Elon Musk’s Guide to the Galaxy

Over the past month, I’ve had the distinct privilege and opportunity to attend two of Elon Musk’s keynote presentations where he discussed his vision for a sustainable energy future, electric vehicle technology, and humanity’s multi-planetary quest.  As a way of background, Elon Musk is considered to be a modern day visionary, inventor, and innovator, and he is often compared to legendary inventors such as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs.  Elon Musk founded and runs companies such as PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity [1].

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Elon Musk and DOE Secretary Steven Chu speaking at 2013 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, Washington, D.C. – 2.26.13

Photo: Michael Belfiore

The first keynote speech I attended was on February 26, 2013 in Washington, D.C. while attending the 2013 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.  This particular conference brings together some of the brightest energy minds in the world to discuss energy policy, energy technology innovation, energy security, and funding opportunities and successes through the ARPA-E program [2].

Mr. Musk’s presentation focused primarily on the process he went through to secure a low-interest $465 million loan through the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) Program [3].  The ATVM program was authorized by President Bush in 2007 under the Energy Independence and Security Act and later appropriated in the Fall of 2008.  The ATVM was already authorized and funded before President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus program was enacted in 2009.  The ATVM program was geared towards helping the private sector accelerate the advancement and production of alternative fuel technology vehicles such as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrids electric vehicles (PHEVs), and full electric vehicles (EVs) in order to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. Musk was joined by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on stage for the keynote session.  It was interesting to learn that both General Motors and Chrysler were both ineligible to apply for the ATVM program since both companies were going through bankruptcy proceedings at that time.  The two largest loans that were approved under the ATVM program went to Ford ($5.9 billion) and Nissan ($1.6 billion) to accelerate the development of their advanced vehicle technology platforms.  As Secretary Chu pointed out during the session, the most attractive piece of Tesla Motors’ application for an ATVM loan was that the company is vertically integrated and all of Tesla’s vehicle components and systems are designed and built here in America.  According to Secretary Chu, Tesla designs and builds everything from their battery systems, electric drive trains, suspension systems, chassis, and even the test and evaluation equipment to ensure that the vehicle is performing optimally.

The major announcement that Mr. Musk revealed during the session is that the production and sales of Tesla’s new Model S electric sedan was going so well that Tesla will be repaying their ATVM loan within 5 years instead of 10 years, which is in half the time than what was stipulated under the ATVM program terms.  Mr. Musk ended the session by reminding the audience that the DOE’s efforts to fund and support advanced energy technology research and development have produced many major successes similar to Tesla.  He pointed out that these successes all too often go overlooked due to the failure and over politicization of Solyndra.

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Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, speaking at SXSW 2013 – 3.9.13

(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET)

The second and most recent keynote address I attended was during SXSW Interactive in Austin on March 9, 2013.  Mr. Musk touched on the challenges of running multiple companies at the same time and cautioned entrepreneurs to not make the same mistakes that he has made.  When Musk was asked what was the biggest mistake and lesson he’s learned so far about being an entrepreneur and innovator, he explained to the audience that he has learned the hard way that you can’t hire someone simply because they are the smartest person available to do the job.  Musk said that you have to hire someone who is capable of doing the job and who also has their heart in the right place and a personality that you can easily get along with.

Musk also discussed his SolarCity venture and how the company is providing cheap solar power to customers who previously could not afford it through a full service community solar-based business model.  He also went into detail on SpaceX’s recent successful test launch of their new vertical take-off and landing vehicle (VTVL) called the Grasshopper.  SpaceX is taking a private sector approach to space flight by focusing on fully recoverable rockets in an effort to minimize the cost of each launch and mission.  SpaceX recently completed a successful text launch and docking mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA subsequently awarded SpaceX a 10-mission contract to deliver supplies to (ISS).  Musk believes that humanity will be a multi-planetary species in the very near future due to private sector innovation and efforts like SpaceX.  Musk concluded the keynote session by saying, “I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” [4]

References:

[1] http://elonmusk.com/

[2] http://www.arpae-summit.com/

[3] http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/clearing-air-our-doe-loan

[4] http://news.cnet.com/8301-14013_3-57573439/elon-musk-at-sxsw-id-like-to-die-on-mars-just-not-on-impact/

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1 Comment

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One response to “Elon Musk’s Guide to the Galaxy

  1. andtheansweriscience

    I had never heard that the DoE offered a deal like that for more forward-thinking and innovative ventures. I definitely feel that a combination of bright ideas from companies like Tesla combined with the temporary financial support from the government is a conceivably successful way to implement good ideas that will work toward a more sustainable future. With that said, I’ll get to my main concern: How do you think (and maybe how would Elon Musk think) that the energy conglomerates profiting from the current system would react/adjust to a sudden shift in behavior? More specifically, suppose our transportation sector was to, over the next 15-20 years, convert 75% of it’s motive fuel from petroleum to something such as electricity as Musk would have it? In other words, what if our cars increase in gasoline fuel efficiency by 75% on average by whatever technological means arise? Could the powerful lobbying presence of energy companies that may become less profitable from the shift slow the process through their political influences and connections? I’m confident that we have both the means and the technology to really try to achieve a more sustainable energy future, but I have a feeling that high financial stakes may be a significant damper in the process.

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