. SpaceX was formed with the intention of creating new technologies that would drastically reduce the cost of space flight, paving the way for colonization of Mars.
You might wonder why Elon Musk, a silicon valley success, would be concerned with relocating humanity to the red planet; in his words, “[space exploration] is an important step in expanding – or even preserving – the consciousness of human life against the many threats we face on Earth.” Musk has also noted, with coy insight, that “since Mars’ atmosphere lacks oxygen, all transportation would have to be electric.”
The foundation for the success of SpaceX was the abolition of expendable – and expensive – launch vehicles. Musk’s view was that “the revolutionary breakthrough will come with rockets that are fully and rapidly reusable. We will never conquer Mars unless we do that. It’ll be too expensive.”
With SpaceX underway in 2003, Musk, never one to sit still, went on to tackle his next big vision: designing the perfect all-electric vehicle (EV). He had been thinking about EVs for a long time, knowing fossil-fuel combustion to be an inefficient propulsion method that pollutes both locally (as roadside emissions) and globally (as increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide).
At this time, Musk met JB Straubel, another forward-thinking engineer. Musk and Straubel soon found their way into the office of AC Propulsion to see the company’s prototype, the tzero. AC Propulsion introduced them to three more entrepreneus eager to license the technology and bring it to market. Reaching into his deep pockets, Musk founded the venture, which became known as Tesla Motors, and in 2008 became its CEO.
Tesla’s official mission was “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” However, for the company to have any chance of succeeding against the market stranglehold of the oil industry, with its long history of buying up and suppressing new technologies, their product would need to be literally game-changing. Only by designing a car that created strong public demand for EVs could Tesla force other automakers to follow their lead.
The strategy, which Musk jokingly refers to as his “secret master plan”, was to bring to a market a high-priced, low-volume electric sports car for the wealthy and in so doing, create a brand legacy that would allow more affordable vehicles to be produced for the general market at a later date.
In 2008, the now-famous Tesla Roadster was launched to global applause as the embodiment of this ambition. The first production automobile to use lithium-ion battery cells, the Roadster accelerated from zero to 100kph in under four seconds, cost around US $100,000, and earned rave reviews and a cult following. It remained lmited and exclusive, reaching sales of just 2,450 cars in 31 countries before closing production in 2012.
As with any new and innovative technology, research and development costs were high. In 2008, just before the Roadster hit its stride, Musk reached what he refers to as his lowest point: “My proceeds from the PayPal acquisition were $180 million. I put $100 million in SpaceX, $70m in Tesla, and $10m in Solar City [a solar power provider launched in 2006 by Musk’s cousins based on his concept]. I had to borrow money for rent.” The truth was, Tesla Motors was on the verge of bankruptcy; SpaceX was looking doomed after three failed rocket launch attempts; and the American economy was in a tailspin, making capital hard to come by.
But perseverance paid off: the fourth rocket launch was a success, and just days later, SpaceX won a US $1.6 billion contract from NASA to deliver cargo, filling the role previously handled by the shuttle program. Building on that success, the company has in the years since become a major player in private space exploration, with nearly 5,000 employees and a valuation in excess of US $10 billion.
And Tesla? As the Roadster’s cult following helped the auto manufacturer finally turn a profit, Musk was able to take the next step in the carefully wrought strategy of ‘cool first, masses later’ and fund the development of their flagship sedan for the upwardly mobile crowd: the Model S.
Consumer Reports called the Model S “a technological tour de force, a high-performance electric vehicle with usable real-world range” and gave it an unprecedented test score of 99 out of 100, rating it the best overall car for two consecutive years. Additionally, the Model S received the highest-ever safety rating from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Hong Kong’s obsession with ‘the latest thing’ and our short-range driving distances, the Model S gained rapid and extreme popularity here. It was the city’s top selling sedan in 2015, making Hong Kong the city with the largest number of Tesla cars per capita. When Musk spoke at InvestHK’s StartMeUp Forum earlier this year, he commented on the future of EVs here: “I think Hong Kong will, over time, have the highest percentage of electric vehicles of any city in the world. And it can therefore serve as a model for how other high-density cities can transform to a sustainable transport future.”
He remains, however, realistic about the challenges in a market like Hong Kong: “One of the things that we need to work through, in any dense city, is that as you have more and more electric vehicles on the roads, you have to find someplace to charge them. The ideal place to charge the car is at your home or office; essentially, the same place that you charge your phone. This is challenging, because a lot of apartment buildings didn’t anticipate having the level of power in the garage.”
Musk also notes that challenges vary from market to market; in North America, where private homeowners can install solar panels on the roof and chargers in their garages, the main concern is the distance between charging stations on long highways. Not one to be held back by obstacles, Musk has a plan for that, too: a worldwide network of Supercharger stations.
While Supercharger stations are currently proprietary to Tesla, Musk plans to partner with other manufacturers to make the stations usable by other EVs. With cross-manufacturer cooperation, sustainable transportation will become even more attractive and available to the public. Perhaps the most astonishing fact about his plan is that using the charging stations is absolutely free for drivers. Not only that, but plans are in the works to make the Supercharger stations solar-powered, for a fully self-contained, low-cost, clean energy solution.
But Tesla’s core business, for now at least, is making excellent electric vehicles, and to this end you can expect a flurry of activity over the next few years. Last year the Model X – the world’s first gas-free SUV and arguably the best SUV now on the market – was launched, to wide approval from both critics and consumers. And further down the road, plans are rumoured to be in place for a new generation Roadster as well as an electric pickup truck.
Currently causing global buzz is Tesla’s newest, and in some ways perhaps most significant release: the highly anticipated Model 3, unveiled globally this spring. Adhering to its market strategy, Tesla re-invested the profits from the Model S into development of a mass-production, low-cost EV aimed squarely at the average buyer. And it couldn’t come too soon: consumers, industry watchers, and environmentalists alike have been eagerly awaiting the first mass-market EV from the car company that pioneered the fusion of battery-electric technology with striking design and performance.
And how does the Model 3 stack up to previous Tesla offerings? For starters, all Model 3s come standard with autopilot hardware, and in line with its predecessor, the Model S, Tesla expects the Model 3 to be the safest car in its class once testing completes. Musk also played up its roominess, musing, “Can you fit a seven-foot long surfboard inside? The answer is yes.” Furthermore, the Model 3 achieves a snappy zero to sixty in under six seconds (as Musk quipped, “At Tesla, we don’t make slow cars”) and has a range of 320 km before recharging.
Although the Model 3 won’t go into production until late 2017, eager buyers can already reserve a place on a waiting list… and they have – in droves. Tesla had reportedly taken nearly 300,000 pre-orders within 72 hours of the unveiling. At roughly half the price of Model S, the Model 3 finally puts high quality, proven EV technology within the budget of the general public. Not only is the Model 3 priced affordably, but consumers will continue to save over the long run by using the network of free Supercharger stations spreading rapidly across Asia and the world.
But even with these successes and innovations, Musk is not resting on his laurels. SolarCity has gone on to become a leading supplier of solar power systems to residential commercial, and government users in the United States. Musk predicts that solar will be the largest energy source by 2031, due to “this handy fusion reactor in the sky, where you don’t have to do anything – it works, it shows up every day, and it produces ridiculous amounts of power.”
Speaking about his vision for solar power in Hong Kong and China, Musk acknowledges barriers for rooftop solar as a main power source in a place like Hong Kong, where tall buildings block the sun for much of the day and frequent cloud cover and haze reduce the number of optimal days for solar charging.
“It’s true that in dense cities, rooftop solar is not going to solve the energy need. What you can do is have ground-mount solar power, let’s say near Hong Kong, tapping into the existing power lines. So, you can supply HK with solar power – it would just need to be coming from a land area that’s not too far away.” He suggests, “China has actually an enormous land area, much of which is hardly occupied at all. Given that the Chinese population is so concentrated along the coast, once you go inland, the population, in some cases, is remarkably tiny. So, you could easily power all of China with solar.”
And, finally, what does Musk have his sights on for the future? In addition to fully autonomous cars (which he predicts Tesla will be the first to launch in just a few years), he shared some thoughts in Hong Kong on the eradication of genetic diseases, and even a brain-conputer interface at the neuron level: “Intelligence augmentation, as apposed to AI. You would never forget anything; and you wouldn’t need to take photographs.” He’s also resolute about the potential of a high publicized super-speed transportation concept known as the Hyperloop, and has proposed a supersonic electric airplane, known as the Musk electric jet, that can take off and land vertically.
Many people dream of living in a better world, a fairer world, a cleaner world. Elon Musk is a man who not only shares that dream, but acts on it. If he has anything to say and do about it, it’s going to happen – and soon.

By: Jason Sylvester


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