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Electric Dreams

19 Nov 2012

“If you can show people there is a way, there is plenty of will” Elon Musk told the 800 strong audience who flocked to Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre to hear his inspirational lecture on the Future of Energy and Transport. Showing the way toward cleaner, greener transportation is certainly one of Musk’s many strengths.

Now aged just 41, Musk has twice travelled to space, co-founded the internet payment system PayPal; founded Tesla Motors where he oversaw the construction of the electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster; and founded SpaceX where he is responsible for the successor to the Space Shuttle known as Falcon 9/Dragon. If that isn’t enough, he is also passionate about the capabilities of solar energy and is Chairman of Solar City, the leading provider of solar power systems in the United States.

Musk arrived in Oxford in style in Tesla’s latest electric vehicle, the Model S, a sleek saloon car which will be available for sale in the UK next year. His vision for Tesla was “to create electric vehicles that are more compelling than gas (fossil fuel) vehicles” or, as the website says, “to prove that electric vehicles could be awesome.” This was certainly achieved with the Roadster although, as Musk admitted, it attracted some criticism because of its high cost. But this was always part of his business model: “Any car that you make at low volume was going to be expensive” he said, so best to start with a fast sports car for which the wealthy are prepared to pay. The move now is to more mass market appeal vehicles at medium volume, hence the Model S; and in the future will come the low price, high volume models.

According to Musk, the fundamental issue in energy and transport is the tragedy of the commons – the CO2 capacity of the oceans and atmosphere is ‘unpriced.’ “We are dumping garbage into the atmosphere and no one is paying for the rubbish collection” is how Musk describes it. The significant vested interests in oil, gas and coal makes clean energy a difficult battle to fight. In the absence of a tax on CO2 Musk believes in the necessity to create products that don’t rely on hydrocarbons. Hence the Model S which was unanimously voted Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year.

When asked about the energy storage capacity of electric cars, Musk is optimistic. He thinks there is potential for a significant breakthrough with ultra capacitors in the near future, but today’s technology is enough to achieve Tesla’s goal of mass-market electric vehicles. His current focus is to build production in order to drive down cost rather than worrying about improving battery density. And by changing vehicles at night he believes that we are OK on the grid front in the near future.

Musk spoke of his sadness at the end of the Apollo space programme and his ambition to reignite the passion for space exploration with a “small” mission to Mars. “I didn’t think it would be possible to create a space company - it seemed like the provenance of governments”, he said. But after designing and building rockets and three unsuccessful attempts to reach orbit, the fourth attempt succeeded. “It was a bit of a nail biter” admitted Musk who disclosed that if it hadn’t worked, the money would have run out! SpaceX went on to become the primary means of transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station. Musk’s next projects include a fully reusable rocket and Mars settlement is within his sights.

Musk spoke of his optimism that with the addition of a carbon tax and the development of solar energy he can foresee a time when all land transport is powered by electricity. He even sees opportunities to create electric jet aircraft. He is not a fan of biofuels, believing that the land swathes necessary for its production would be better dedicated to producing food or installing solar panels which have a 20 percent efficiency level compared to the 0.2 percent of biofuels.

Selling PayPal to Ebay gave Musk the funds to explore his dreams and become one of the world’s most exciting innovators. Let’s see what he can achieve in the next 40 years.