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Transforming transportation: Elon Musk at TED2013

Posted by: Helen Walters
Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

The cofounder of PayPal, Elon Musk has become one of his generation’s most aggressive, not to mention successful, entrepreneurs. As CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors and CEO and CTO of SpaceX, his interests clearly lie in transforming transportation and creating an economy built on sustainable energy. Now he takes the TED stage to tell us more.

First, he talks about the genesis of Tesla, his realization while still at university that the development of a sustainable energy system is critical to the ongoing existence of humanity — and therefore a problem worth tackling. And while, yes, these cars require being fed by current electrical systems, his belief is that given the inevitability of electric transportation, perhaps Tesla cars will help to kickstart the genuinely sustainable system necessary to support it. “All modes of transport will become electric, with the ironic exception of rockets. There’s no way around Newton’s third law,” he says. “So the question is how you create a really energy efficient car.” In Tesla’s case, the key is to make it incredibly light, with an aluminum chassis and body made in North America. “We applied rocket design techniques to make the car light, despite the large battery pack.”

Musk clearly isn’t going to talk about his recent spat with the New York Times, but he does want to talk about the range of the car. “Customers of the Model S are competing with each other to get the highest possible range,” he says. 420 miles is apparently the record, though he acknowledges that 250 miles on a single charge is a more likely number. But what he truly loves about the Tesla is the driver experience. “The responsiveness is incredible,” he says. “We want people to feel a mind-meld with the car, that you and the car are one. As you corner, accelerate, it just happens. It’s like the car has ESP.”

But Musk isn’t just here to talk about Tesla. Another string to his energy bow: SolarCity, a company harnessing the power of the “giant fusion generator in the sky,” the sun. Why solar? “I’m confident solar will beat everything hands down, including natural gas. If it doesn’t, we’re in deep trouble.” With this company, Musk is attempting to create no less than a giant, distributed utility, leasing solar panels to homes and companies. “Utilities have been this monopoly and people haven’t had a choice. It’s the first time they have had competition,” he says. “It’s empowering.”

TED2013_0043098_D41_7173And so to SpaceX, a project Musk jokes might well prove to be the fastest way he can lose his fortune. Despite setbacks, they persist, and when he says the goal of the company is to advance rocket technology and convert humanity into a spacefaring civilization, it’s hard to laugh him off. Especially when he challenges us to consider which we’d prefer: Exploring other planets, or confining ourselves to earth and eventual, inevitable extinction.

The real innovation of SpaceX is to build a reusable rocket. The Space Shuttle was an attempt at this, he says, but it took a 10,000-person group nine months to refurbish a rocket for a flight, at a cost of about $1 billion per flight. That’s not a sustainable business model, and in the past few months Musk and his team have made good progress in designing a rocket that can take off — and land again safely. He shows video of a test, a 12-story-high rocket taking off, hovering at 40 meters, and then magically landing again. The audience is appropriately impressed. Even more so when he tells us that none of the design innovations in the rocket are patented. “Since our primary competitors are national governments, the enforceability of patents is questionable,” he says wryly.

As to how he manages it all, he has three tips for would-be innovators. First, work a lot. Secondly, study physics and learn how to reason from first principles rather than reason by analogy. Finally, he says, pay attention to negative feedback, particularly from friends. “That may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that,” he concludes.

This interview with 60 Minutes from June 2012 is well worth a watch:

Elon Musk’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»