Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done.
That seems to be the motto by which Elon Musk lives his life. Over the past several years there have been numerous instances where he throws out an idea in an interview or on his Twitter and within months the idea has become a new product or even an entire new company. While he’s generated a lot of attention for the accomplishments of Tesla and Spacex, 2017 may be Musk’s most consequential year yet. He discussed his current endeavors in a recent TED interview, which I’ll be referencing throughout the post: https://www.ted.com/talks/elon_musk_the_future_we_re_building_and_boring
This week, I’m going to survey all of the projects Musk is currently working on. He’s been called crazy, but he might just be crazy enough to pull it all off.
Autopilot and Fully-Autonomous Driving
A couple of years ago, Tesla owners woke up to find a revolutionary software update in their vehicles (updates are routine and sent over the air to the vehicles). All Tesla vehicles released after a certain day now had Autopilot, an evolution of adaptive cruise control that allowed the car to seemingly drive itself. This wasn’t quite true, as there were frequent instances where the driver needed to keep their hands on the wheel to ensure safe (and legal) driving.
The technology has since evolved, and all new Tesla vehicles are now equipped with 8 cameras in order to support fully-autonomous driving. A demonstration of how these technologies work was published on Tesla’s website back in 2015: https://www.tesla.com/autopilot. How soon could such technology become a reality in Tesla’s vehicles? According to their website:
“It is not possible to know exactly when…the functionality described above will be available, as this is highly dependent on local regulatory approval.”
It seems clear that Tesla is capable of making their vehicles fully autonomous now, but it’s currently not legal largely because the idea is a little frightening. Musk understands the concern, during the TED interview asking the largely rhetorical question “How much better does autonomy need to be than a person for you to be comfortable with it?” His answer is that if you were told the car would crash once every 1,000 times it drove itself, “you probably wouldn’t be comfortable going to sleep.” Personally, once the technology is in use, I would hate to see it dismissed when a crash does inevitably occur, as humans get in accidents all the time. The goal is to dramatically increase the safety of driving, but we have to remember that a dramatic increase and perfection are not the same thing. While it is theoretically available now, I won’t be surprised if we don’t see a self-driving Tesla on the road for a while as their engineers work to maximize the capability and safety of the technology.
One more idea Musk has for self-driving cars: when you aren’t using them, they can be part of a Tesla version of Uber and make you money, over time covering the cost of the car. This is also why Uber is investing in self-driving technology.
Beginning production of Model 3 this summer
Last year, Tesla announced the Model 3 as their attempt to produce a car that middle class consumers could afford. Given that the Model S starts around 70K (but is over 100K once you upgrade the battery to make the range better, or if you want a car that goes 0-60 in 2.5 seconds) and the Model X at around 90K, this is a natural next step for the company. The Model 3 will start at 35K with a range of 215 miles, although it’s assumed that like its predecessors there will be an option to upgrade. Production will start this summer, and a Model 3 will likely be coming to a road near you by the end of the year.
Unveiling of semi-truck project later this year
Yes, Tesla is making a semi truck. The basic idea seems to be that because of the size of a semi, you can have a LOT bigger battery and be able to drive much farther on a charge than Tesla’s current vehicles are able to. Also, as Musk has pointed out, you can get instant (and higher) torque out of an electric engine. To illustrate the advantage an electric motor gives, here’s a Tesla Model S P100D racing against a Lamborghini Huracan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GZtTRKuE8A&t=64s
Notice how immediate the Tesla’s acceleration and the ground the Tesla makes up each time the Lambo has to switch gear. The same ideas can be scaled up to a semi truck; think about how long it takes a semi to get up to speed on a highway because it has to shift through several gears. Musk says first and foremost he wants to make something that truck drivers will prefer to current semis.
He has said that there’s no intent yet for this to be a self driving vehicle, simply to be a truck that truck drivers prefer to drive.
Solar City (Tesla Energy)
In general, the biggest problem in terms of energy usage is the inability to store it; this is how a lot of energy gets wasted. Tesla wants to try to address this both on a personal and commercial level. Powerwall is the personal version of this, and is Musk’s idea of how a home could go totally off the grid. Tesla will sell you a solar panel that you can put on your roof, and you can connect that to the Powerwall to store the collected energy, which you can in turn use to charge your Tesla, maybe even help power your home (more on that shortly).
Powerpack is basically a way scaled up version of the Powerwall intended for commercial and corporate customers. The primary advantage is you can charge the batteries when energy is cheap (at night) and then store it for use when energy is more expensive. On an even larger scale, technology like this could fundamentally change the way we approach energy production. No matter how energy (specifically electricity) is being produced, the difficulty is knowing how much you need to produce at a given time because much of the excess will be lost to waste. As with everything Tesla does, the goal is maximizing the efficiency of energy usage.
The designs have been refined a bit since their introduction, but here’s Elon Musk introducing the Powerwall and Powerpack a couple years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKORsrlN-2k
As awesome and incredible as I think some of the stuff Tesla and Spacex are doing is, this is the one that out of all Elon Musk’s ventures can have the most tangible and immediate impact on people’s’ lives. Why not have roof shingles that double as solar panels and, no matter where you live, produce some of your own energy? There’s been a few reasons this hasn’t happened yet: solar panels are fragile, solar panels are expensive, and solar panels are ugly. Musk wants to solve all of these issues at once. Orders are being taken now for the first edition, with customers being able to choose between flat (looks a lot like a solar panel) and textured (more closely resembles a shingle) varieties of gray. Spanish and slate varieties are scheduled to begin production next year.
In a very Elon Musk proclamation the tiles have an infinite warranty, “they are warrantied for the lifetime of your house, or infinity, whichever comes first.” Given Musk’s commitment to leaving the planet I think he’s confident nobody will ever be able to prove this isn’t the case.
Connected with such a long term warranty is how durable Tesla claims they are, displayed by a GIF on the website ( https://www.tesla.com/solarroof ) of the tiles’ resistance to hail. It also notes that the tiles have the highest possible hail, wind, and fire ratings.
The energy collected can then be routed to the aforementioned Powerwall. As for the expense, every tile wouldn’t contain a solar cell, rather they’d be spread out over the roof with a focus on areas that would receive the most sunlight. Also, you don’t have an electric bill anymore (or your bill is at least much less than it used to be).
You can watch the launch event from last year, complete with fake houses fit with the various type of roof tiles to be offered: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sfwDyiPTdU
New partnership with the US Government
Spacex recently completed its first launch of a satellite for the government, which breaks a monopoly that the United Launch Alliance previously had on government and military launches. The big advantage for Spacex? They build their own engines, while ULA buys theirs from Russia. Elon Musk being on 2 of President Trump’s CEO advisory councils probably doesn’t hurt either. Furthermore, one of Spacex’s missions is to reduce the cost of launching a rocket and we all know the government loves saving money.
Success of Landing Rockets
Spacex is on a good run, with 5 consecutive fully successful missions in 2017, including landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket (either on a barge or at the launch site), after an explosion on the launch pad last September. Continued successes are vital for Spacex in order to maintain business, acquire more contracts (especially from the government) and keep investors committed. It’s hard to believe how quickly landing a rocket has gone from something nobody had ever done to something Spacex is doing regularly. For reference, here’s a list of all Falcon 9 missions to this point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Falcon_9_and_Falcon_Heavy_launches
Being able to reliably land (and later reuse) the first stage of a rocket is vital to Spacex’s goal of reducing the cost of each launch.
The Falcon Heavy is the next step that will allow Spacex to expand its launch capabilities, allowing for heavier payloads (including astronauts and all the equipment that has to go along with them) to be launched into space. Musk has also said he wants the Falcon Heavy to take people to Mars (probably just for an orbit of the planet, but who knows). Musk has also said he wants to go to the moon before the end of next year, and successful tests of the Falcon Heavy are vital to making that happen. The first static test of the central rocket of the FH was just tested this past week (the FH is basically just 3 Falcon 9’s stuck together with a second stage and module on top of the middle one). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BKh6aTKBRA
If Musk’s lofty ideas about space travel in the near future are to become a reality, the FH is going to be key to those achievements. It’s scheduled to fly for the first time by the end of the year.
Musk has made it pretty clear going to Mars is the entire point of Spacex. He cites the need to eventually leave Earth, probably sooner than we’d like, with either war (shorter term) or climate change (longer term) being the likely cause.
NASA has said they want to go to Mars sometime in the 2030’s. Musk thinks it’s possible to do it sooner, in his typical fashion of aggressive timelines.
He’s already put a lot of thought into the details, as shown by this really awesome simulation of how getting an airplane’s worth of people to Mars would work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-aGISgOB6n0
For reference, the thrust of that enormous rocket is the equivalent of 4 Saturn Vs (the rocket used for the Apollo missions) or about 120 747 airplanes. If you’re interested in hearing Musk talk at length about this potential mission, you can check that out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7Uyfqi_TE8
The Boring Company
By far the Elon Musk company with the best name, The Boring Company is Musk’s plan for a “3D network of tunnels to alleviate traffic.” The TED talk mentioned throughout this post and linked to at the beginning of the post is primarily about this idea, with the first half of the interview spent discussing it. TBC is seeking to reduce the cost of digging by making the tunnels small than normal (only 12 feet in diameter), and to have the boring machine be digging and reinforcing the tunnel simultaneously (machines normally don’t do so at the same time). Musk makes the point that digging tunnels is a lot easier than making flying cars as far as futuristic transportation ideas go. In the interview he says he’s spending about 2 or 3 percent of his time on this project, as the interviewer puts it “This is what an Elon Musk hobby looks like.” Digging started on Friday in LA, and you can check out Musk’s Instagram for photos/videos: https://www.instagram.com/elonmusk/?hl=en
It’s gonna take a really really long time to dig just one tunnel, so time will tell whether TBC can actually pull this off. For a visualization of the idea, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5V_VzRrSBI
Finally we come to Musk’s latest venture: Neuralink, a company whose goal is connecting humans and computers. Musk has expressed a fear of AI getting too smart for it’s own good. His vision is using AI to augment human intelligence, not replicate/replace it. The website describes the products they intend to create as “brain machine interfaces.” This company barely exists and appears to have much much longer term goals than Musk’s other ventures (you can apply for open positions here if you’re interested: https://www.neuralink.com/ )
Nobody else in the world is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for humanity to achieve like Musk is. A lot of his ideas certainly seem crazy, and any of them failing would be an enormous blow to his business empire. Tesla, arguably the most successful and developed of his companies, still has never made a profit. That said, Musk has made it clear he isn’t in all of this for the money. He’s personally heavily invested in his companies and has said making an impact and helping humanity is much more important for him. This is reflected in his business strategy. A few years ago he released all of Tesla’s patents related to their electric cars because the patents were preventing other automakers from creating good electric vehicles. In 10 years, if everything goes to plan, Musk could be the wealthiest man in the world. Or, he could be flat broke if Tesla and or Spacex can’t deliver on their promises and continue to pay the bills. For now, Musk is trying any and every idea that seems to pop into his head.
At the conclusion of the interview, he says that he’s “just trying to think about the future and not be sad.” I think we all want to leave the world better than we found it, but Elon Musk is doing that in ways perhaps only he can dream of. As the interview concludes, Musk asks “You’ll tell me if it ever starts getting genuinely insane, right?” Thanks to Musk, the gap between insanity and reality is shrinking every day.
This Week In…
WEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS MY FRIEEEENDS. Alright now that that’s out of the way….. With a win over West Brom on Friday Chelsea have officially won the Premier League, a phenomenal achievement and recovery from the complete dumpster fire that was 2015/16. Manager Antonio Conte has proved the right man for the job, with new addition N’Golo Kante winning both the writer and player-voted MVP awards (honorable mention for Eden Hazard). Chelsea have 2 games remaining, both at home, to celebrate the title, the second of which is against Sunderland who at that point will have already have been relegated for 2 weeks; awkward.
This week Richard Panik signed a two year extension with the Blackhawks. Another example of Stan Bowman being a wizard, Panik was picked up on waivers last season from Tampa and has turned into an extremely productive two-way player, although being on a line with Jonathan Toews certainly helps.
Meanwhile over in Europe, Artemi Panarin has 3 goals and 7 assists in 4 games for Russia in the IIHF World Hockey Championships which makes him the second highest scorer in the tournament (Nate MacKinnon has 1 more point in 2 more games). Nick Schmaltz has 3 assists for the US of A.
This week in interesting decisions made by the Bears’ front office, they signed 13 undrafted free agents, headlined by a WR from Wyoming who ran a 4.40 40 at his pro day. http://www.csnchicago.com/chicago-bears/bears-sign-standout-tanner-gentry-13-undrafted-free-agents-denard-robinson-michigan
Last week I mentioned how the White Sox were magically in 1st place. That was fun while it lasted. Following last weekend’s sweep by the Orioles the Sox lost 3 more in a row before rebounding for 2 wins over the weekend against the Padres, because if you can’t beat the Padres then who can you beat? The Sox now sit in 4th place in the AL Central, 2.5 games back.
Also, Jose Quintana trade rumors are back, specifically involving the Cubs. This is probably 99% smoke, but if we see good progress from Sox pitching prospects as the season goes on (Carson Fulmer?) then maybe we could see Quintana get moved.
The Fire beat the Sounders 4-1 at home on Saturday night in front of over 20,000 fans, the biggest crowd at a Fire game in years. This is the most goals they’ve scored in a game this season, and high-profile signings Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger are so far turning out to be everything the team had hoped for. The Fire are currently 6th in the East (the last playoff spot).
With traveling this weekend I didn’t have time to listen through all of these and be paying enough attention to actually write an opinion, but as will be the usual here’s a playlist of all the songs:
I update the playlist every week with the week’s songs, so give it a follow!
Paramore, “Hard Times”
Dreamcar, “Dreamcar” (No Doubt with the lead singer from AFI instead of Gwen Stefani)
Fleet Foxes, “Fool’s Errand”
HAIM, “Right Now”
Imagine Dragons, “Whatever it Takes”
Linkin Park, “Invisible”
Third Eye Blind, “Alright Caroline”
Bleachers, “Everybody Lost Somebody”
Sundara Karma, “Explore”
Also, the lead singer of The Offspring got a Phd in Molecular Biology with a thesis on AIDs research; so that’s pretty cool. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/offsprings-dexter-holland-finishes-phd-thesis-on-hiv-w481935
Actual Sports Journalism
From ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines,’ a piece about the Syrian National Soccer Team, how it has been used as a political weapon, and how the team’s players have been affected by this politicization and the seemingly endless civil war.