Further Elon Musk Musings

As a follow-up to my post on Elon Musk and Lyndon Rive’s talk at the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday, a few more comments stood out to me that may be worth relating:

  • Tesla came within a few days of going bankrupt in Christmas 2008.  The company secured a round of funds at the last minute.  This drama was captured in the movie “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which is worth watching if you haven’t seen it.  (It also captures Musk’s dysfunctional private life, which seemed like too much info for my tastes).
  • Musk was convinced that Tesla and SpaceX (his rocket company) would fail.  He did think SolarCity would succeed, but only because he had confidence in his cousin Lyndon.  So much for the myth of the starry-eyed entrepreneur who bends reality to fit the vision.
  • Musk launched Tesla not because he loved cars necessarily but because he identified the lack of sustainable energy as the critical challenge facing humankind.  Energy storage and alternative-fueled cars are critical to addressing the problem.  How many successful entrepreneurs start their companies not out of love of the product but because they believe it will address a critical environmental and societal need?  My guess is Musk is unique — or at least unique in the sense that he’s been successful so far.
  • Musk feels that burning oil for energy is a waste of a good product.  He thinks oil has a higher value in the long term for plastics.  He likened oil consumption for transportation to burning the furniture in your house for firewood.
  • Along these lines, Musk wryly noted that one of the raw materials for batteries includes a byproduct of coal.  But just a bit, he said.
  • Musk foresees used Tesla batteries, once they’re no longer useful for driving but still have 60% capacity, being deployed for stationary energy storage.  Either that or they’ll be completely recycled.  Either way, he sees no waste resulting from the batteries.
  • Tesla is experimenting with battery swapping, which takes 90 seconds to do (quicker than refilling a tank with gas).  They will begin soon on the LA to San Francisco route to see if it’s popular.  Personally, I don’t see how the ownership model works for this process.  If you give up your Tesla car battery somewhere along Interstate 5, and you’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for that battery as part of the car purchase, how do you know your new battery is just as good?  It only seems like it could work if you lease your battery, but that business model did not work for Better Place.

Musk is under a lot of scrutiny these days given the high-flying success of Tesla (the stock is up over 600% in the last twelve months), so his comments can make an impact on the electric vehicle market just through the media attention they receive.  But it’s worth giving his words and experience thought, given how he’s revolutionized the electric vehicle market — and soon the energy storage one — so far.


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