Stuff meets Elon Musk

We sat down with the co-founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX to talk about how he became one of the internet's most successful entrepreneurs, electrified car-making… Oh, and how he plans to build a city on Mars.

When interviewing a billionaire, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what that means, about how much of the world’s money is concentrated in the person in front of you. In the whole financial system, there’s about twelve trillion dollars’ worth of currency. Elon Musk’s net worth is estimated at $12 billion. That means Elon Musk has about a thousandth of the world’s money, all for himself. If you have a globally average amount of money, Elon Musk is seven million times richer than you.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to be disappointed when someone with so much financial and industrial power at his fingertips arrives in a room and just looks normal. It’s particularly hard if that person defines themself in the media as a real-life Tony Stark, a science-wielding hero whom you half-expect to arrive by jetpack. But Elon Musk did not arrive by jetpack. He arrived, like everyone else, on some normal-looking human legs. He’s about average height, with a slightly receding hairline and a relaxed, affable manner. He speaks quietly in an international accent - half California, half South Africa. His suit looks frighteningly expensive, but it's not Tony Stark's suit. Not the metal one, anyway.

We’re meeting to discuss the launch of the new right-hand-drive Model S in the UK, a car that Musk believes will do well here. “I think the UK should be our biggest market in Europe,” he says, “because UK consumers make a decision based on the car itself, not for nationalistic reasons. If you look at Germany and France, they tend to be a bit parochial when it comes to buying cars.” When we reflect that this might be because Germany and France still have national car industries building German and French cars, Musk points out that there’s still a huge amount of engineering talent in the UK - talent he’s very keen to employ.

“Our head of vehicle engineering, Chris Porritt, is from Aston Martin. At our main vehicle engineering centre in California, about half of the vehicle engineering team is European, with British engineers being the biggest single constituent. And actually we’re making plans to establish an R&D centre in the UK, probably next year. It wouldn’t just be modifying cars for Europe - to attract the top talent, they’ve got to be part of the core design process. In the longer term, we would expect to have a factory in the UK.”

"we want you to go from highway on-ramp to highway off-ramp, without touching the controls, in the next 12 months"

The British version of the Model S brings with it a network of Superchargers, which can add 200 miles to the Model S’s range in under half an hour. Tesla is spending a fair chunk of change on this - Musk says it’s “in the tens of millions”, albeit with the air of someone for whom that is basically pocket money - but that infrastructure is essential to making sure people can buy Teslas and actually drive them without running out of juice. While it’s taken years to create the Supercharger network in America, the UK is a lot smaller: “by the end of next year you’ll be able to drive a Tesla to anywhere in the British Isles, without having to dramatically divert your route.”

Telsa plans to follow the Model S with something more affordable. The next car after the Model X will be “mass-market”: “we’re aiming for 20% smaller and half the price, and it’ll be coming to market in about two and a half years.” And it'll be self-driving, too, using Tesla’s AutoPilot technology. “Autonomous driving will get rolled out into cars quite rapidly, in the next year or so. We want to get to the point where you can go from highway on-ramp to highway off-ramp completely autonomously, without touching any controls, in the next 12 months.” 

So what does he make of Google’s self-driving, er, ‘car’? 

“It’s not the most attractive thing. I haven’t seen it in person, but it’s only going to go 25mph, and it has two feet of foam bumper on the front. I’m not sure if it’s sending quite the right message. I hope they put an ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button on the dash, which you can press and it’ll just go somewhere.” Tesla’s self-driving auto, he reassures us, is “not going to be some weird-looking thing. It’s going to be the car that you see now. The radar will be hidden inside the bumpers - the bumpers are plastic, so the radar can see through it - and the cameras are packaged into quite a small space, where the mirror is. If you look for them, you’ll be able to find them, but otherwise you won’t notice it.”
As for other companies, Musk feels they “just don’t seem to take electric cars seriously. The only things that seem to move them are regulatory requirements, and competitor pressure, and their main competitors aren’t making electric cars either. Leaving aside all the noise they make about their electric vehicle programmes, when you look at the underlying reality, it’s maybe 0.2% of new cars made. There were almost 100 million new cars made this year, and approximately 2 billion cars on the road around the world. So even if all new cars instantly became electric, it would take 20 years to replace the fleet.”

And why is no-one bothering to make green machines? Musk, who defines himself as a risk-taking CEO, says it’s because big companies promote people who don’t rock the boat. “The incentive structure tends to reward incremental improvements. The CEO is not going to get fired on the basis of incremental changes - even if they don’t work out, you can usually just blame suppliers or something like that. But if you try to do something bold and it doesn’t work out, then the CEO gets fired.”

He does, however, have some grudging praise for a few other electric cars. “I think what BMW has done with the i3’s carbon fibre chassis is interesting, and I’m impressed that they can make the i3 at a non-crazy cost, with that much carbon fibre. I applaud anyone who’s trying to do something new and interesting.”

"i see us going to mars in 10-11 years"

Of course, there’s new and interesting, and there’s establishing the planet’s first private space-freight company. “We’ll be flying our Dragon version 2 vehicle in a few years, with a very exciting test flight later this year,” he says, before casually adding that “I see us going to Mars in about 10-11 years.”

As in a spacecraft with people? People who might want to come back?

“Yeah. And in a really big spaceship, not a little thing.The Dragon spacecraft is quite a little thing, although it’s bigger than the Soyuz, which is ridiculously small. You have to be short, and in the foetal position, in order to go up in one.”

So, how big a Mars base is he thinking? “A city. Millions of people.”

It’s hard to know what to think when someone who probably does have enough money to fly to Mars talks about actually doing that. One the one hand, it could be that Musk will go down in history as the initiator of humanity’s colonisation of other planets. On the other, it could be that his sci-fi aspirations are just part of Tesla's highly polished marketing sheen. What’s certain is that, just as General Motors inspired future-gazing 1950s consumers to buy cars with rocketship tailfins in the era of the first space race, Tesla is following a similar line, selling you a vision of the future so ambitious it could be taken from a comic book.

“hey Larry, can I see your will, please?”

The idea that he could help propel humanity to the stars is also helpful in justifying Musk’s vast wealth. While a lot of people find it morally questionable that there are billionaires on a planet with so many hungry mouths, Musk seems like he could be exempt, because he has important plans for all that money. Fellow billionaire Larry Page certainly agrees: the Google co-founder recently said he’d rather bequeath his immense fortune to Musk than a charity, because Musk would ‘do more with it’.

“Oh yeah… I know Larry well, but I’ve never actually brought that up in conversation, like “hey Larry, can I see your will, please?”

But would he accept it? Musk considers for a moment.

“Yeah, sure, okay. Mostly what I would use it for is building a base on Mars. Because there’s an initial cost to establish the essential infrastructure that’s quite high, and you don’t have an immediate return, because you can’t charge people a billion dollars each to go there. So you’ve got to carry it to the point at which someone can sell their house on Earth, move to Mars and get a job - at that point, I think it becomes a self-sustaining business. It’s analogous, I think, to the establishment of the English colonies in America.”

Hero or a villain, there’s no doubt that Musk acts like someone in a Bond movie, to the extent that he recently bought the Lotus Esprit submarine that 007 drives in You Only Live Twice. His intention, of course, is to make a real one. “In reality, it’s not physically possible for it to transform. They use three different versions, and if you look at the submarine version and the car version, there’s no way those pods could turn into one another. We’re going to create a submarine that looks just like it, only about 10% bigger, but it will work as both a car and a sub, and it’ll use the Model S motor and battery pack. It’s a low-priority project; we might make more than one, but single digits. We’ve even joked about having a submarine-plane-car.”

We’ll take a Model S, for now.

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(picture credits: Brian Solis [top portrait], Steve Jurvetson [picture of Elon with two robots], Dimitri Gerondidakis [picture of Elon unveiling Dragon 2])