We are currently living in a world of uncertainty, the environmental concerns of our planet are roller-coasting out of control. Our planets species are disappearing, our oceans are becoming an empty pool of chemicals and our climate is changing uncontrollably. As the worlds politicians argue about what is more important, their partners who own the large corporations of our planet continue to pillage our resources and accumulate the majority of the world’s wealth. With all the red tape involved and profit minded heads in charge, the governments of our planet are struggling to reign in our planets biggest threats. However one man is emerging as somewhat a super hero when it comes to tackling these problems, Elon Musk is striving to build a better future for our planet and our species.
Slowly becoming a house hold name Elon Musk is trying (and so far succeeding) to change the direction in which humanity is going. A brief look at his CV makes it no surprise that marvel’s Iron Man character Tony Stark was based on Musk. Musk created online banking before anyone knew they might want it (PayPal), mainstream electric car production (Tesla), the creation of high-speed, underground, long distance transportation (Hyperloop), affordable solar energy (SolarCity), Mars colonisation for the masses (SpaceX) and his current obsession with saving the world from what he warns are the dangers of artificial intelligence (OpenAI). With each high-profile announcement Musk is striving to create a better future for humanity.
Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa before moving to Canada early in his live. His mother described her oldest son as a precocious learner who sometimes became lost in his thoughts, so much so that she took him to doctors to see if he suffered hearing loss. “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world, He still does that, but now I leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something”. Musk used his intelligence and computer literacy to create PayPal, then selling this company to make a very large sum of money. Instead of spending his money on large houses and private islands, Musk continues to use his fortunes to push humanity towards a better future. So what is he actually doing?
Perhaps his best known company is Tesla. Musk was not actually a founder but an early investor later becoming CEO and investing more than $70 million of his own fortune. Musk could see that the development of electric cars was a necessity, our current vehicles run on an unsustainable power source and so the future being electric is simply reality. Musk realised that in order to increase the number of electric cars in use he had to find a cheaper way of producing the vehicles to make them more affordable on mass. Musk started by making electric super cars that he sold to the stars of the world, this got his company out there in the eye of the public and funded the production of a more economical model. Just like Henry Ford Musk has revolutionised the automobile industry and is soon set to release the first mass produced electric car for the general public. The Model 3 is billed as an electric rival to the BMW 3 series on size, travels 350 k on a single charge and will be priced around $44,000. With fewer greenhouse gases, unstable oil prices, a smaller amount of serviceable components, electric cars are the future of transportation.
However, Musk realised a problem. If he mass produced electric cars and sold them to the public then the energy that they will run off will depend on the dominant source in the national grid, as people plug their cars in to charge at home. So if you’re going to stack Tesla’s per-mile emissions against those of a gas-powered vehicle, you’ll need to start by looking at the composition of the electrical grid. In the US the grid is roughly 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, 20 percent nuclear power, and about 10 percent renewable sources. So it would be fair to say that the electric cars would actually be powered in large by still burning fossil fuels. So what did Musk do to solve the issue? Create the worlds must efficient and large solar industry.
Almost all the energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun (the exception is geothermal energy). Musk who acts as a board Chairman set up the company SolarCity for his two cousins. Musk understood that solar is easily the most efficient way to harvest the energy of the earth, sustainably. Musk boasts that if you wanted to power the entire US it would only need a space about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels. However, Musk wants to use the space we already have, our rooftops. SolarCity have unveiled glass solar roof panels that generate power, look the same as normal roof tiles but last much longer. Solar roofs are more affordable than conventional roofs because in most cases, it ultimately pays for itself by reducing or eliminating a home’s electricity bill. Solar energy however is not a new concept. The overriding problem is that the sun doesn’t shine all the time, so musk realised you’ve got to store the energy in a battery. Batteries are critical to the sustainable energy future. This is where SolarCity links into Tesla, the batteries that power the electric cars must get their energy from solar.
So Musk got to work opening a massive $69 billion factory in Nevada desert that could double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries that could store renewable energy. The gigafactory is comprised of 16,000 lithium-ion battery cells capable of powering 15,000 homes. Musk wants to create enough energy through his solar industry, store in these lithium batteries to help kick fossil fuels off the grid. Musk says he is trying “to fundamentally change the energy structure of the entire world”. The factory far outstrips the demand for batteries produced by Tesla’s vehicles. So Musk has developed the idea of wall-mounted lithium-ion batteries that can work in conjunction with solar panels to power individual homes. With these Powerwall batteries, energy collected during the day is stored and made available any time, effectively turning your home into a personal utility. Musk suggests that it will take 100 gigafactories in order to power the world sustainably and remove consumer’s dependence from the national grid.
Musk’s gigafactory is going to produce a huge amount of these batteries. Energised by the sun these batteries can be used to power tesla’s electric car industry, cleaning up our roads. The batteries can also be deployed to homes allowing us not only to have self-sustainable vehicles but also homes. This would allow us to escape the national grid and the destructive fossil fuel industries will sink. Musk is paving the way towards a greener energy future, these batteries allow us to store the unlimited energy we receive from the sun. So Musk seems to have the energy problem under control, what else is he doing?
Musk's latest company, Boring Company, sets out to revolutionise our world’s road and transport networks. Rather than having heavily congested roads that clog up the arteries of our cities and waste everyone’s time, Musk wants us to go underground. Musk has developed an underground network of tunnels for both short and long distance travel. Most will be standard pressurised tunnels with electric skates going 125 mph. For long distance routes in straight lines, such as New York to Washington, they are developing pressurised pods in a depressurised tunnels that allow speeds up to 600mph (AKA Hyperloop). The Boring Company’s elevators and tunnels are designed to integrate with major traffic hubs. Musk’s supersonic travel sounds futuristic, however development is well underway and the first prototype has been proven to work successfully. The Boring company could revolutionise travel, reducing travel times and reducing the amount of cars on the road altogether. Musk describes the Boring Company as a hobby only taking up 2% of his time however it could be the future for long distance travel.
Taking up more of Musk’s time is his fight against what he suggests is our biggest existential threat to humanity, uncontrolled artificial intelligence. Musk worries that if people can build AI that can do great things, then they can build AI that can do awful things too. Musk and colleagues want to make the developing AI technology open to all and have developed an NGO OpenAI, this aims to monitor the progression of AI. Predicting that human-level AI would eventually arrive, Open AI argues that it is vital to have a research institution in place to seek ‘a good outcome for all, over its own self-interest’. Open AI is believed necessary in order to control the development of rouge AI. Musk is perhaps one of the most intelligent and wealthy men in the business and so it is reassuring that he is taking steps to control a potentially threatening industry.
Elon Musk is clearly trying his hardest to shape and direct the world to a more safe and sustainable future. However, this alone is not enough for Musk. He believes that to avoid eventual exhaustion of our resources and face potential extinction of humanity that we need to become a multi planetary species. That means he wants humans to colonise another planet, Mars. Musk developed SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, which is one of the most revolutionary businesses of our time. It challenges what most believed was possible when it comes to science, humanity and the role of private business in the future of both. In the past decade, SpaceX’s wins include being the first private company to put a payload in orbit, successfully running 10 unmanned vehicle missions to the international Space Station, and winning a $2.6 billion NASA contract to fly astronauts to the ISS.
Musk says “the future of humanity is going to bifurcate in two directions: Either its going to become multi-planetary, or its going to remain confined to one planet and eventually there is going to be an extinction event”. However, space exploration at the moment is too costly. Musk realised in order to make his dream of colonising Mars a reality he had to make space exploration more affordable and this means making rockets able to take off and land and then perform further journeys. Musk suggests that if he can get the cost of moving to mars to be roughly equivalent to a medium house price then he thinks the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilisation on mars is very high. Currently Musk has successfully launched three rockets into space and then landed them back on floating drone ships in the ocean. This is the step needed in order to make his dream achievable because it means he can essentially create a shuttle service to Mars. SpaceX plans to fly an unmanned spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. The flights would continue about every two years and, if all goes according to plan, would culminate with the first human mission to Mars in 2025. Having a colonisation on Mars would be like having a backup population of humans in case something terrible happens on Earth.
Personally I believe that we should be doing as much as we possibly can in order to fix the problems we have caused on this planet before we start moving to other planets. However that is exactly what Musk is doing, He is trying to make our life more sustainable than it already is through his energy plans. If he has the capability to alleviate the issues of fossil fuel consumption on Earth then I am sure the exploration of other planets would actually teach us a lot more about how we can live in a better way.
Taking a broad view, the Musk companies work in synergy: Tesla addresses the fossil fuel problem, which inspires Tesla’s owners to invest in solar panels for their homes. SpaceX is motivated by the belief that life on Earth is probably timing out, at least in part, because fossil fuels are likely to cause its demise and life on Mars might be the only answer. So although Elon Musk does not wear an iron suit and fly around saving damsels in distress, he does seem to be doing his up most to safe humanity in distress. A man with seemingly endless pockets seems to have endless drive and passion to make a difference to the way we are living, and try to save humanity from the downward spiral we are currently facing. In 40/50 years’ time we could be looking back and hailing Elon Musk as the man who saved humanity as we know it. And if he fails to do all that he sets out to do, then at least he tried unlike our governments and corporations who are currently driving our existence into the ground. Elon Musk is trying to develop a future which benefits all.