What’s the ultimate goal of Elon Musk? As some would have it, he’s a money grubber who only exists because of government “subsidies” (presumably a reference to the federal EV tax credit, which is open to consumers buying electric cars from any auto manufactures, and to California’s air pollution reduction programs). As others would have it, he’s a savior of the world who will “colonize” Mars and transition the world away from fossil fuels.
Is either take on things accurate? What does Elon Musk himself have to say on the matter? Well, to date, he has actually said quite a lot about what his ultimate goals are as regards the companies that he runs. So, with that in mind, I’m going to provide an overview here of what Elon Musk has explained his aims are regarding Tesla and SpaceX.
The Official Aims Of Tesla
As explained by Elon Musk in the “Master Plan, Part Deux” memo released last year, the plan for Tesla is essentially for the company to showcase the possibilities with regard to plug-in electric vehicles, energy storage systems, and solar PV roof tiles — as a means of spurring market adoption.
In other words, the plan is for Tesla to force the hand of incumbent top auto manufacturers and electricity suppliers — so that it becomes necessary to embrace the technologies in question, and to release serious offerings.
This plan includes a number of specific goals worth highlighting here (as summed up by Musk):
Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it
These goals follow on the earlier “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan” revealed around a decade ago (that has more or less been achieved), which read:
Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
And … provide solar power.
With regard to that last part, as explained in the memo for “Master Plan, Part Deux,” solar energy has always been a part of Tesla’s plans … even though Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity was characterized by many as being nothing more than a bailout of a relative’s company.
Clearly, it was partly a bailout, but not entirely so — as Tesla’s interests have long included home solar energy as an adjunct to its elite consumer vehicles and energy storage products. The idea obviously being to eventually offer a whole energy/transportation product suite to customers — whereby nearly everything needed could be acquired directly from Tesla.
Quoting more from a section of “Master Plan, Part Deux” that discusses the reasons for writing the first “Master Plan,” here are some key lines:
“However, the main reason was to explain how our actions fit into a larger picture, so that they would seem less random. The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what ‘sustainable’ means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone.
“By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse. Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better.”
That’s a pretty blunt explanation of Elon Musk’s ultimate goal as regards Tesla, is it not? Though, I suppose that some people would probably still argue that it’s all for public consumption, and that Musk is simply selling the public what it wants — being essentially a snake oil salesman at heart.
While I perhaps can’t convince those who chose to believe such a thing, I will note that at this point it’s pretty much a case of: Reduce fossil fuel consumption to essentially zero, immediately, or agricultural failures, mass migrations, and societal breakdown are due in short order.
So, perhaps Musk is being serious when he says such things? Or perhaps not … if that’s what you want to believe. 🙂
Of course the question of whether or not adopting mass consumer use of electric vehicles and solar roof panels actually amounts to a steep enough reduction in net fossil fuel use is a different question … as the jury is still out on that. While research shows clearly that full-lifecycle carbon footprints for electric vehicles are indeed much lower than those for comparable gas/petrol or diesel vehicles, they are perhaps still far too high to allow for the avoidance of extreme climate warming and weirding even if mass adopted.
Opinions vary, and there are certainly arguments that could be made to support either side’s positions — if the choice is between 1) reduced fossil fuel use and reduction of air pollution through a transition to electric vehicles (even if that’s not enough to avoid extreme outcomes) or 2) simply continuing on the path that we are on now, then I don’t have much in the way of criticism to direct at what Musk is doing. Perhaps it will end up being shown by history to have been a bit of a sideshow, but it still makes more sense to me to support a company like Tesla than a company like Ford or Toyota, both of which seem to be motivated by nothing but monetary gain and market “reality.”
The Official Aims Of SpaceX
While Elon Musk’s plans regarding Tesla no doubt comprise a large part of the picture with regard to his goals, they are by no means the sum of them. Musk has been quoted before as saying that he intends one day to travel to Mars; and also as having stated that he considers the “colonization” to be a real possibility, and even to be a necessity.
With that taken into account, it seems clear that Elon Musk considers his SpaceX work to be at least as important as his work at Tesla.
With regard to the direct goals of SpaceX, Musk has previously stated that company plans were originally based around greatly reducing the cost of access to space, and also to greatly improving the reliability of such access. A primary pathway to the achievement of this goal was considered to be successful reuse of various launch-rocket components. Another was large-scale implementation of vertical integration for the manufacturing of these rockets.
NASA’s space shuttle launch system was of course designed around a similar goal, but the sprawling bureaucracy that NASA and its network of benefactors and suppliers had become by the time of development pretty much negated the possibility of achieving those goals in a cost-effective way.
That reality was seemingly the motivation behind NASA’s seed funding programs, which SpaceX and others have benefited from. The idea behind these is that the ruthlessness of private industry could be harnessed to allow for lower development, production, and operational costs.
Back to SpaceX, the company plan originally called for tiered development of progressively more powerful rockets, with launch costs coming down further with each new iteration. As of last year, SpaceX plans are now mostly focused on the development of the so-called BFR (Big ? Rocket), which will — if all goes well — allow for regular, reliable payload transport to Mars, and possibly a “colonization” thereby. Accompanying this development, SpaceX has also been working on, for the last decade or so, a new liquid methane propulsion system (dubbed Raptor).
If Elon Musk is to be believed, then the firm’s first mission to send humans to Mars could be as soon as just a decade or less from now.
It’s hard to tell how serious to take the plans, but going on Elon Musk’s comments to date, it’s clear that he takes them very seriously. Thus, they clearly represent part of his overall goals.
Hopefully this piece clarifies a bit — especially for those newer to the famous cleantech billionaire — what Elon Musk’s underlying aims are with Tesla and SpaceX.