Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance

Ended: June 3, 2016

Elon genuinely thought that people would be happy to hear about the flaws in their thinking. “Kids don’t like answers like that,” said Maye. “They would say, ‘Elon, we are not playing with you anymore.’
When the video game Civilization was released, the college chums spent hours building their empire, much to the dismay of Farooq’s girlfriend, who was forgotten in another room.
“When Elon gets into something, he develops just this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”
Musk is plainly jubilant over the idea of a new form of energy storage that would suit his future pursuits with cars, planes, and rockets. Pointing to the latest research coming out of a lab in Silicon Valley, he wrote: “The end result represents the first new means of storing significant amounts of electrical energy since the development of the battery and fuel cell. Furthermore, because the Ultracapacitor retains the basic properties of a capacitor, it can deliver its energy over one hundred times faster than a battery of equivalent weight, and be recharged just as quickly.” Musk received a 97 for this effort and praise for “a very thorough analysis” with “excellent financials!”
Musk’s insistence on explaining the early origins of his passion for electric cars, solar energy, and rockets can come off as insecure. It feels as if Musk is trying to shape his life story in a forced way. But for Musk, the distinction between stumbling into something and having intent is important. Musk has long wanted the world to know that he’s different from the run-of-the-mill entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He wasn’t just sniffing out trends, and he wasn’t consumed by the idea of getting rich. He’s been in pursuit of a master plan all along. “I really was thinking about this stuff in college,” he said. “It is not some invented story after the fact. I don’t want to seem like a Johnny-come-lately or that I’m chasing a fad or just being opportunistic. I’m not an investor. I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way.”
The engineers also brought a more refined working structure and realistic deadlines to the engineering group. This was a welcome change from Musk’s approach, which had been to set overly optimistic deadlines and then try to get engineers to work nonstop for days on end to meet the goals. “If you asked Elon how long it would take to do something, there was never anything in his mind that would take more than an hour,” Ambras said. “We came to interpret an hour as really taking a day or two and if Elon ever did say something would take a day, we allowed for a week or two weeks.”
“You can make billions of dollars for free,” he said. His boss told Musk to write up a report, which soon got passed up to the bank’s CEO, who promptly rejected the proposal, saying the bank had been burned on Brazilian and Argentinian debt before and didn’t want to mess with it again. “I tried to tell them that’s not the point,” Musk said. “The point is that it’s fucking backed by Uncle Sam. It doesn’t matter what the South Americans do. You cannot lose unless you think the U.S. Treasury is going to default. But they still didn’t do it, and I was stunned. Later in life, as I competed against the banks, I would think back to this moment, and it gave me confidence. All the bankers did was copy what everyone else did. If everyone else ran off a bloody cliff, they’d run right off a cliff with them. If there was a giant pile of gold sitting in the middle of the room and nobody was picking it up, they wouldn’t pick it up, either.”
Musk had soon transformed the SpaceX office with what has become his signature factory aesthetic: a glossy epoxy coating applied over concrete on the floors, and a fresh coat of white paint slathered onto the walls. The white color scheme was intended to make the factory look clean and feel cheerful.
Later, Justine chalked up Musk’s reaction to a defense mechanism that he’d learned from years of suffering as a kid. “He doesn’t do well in dark places,” she told Esquire magazine. “He’s forward-moving, and I think it’s a survival thing with him.”
He didn’t see the value in grieving publicly. “It made me extremely sad to talk about it,” Musk said. “I’m not sure why I’d want to talk about extremely sad events. It does no good for the future. If you’ve got other kids and obligations, then wallowing in sadness does no good for anyone around you. I’m not sure what should be done in such situations.”
With this goal looming, twelve-hour days, six days a week were considered the norm, although many people worked longer than that for extended periods of time. Respites, as far as they existed, came around 8 P.M. on some weeknights when Musk would allow everyone to use their work computers to play first-person-shooter video games like Quake III Arena and Counter-Strike against each other. At the appointed hour, the sound of guns loading would cascade throughout the office as close to twenty people armed themselves for battle. Musk—playing under the handle Random9—often won the games, talking trash and blasting away his employees without mercy. “The CEO is there shooting at us with rockets and plasma guns,” said Colonno. “Worse, he’s almost alarmingly good at these games and has insanely fast reactions. He knew all the tricks and how to sneak up on people.”
He vented about this in the factory one night, unaware that Musk stood nearby and could hear everything. Two hours later, Mary Beth Brown appeared with an appointment card to see a Lasik eye surgery specialist. When Hollman visited the doctor, he discovered that Musk had already agreed to pay for the surgery. “Elon can be very demanding, but he’ll make sure the obstacles in your way are removed,” Hollman said. Upon reflection, he also warmed to the long-term thinking behind Musk’s Washington plan. “I think he wanted to add an element of realism to SpaceX, and if you park a rocket in someone’s front yard, it’s hard to deny it,” Hollman said.
Another salesman flew down to SpaceX to sell the company on some technology infrastructure equipment. He was doing the standard relationship-building exercise practiced by salespeople for centuries. Show up. Speak for a while. Feel each other out. Then, start doing business down the road. Musk was having none of it. “The guy comes in, and Elon asks him why they’re meeting,” Spikes said. “He said, ‘To develop a relationship.’ Elon replied, ‘Okay. Nice to meet you,’ which basically meant, ‘Get the fuck out of my office.’ This guy had spent four hours traveling for what ended up as a two-minute meeting. Elon just has no tolerance for that kind of stuff.” Musk could be equally brisk with employees who were not hitting his standards. “He would often say, ‘The longer you wait to fire someone the longer it has been since you should have fired them,’” Spikes said.
Straubel’s inquisitive spirit carried him west to Stanford University, where he enrolled in 1994 intending to become a physicist. After flying through the hardest courses he could take, Straubel concluded that majoring in physics would not be for him. The advanced courses were too theoretical, and Straubel liked to get his hands dirty. He developed his own major called energy systems and engineering. “I wanted to take software and electricity and use it to control energy,” Straubel said. “It was computing combined with power electronics. I collected all the things I love doing in one place.”
Had anyone from Detroit stopped by Tesla Motors at this point, they would have ended up in hysterics. The sum total of the company’s automotive expertise was that a couple of the guys at Tesla really liked cars and another one had created a series of science fair projects based on technology that the automotive industry considered ridiculous. What’s more, the founding team had no intention of turning to Detroit for advice on how to build a car company. No, Tesla would do what every other Silicon Valley start-up had done before it, which was hire a bunch of young, hungry engineers and figure things out as they went along. Never mind that the Bay Area had no real history of this model ever having worked for something like a car and that building a complex, physical object had little in common with writing a software application. What Tesla did have, ahead of anyone else, was the realization that 18650 lithium ion batteries had gotten really good and were going to keep getting better. Hopefully that coupled with some effort and smarts would be enough.
Around the time of this event, Tesla made its debut in the New York Times via a mini-profile on the company. Eberhard vowed—optimistically—to begin shipments of the Roadster in the middle of 2007, instead of early 2006 as once planned, and laid out Tesla’s strategy of starting with a high-priced, low-volume product and moving down to more affordable products over time, as underlying technology and manufacturing capabilities advanced. Musk and Eberhard were big believers in this strategy, having seen it play out with a number of electronic devices. “Cellphones, refrigerators, color TV’s, they didn’t start off by making a low-end product for masses,” Eberhard told the paper.7 “They were relatively expensive, for people who could afford
Quite often, the Tesla engineers brought their Silicon Valley attitude to the automakers’ traditional stomping grounds. There’s a break and traction testing track in northern Sweden near the Arctic Circle where cars get tuned on large plains of ice. It would be standard to run the car for three days or so, get the data, and return to company headquarters for many weeks of meetings about how to adjust the car. The whole process of tuning a car can take the entire winter. Tesla, by contrast, sent its engineers along with the Roadsters being tested and had them analyze the data on the spot. When something needed to be tweaked, the engineers would rewrite some code and send the car back on the ice. “BMW would need to have a confab between three or four companies that would all blame each other for the problem,” Tarpenning said. “We just fixed it ourselves.” Another testing procedure required that the Roadsters go into a special cooling chamber to check how they would respond to frigid temperatures. Not wanting to pay the exorbitant costs to use one of these chambers, the Tesla engineers opted to rent an ice cream delivery truck with a large refrigerated trailer. Someone would drive a Roadster into the truck, and the engineers would don parkas and work on the car. Every time
reminder of how the once-great city had been separated from its own can-do culture. Tesla tried to lease a small office in Detroit. The costs were incredibly low compared with space in Silicon Valley, but the city’s bureaucracy made getting just a basic office an ordeal. The building’s owner wanted to see seven years of audited financials from Tesla, which was still a private company. Then the building owner wanted two years’ worth of advanced rent. Tesla had about $50 million in the bank and could have bought the building outright. “In Silicon Valley, you say you’re backed by a venture capitalist, and that’s the end of the negotiation,” Tarpenning said. “But everything was like that in Detroit. We’d get FedEx boxes, and they couldn’t even decide who should sign for the package.”
just about every other case, Marks would be thanked for his decisive plan of action and saving the company’s investors from a big loss. But Musk had little interest in polishing up Tesla’s assets for the highest bidder. He’d started the company to put a dent in the automotive industry and force people to rethink electric cars. Instead of doing the fashionable Silicon Valley thing of “pivoting” toward a new idea or plan, Musk would dig in deeper. “The product was late and over budget and everything was wrong, but Elon didn’t want anything to do with those plans to either sell the whole company or lose control through a partnership,” Straubel said. “So, Elon decided to double down.”
Tesla employees soon got to witness the same Musk that SpaceX employees had seen for years. When an issue like the Roadster’s faulty carbon-fiber body panels cropped up, Musk dealt with it directly. He flew to England in his jet to pick up some new manufacturing tools for the body panels and personally delivered them to a factory in France to ensure that the Roadster stayed on its production schedule. The days of people being ambiguous about the Roadster’s manufacturing costs were gone as well. “Elon got fired up and said we were going to do this intense cost-down program,” said Popple. “He gave a speech, saying we would work on Saturdays and Sundays and sleep under desks until it got done. Someone pushed back from the table and argued that everyone had been working so hard just to get the car done, and they were ready for a break and to see their families. Elon said, ‘I would tell those people they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.’ I was like, ‘Wow,’ but I got it. I had come out of a military culture, and you just have to make your objective happen.”
One employee missed an event to witness the birth of his child. Musk fired off an e-mail saying, “That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.”* Marketing people who made grammatical mistakes in e-mails were let go, as were other people who hadn’t done anything “awesome” in recent memory. “He can be incredibly intimidating at times but doesn’t have a real sense for just how imposing he can be,” said one former Tesla executive. “We’d have these meetings and take bets on who was going to get bloodied and bruised. If you told him that you made a particular choice because ‘it was the standard way things had always been done,’ he’d kick you out of a meeting fast. He’d say, ‘I never want to hear that phrase again. What we have to do is fucking hard and half-assing things won’t be tolerated.’ He just destroys you and, if you survive, he determines if he can trust you. He has to understand that you’re as crazy as he is.” This ethos filtered through the entire company, and everyone quickly understood that Musk meant business.
The Roadster had cost about $140 million to develop, way over the $25 million originally estimated in the 2004 business plan. Under normal circumstances, Tesla had probably done enough to raise more funds. These, however, were not normal times. The big automakers in the United States were charging toward bankruptcy in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In the midst of all this, Musk needed to convince Tesla’s investors to fork over tens of millions of additional dollars, and those investors had to go to their constituents to lay out why this made any sense. As Musk put it, “Try to imagine explaining that you’re investing in an electric car company, and everything you read about the car company sounds like it is shit and doomed and it’s a recession and no one is buying cars.” All Musk had to do to dig Tesla out of this conundrum was lose his entire fortune and verge on a nervous breakdown.
Musk also trained employees to make the right trade-offs between spending money and productivity. This struck many of the SpaceX employees as a novel idea, since they were used to traditional aerospace companies that had huge, multiyear government contracts and no day-to-day survival pressure. “Elon would always be at work on Sunday, and we had some chats where he laid out his philosophy,” said Kevin Brogan, the early SpaceX employee. “He would say that everything we did was a function of our burn rate and that we were burning through a hundred thousand dollars per day. It was this very entrepreneurial, Silicon Valley way of thinking that none of the aerospace engineers in Los Angeles were dialed into. Sometimes he wouldn’t let you buy a part for two thousand dollars because he expected you to find it cheaper or invent something cheaper. Other times, he wouldn’t flinch at renting a plane for ninety thousand dollars to get something to Kwaj because it saved an entire workday, so it was worth it. He would place this urgency that he expected the revenue in ten years to be ten million dollars a day and that every day we were slower to achieve our goals was a day of missing out on that money.”
“What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk’s main advantages over other executives and competitors. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”
Musk’s demanding management style can only flourish because of the otherworldly—in a literal sense—aspirations of the company. While the rest of the aerospace industry has been content to keep sending what look like relics from the 1960s into space, SpaceX has made a point of doing just the opposite. Its reusable rockets and reusable spaceships look like true twenty-first-century machines. The modernization of the equipment is not just for show. It reflects SpaceX’s constant push to advance its technology and change the economics of the industry. Musk does not simply want to lower the cost of deploying satellites and resupplying the space station. He wants to lower the cost of launches to the point that it becomes economical and practical to fly thousands upon thousands of supply trips to Mars and start a colony. Musk wants to conquer the solar system, and, as it stands, there’s just one company where you can work if that sort of quest gets you out of bed in the morning.
It seems unfathomable, but the rest of the space industry has made space boring. The Russians, who dominate much of the business of sending things and people to space, do so with decades-old equipment. The cramped Soyuz capsule that takes people to the space station has mechanical knobs and computer screens that appear unchanged from its inaugural 1966 flight. Countries new to the space race have mimicked the antiquated Russian and American equipment with maddening accuracy. When young people get into the aerospace industry, they’re forced to either laugh or cry at the state of the machines. Nothing sucks the fun out of working on a spaceship like controlling it with mechanisms last seen in a 1960s laundromat. And the actual work environment is as outmoded as the machines. Hotshot college graduates have historically been forced to pick between a variety of slow-moving military contractors and interesting but ineffectual start-ups.
The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles. The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal. “Even if you’re someone who writes code for your job, you need to understand how mechanical things work,” said Dolly Singh, who spent five years as the head of talent acquisition at SpaceX. “We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.”
Sometimes these people walked through the front door. Other times, Singh relied on a handful of enterprising techniques to find them. She became famous for trawling through academic papers to find engineers with very specific skills, cold-calling researchers at labs and plucking possessed engineers out of college. At trade shows and conferences, SpaceX recruiters wooed interesting candidates they had spotted with a cloak-and-dagger shtick. They would hand out blank envelopes that contained invitations to meet at a specific time and place, usually a bar or restaurant near the event, for an initial interview. The candidates that showed up would discover they were among only a handful of people who been anointed out of all the conference attendees. They were immediately made to feel special and inspired.
You can be sure, though, that he will roll out the Riddle: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” One answer to that is the North Pole, and most of the engineers get it right away. That’s when Musk will follow with “Where else could you be?” The other answer is somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the Earth becomes one mile. Fewer engineers get this answer, and Musk will happily walk them through that riddle and others and cite any relevant equations during his explanations. He tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.
Musk’s cubicle—a supersize unit—sits to the right where he has a couple of celebratory Aviation Week magazine covers up on the wall, pictures of his boys, next to a huge flat-screen monitor, and various knickknacks on his desk, including a boomerang, some books, a bottle of wine, and a giant samurai sword named Lady Vivamus, which Musk received when he won the Heinlein Prize, an award given for big achievements in commercial space.
regards to time, Musk may well set more aggressive delivery targets for very difficult-to-make products than any executive in history. Both his employees and the public have found this to be one of the more jarring aspects of Musk’s character. “Elon has always been optimistic,” Brogan said. “That’s the nice word. He can be a downright liar about when things need to get done. He will pick the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”
As Brogan joked, Musk might forecast how long a software project will take by timing the amount of seconds needed physically to write a line of code and then extrapolating that out to match however many lines of code he expects the final piece of software to be. It’s an imperfect analogy but one that does not seem that far off from Musk’s worldview. “Everything he does is fast,” Brogan said. “He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose—three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”
certainly don’t try to set impossible goals. I think impossible goals are demotivating. You don’t want to tell people to go through a wall by banging their head against it. I don’t ever set intentionally impossible goals. But I’ve certainly always been optimistic on time frames. I’m trying to recalibrate to be a little more realistic. I don’t assume that it’s just like 100 of me or something like that. I mean, in the case of the early SpaceX days, it would have been just the lack of understanding of what it takes to develop a rocket. In that case I was off by, say, 200 percent. I think future programs might be off by anywhere from like 25 percent to 50 percent as opposed to 200 percent. So, I think generally you do want to have a timeline where, based on everything you know about, the schedule should be X, and you execute towards that, but with the understanding that there will be all sorts of things that you don’t know about that you will encounter that will push the date beyond that. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have tried to aim for that date from the beginning because aiming for something else would have been an arbitrary time increase.
There can be no question that Musk has mastered the art of getting the most out of his employees. Interview three dozen SpaceX engineers and each one of them will have picked up on a managerial nuance that Musk has used to get people to meet his deadlines. One example from Brogan: Where a typical manager may set the deadline for the employee, Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’” Brogan said. “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.” And by recruiting hundreds of bright, self-motivated people, SpaceX has maximized the power of the individual. One person putting in a sixteen-hour day ends up being much more effective than two people working eight-hour days together. The individual doesn’t have to hold meetings, reach a consensus, or bring other people up to speed on a project. He just keeps working and working and working. The ideal SpaceX employee is someone like Steve Davis, the director of advanced projects at SpaceX. “He’s been working sixteen hours a day every day for years,” Brogan said. “He gets more done than eleven people working together.”
The Dragon capsule took SpaceX four years to design. It’s likely the fastest project of its ilk done in the history of the aerospace industry. The project started with Musk and a handful of engineers, most of them under thirty years old, and peaked at one hundred people.
The total cost for Dragon came in at $300 million, which would be on the order of 10 to 30 times less than capsule projects built by other companies. “The metal comes in, we roll it out, weld it, and make things,” Davis said. “We build almost everything in-house. That is why the costs have come down.”
He understands everything. If he asks you a question, you learn very quickly not to go give him a gut reaction. He wants answers that get down to the fundamental laws of physics. One thing he understands really well is the physics of the rockets. He understands that like nobody else. The stuff I have seen him do in his head is crazy. He can get in discussions about flying a satellite and whether we can make the right orbit and deliver Dragon at the same time and solve all these equations in real time. It’s amazing to watch the amount of knowledge he has accumulated over the years. I don’t want to be the person who ever has to compete with Elon. You might as well leave the business and find something else fun to do. He will outmaneuver you, outthink you, and out-execute you.
work and get stuff done. People who await guidance or detailed instructions languish. The same goes for workers who crave feedback. And the absolute worst thing that someone can do is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, ‘Fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,’” Brogan said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”
“There is a fundamental problem with regulators. If a regulator agrees to change a rule and something bad happens, they could easily lose their career. Whereas if they change a rule and something good happens, they don’t even get a reward. So, it’s very asymmetric. It’s then very easy to understand why regulators resist changing the rules. It’s because there’s a big punishment on one side and no reward on the other. How would any rational person behave in such a scenario?”
The Dragon 2 will be able to dock with the ISS and other space habitats automatically without needing the intervention of a robotic arm. It will run on a SuperDraco engine—a thruster made by SpaceX and the first engine ever built completely by a 3-D printer to go into space. This means that a machine guided by a computer formed the engine out of single piece of metal—in this case the high-strength alloy Inconel—so that its strength and performance should exceed anything built by humans by welding various parts together. And most mind-boggling of all, Musk revealed that the Dragon 2 will be able to land anywhere on Earth that SpaceX wants by using the SuperDraco engines and thrusters to come to a gentle stop on the ground. No more landings at sea. No more throwing spaceships away. “That is how a twenty-first-century spaceship should land,” Musk said. “You can just reload propellant and fly again. So long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space.”
Per my recent comments, I am increasingly concerned about SpaceX going public before the Mars transport system is in place. Creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars is and always has been the fundamental goal of SpaceX. If being a public company diminishes that likelihood, then we should not do so until Mars is secure. This is something that I am open to reconsidering, but, given my experiences with Tesla and SolarCity, I am hesitant to foist being public on SpaceX, especially given the long term nature of our mission. Some at SpaceX who have not been through a public company experience may think that being public is desirable. This is not so. Public company stocks, particularly if big step changes in technology are involved, go through extreme volatility, both for reasons of internal execution and for reasons that have nothing to do with anything except the economy. This causes people to be distracted by the manic-depressive nature of the stock instead of creating great products. For those who are under the impression that they are so clever that they can outsmart public market investors and would sell SpaceX stock at the “right time,” let me relieve you of any such notion. If you really are better than most hedge fund managers, then there is no need to worry about the value of your SpaceX stock, as you can just invest in other public company stocks and make billions of dollars in the market.
Whether Musk was a founder of Tesla in the purest sense of the word is irrelevant at this point. There would be no Tesla to talk about today were it not for Musk’s money, marketing savvy, chicanery, engineering smarts, and indomitable spirit. Tesla was, in effect, willed into existence by Musk and reflects his personality as much as Intel, Microsoft, and Apple reflect the personalities of their founders. Marc
“One of the things Elon pushed hard with everyone was to do as much as possible in-house,” Lloyd said. Tesla would make up for its lack of R&D money by hiring smart people who could outwork and outthink the third parties relied on by the rest of the automakers. “The mantra was that one great engineer will replace three medium ones,” Lloyd said.
Just about all of the major design choices with the Model S came with similar challenges. “When we first talked about the touch-screen, the guys came back and said, ‘There’s nothing like that in the automotive supply chain,’” Musk said. “I said, ‘I know. That’s because it’s never been put in a fucking car before.’”
The Tesla engineers were radical by automotive industry standards but even they had problems fully committing to Musk’s vision. “They wanted to put in a bloody switch or a button for the lights,” Musk said. “Why would we need a switch? When it’s dark, turn the lights on.”
The same engineering rules as those at SpaceX applied. You did what Musk asked or were prepared to burrow down into the properties of materials to explain why something could not be done. “He always said, ‘Take it down to the physics,’” Javidan said.
Musk, though, approaches everything from a Platonic perspective. As he sees it, all of the design and technology choices should be directed toward the goal of making a car as close to perfect as possible. To the extent that rival automakers haven’t, that’s what Musk is judging. It’s almost a binary experience for him. Either you’re trying to make something spectacular with no compromises or you’re not. And if you’re not, Musk considers you a failure.
SolarCity, like the rest of Musk’s ventures, did not represent a business opportunity so much as it represented a worldview. Musk had decided long ago—in his very rational manner—that solar made sense. Enough solar energy hits the Earth’s surface in about an hour to equal a year’s worth of worldwide energy consumption from all sources put together.20 Improvements in the efficiency of solar panels have been happening at a steady clip. If solar is destined to be mankind’s preferred energy source in the future, then this future ought to be brought about as quickly as possible.
What’s more, SolarCity is a key part of what can be thought of as the unified field theory of Musk. Each one of his businesses is interconnected in the short term and the long term. Tesla makes battery packs that SolarCity can then sell to end customers. SolarCity supplies Tesla’s charging stations with solar panels, helping Tesla to provide free recharging to its drivers. Newly minted Model S owners regularly opt to begin living the Musk Lifestyle and outfit their homes with solar panels. Tesla and SpaceX help each other as well. They exchange knowledge around materials, manufacturing techniques, and the intricacies of operating factories that build so much stuff from the ground up.
Beyond the Model X, Tesla has started work on the second version of the Roadster, talked about making a truck, and, in all seriousness, has begun modeling a type of submarine car that could transition from road to water.