Ten years after Elon Musk unveiled his master plan for Tesla (build an electric sports car, then use the money to fund an affordable version and make solar power work), he’s written a sequel. It’s a gleaming vision of a sustainable future, and one that’s best pictured at night.
While you sleep soundly in your futuristic, temperature-controlled room, your house will be running off solar power, quietly generated in the photovoltaic panel on your roof and stored in a high tech battery.
Your driverless electric car, meanwhile, is busy competing with Uber’s autonomous fleet, gliding around town providing rides for late night revellers and earning you a pretty penny in the process. Road safety is up, fossil fuel usage is down and mankind is on its way to a sustainable future.
That’s one way of looking at Musk’s vision, anyway. The other is somewhat more cynical.
It would say that all Musk has actually done is piece together vague and already stated long-term goals, such as developing fully autonomous cars, extending electric vehicle (EV) technology to larger vehicles like buses and trucks, and increasing production of the mass-market Model 3, while simultaneously justifying Tesla’s controversial acquisition of Musk’s other company, SolarCity.
That would be a little harsh, though. Solar power has been a part of Musk’s master plan for a decade, even if SolarCity hasn’t been part of Tesla. Besides, his latest statement does contain some details of the time scale we could expect.
Musk says, for instance, that he expects a ‘5 to 10 fold improvement’ in automotive production for the Model 3 within around six years, as a result of investing in the ‘machine that makes the machine’.
He also implies a similar timescale (or better) for worldwide regulatory approval for autonomous vehicles, stating that six billion miles of testing would be required, with current fleet learning three million miles a day (and not without incident, as a recent semi-autonomous Tesla crash shows).
The fact that he’s openly admitted to Tesla being a potential competitor to Uber once driverless cars are the norm is noteworthy too.
None of this is likely to please the hard-nosed analysts who want to know when exactly Tesla will make a profit, but then they’re not really the ones Musk was addressing.
Like Steve Jobs before him, Musk has acquired a cult of devotees who earnestly believe he’s changing the future in a profound way. To them, he’s a heroic visionary because he dreams big and puts his money where his mouth is.
This stuff is manna from heaven to these people (or Kool-Aid from heaven, if you’re in the cynics’ camp), just like his predictions of colonising Mars.
That isn’t to say he’s doing it solely to feed his own myth – there’s little doubt he believes in his vision – but it is fair to say he’s preaching to the converted.
Will his vision come true then? That’s obviously impossible to say. Solar power and electricity storage technology are still far from where they’d need to be to transform the energy market, while regulatory issues could prove a much bigger speed bump (or even road block) for driverless vehicles than Musk expects.
On the other hand, Musk has achieved things that few thought were realistic ten years ago, while his successes and the buzz around him have spurred rivals on too (without Tesla, would the automotive majors have invested anything like as much time and money into EVs?).
Whether his vision for Tesla comes true is perhaps not the point. When remains the bigger question. Given Musk’s history of overpromising on volumes and dates, six years for widespread autonomous, electric cars and stored, domestically-generated solar power seems overly optimistic.
Who knows though. Musk has several big bets on the go, from the battery 'gigafactory' to space flight. In 2022, he may well be laughing at his erstwhile critics – from his solar-powered penthouse on Mars.
Photo credit: OnInnovation/Flickr