Inventing the Future

Elon Musk told 1,200 members and guests of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Monday night how his companies SpaceX and Tesla narrowly avoided going bust in 2008 and 2009 respectively, how he gets some of his best ideas from science fiction, how running a car company and a rocket company gives him useful cross-pollination of ideas - and why he didn’t put coat hooks in the back of the Tesla.The full video of the talk with Elon Musk is available here: Interview with Elon Musk at LAWAC

Speaking to a packed ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Century City, Musk started out by addressing the publicity over the three recent battery fires in Tesla Model S sedans that have been extensively covered in the media – even though nobody was hurt in any of the incidents.He said that since the Tesla Model S went into production about a year and a half ago, there have been 250,000 fires in gasoline-powered cars in the US, killing some 400 people and seriously injuring 1,200.“Our three fires, which caused no injuries, received more headlines than the other 250,000 fires combined – that seems like an unreasonable ratio.”

He is still optimistic about Tesla, which he sees as a way of“accelerating the advent of sustainable transport”, and said it was no coincidence that the company is located in Silicon Valley, because it requires substantial expertise in software and electronics to make it work.Asked about when Teslas will drive themselves, Musk said that they would reach the point where the car could handle 90% of the responsibility on a form of autopilot within a few years, but that it would take much longer to get to where the passenger could fall asleep in the back and let the car take over completely.That would have to be proven to be 10 times safer than having a human driver before people would be comfortable with the technology, he thought.

One of the most interesting things about Musk was that, having sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 bn, instead of playing safe or staying in the Internet world, he proceeded to invest in two of the most capital-intensive and risky industries there are – cars and rockets.And both investments very nearly went bankrupt.In 2009 Tesla had burned through most of its capital, and at the last minute the German car company Daimler provided some pivotal funding - Tesla subsequently received a US government loan of $465 m, but Musk says it was the German company that actually saved him.“If Daimler hadn’t come in with that investment, we definitely would have been dead.”

Similarly Musk was pushed to the abyss with SpaceX – the first three launches of his Falcon rocket failed to achieve orbit, and had the fourth launch not succeeded, that company too would have gone bust.Rocket launches “have more of a concentrated pucker factor – at least with the car you can to a recall or a software update – that is not going to happen with the rocket, it’s like the passing grade is 100%.”Fortunately the fourth launch in September 2008 reached orbit, and now SpaceX is flying resupply missions for NASA to the International Space Station.

Looking back on these two risky startups, Musk deadpanned “I’m not sure it was the right decision – it is much less fun than it might appear.”But he did say that despite the difficulties of running SpaceX and Tesla at the same time, “because I have both in my mind-space there have been some interesting ideas going back and forth”.For example the all-aluminum body of the Model S car is based on aerospace technology.And because of the manufacturing efficiencies in the car industry Musk hired a group of people from the auto world to run manufacturing at SpaceX – “that has worked out really well.”

His ambition of sending humans to Mars depends crucially on developing reusable rockets, otherwise he says it will not be economically feasible.He compares it to air travel – a 747 costs $250 m, and if you could only use it once it would cost $500m to fly to London and back.“A rocket costs $60 m to build – if you only use it once that’s a $60m capital cost, but if you use it 1,000 times that is a $60,000 capital cost.”Reusable rockets combined with cheap fuel – he favors methane – should make it possible for people to move to Mars for less than $500,000.At that price point many people could sell all they have here and move to the Red Planet – “kind of like the way the early English colonized America – when it became affordable for people to sell all their stuff in England and move to America it grew really fast.But in the absence of that it would just require humongous amounts of government support and it probably wouldn’t result in a self-sustaining civilization.”Once humans get to Mars, he says, the technology to make it habitable would not be difficult.Mars has a carbon dioxide atmosphere with a transparent dome one could grow plants that would produce oxygen in a virtuous circle.

Asked about the Hyperloop that he sketched designs for that would take passengers from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes, Musk said that “the engineering is pretty obvious – the larger issues will be political, and making sure the economics pan out.”Musk is hopeful the Hyperloop will be developed using open source technology, and sees it as idea for distances between 500 and 1,000 miles.For longer distances supersonic air travel makes more sense, he said.

Asked about what other problems needed to be fixed in the world, Musk said he was pretty optimistic overall:“The world is actually pretty great right now – arguably better than at any point in history.”In the medical field he thinks the innovation that would most affect peoples’ lives would be the ability to recode genetics.“We are pretty close to saturation on life-span” he said, and curing any particular disease would not make a huge difference overall, but the ability to prevent genetic flaws would have enormous effects.“It’s a really tricky subject, fraught with all sorts of moral issues, but that is what would most affect people’s lives.”

> Towards the end of the conversation one of the written questions from the audience that got the biggest laugh of the night was about coat hooks in the Tesla.“Why is there no coat hook in the back?You can design a rocket but you forgot the coat hooks?”Musk paused to allow the laughter to subside, then said that he didn’t forget them, he deliberately didn’t put them in because he simply didn’t like them aesthetically. “Obviously some people disagree with that.” (More laughter).He went on to admit that in the original version of the Model S there was also no reading light in the back because Musk assumed everyone was migrating to Kindles and iPads with backlighting.“But then I was driving with one of my kids and he was trying to read his book and he said ‘this is the stupidest car in the world’ – so I said alright, we’ll put the light back in.”

Great design is all about the details.

Video of the event is available on our YouTube page here: LAWAC on YouTube

To see and purchase photos from the event, please visit: Elon Musk LAWAC Photo Album