Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Elon Musk

Ashlee Vance's book about Elon Musk is a great book. Of course, it helps to have such a charismatic subject.

Elon Musk has been called everything from a visionary to a crackpot. I first came across him speaking to an elite technology conference in California in 2006. He had credibility as a founder who'd made gobs of money on two Internet ventures - Zip2 and PayPal - but you'd never have known it.  Shuffling diffidently to the front of the room, he haltingly explained that he was pouring that money into a new company called SpaceX to build rocket ships that would revolutionize the space industry. (From the founding in 2002 until 2006, Musk had poured $100M  into the company). Never having trained as an aerospace engineer. With no experience in the space industry. His modest goal was to radically reduce the cost of access to space. And, oh, by the way, his ultimate goal was to enable humans to voyage to and settle Mars -  Plan B if we totally mucked Earth up as appeared likely. It was an offhanded presentation of a mind-boggling vision that stretched credulity. Most thought he was a crackpot.

Then he built those rockets. His lack of aeronautical experience led to a rethink of the then-current assumptions of the government-dominated industry. And SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station.  Its vertically integrated approach makes them much more efficient than the other big aerospace manufacturers - Musk figures SpaceX is clever enough to build components better and more cheaply than they can buy them. The big breakthrough will come if they can make rockets that are reusable, and that goal is within sight*. Hmm, maybe he's a visionary.

At this point Musk already had a great lifetime resumé. But he wasn't finished. Next he exploded into the public eye with his plan to build an audacious all-electric car. With no training as an automotive engineer. And no experience in the automotive industry. Maybe he is a crackpot after all. As his rhetorical skills improved, some began to think he was self-aggrandizing blowhard crackpot.

But Tesla is not 'just' an electric car. As with SpaceX, Musk questioned and challenged every assumption and belief of the traditional automotive industry. He built the car from the ground up. Never having trained as an automotive engineer. Sound familiar?

Then there's Musk's involvement and investment in batteries and his $5B gigafactory and Tesla's announcement of its PowerWall. Batteries have been a technology crying out for radical improvement, and there's Musk again. Then there's his proposal for a hyper-loop (based on those pneumatic tubes mentioned in The Word Exchange (recent review here)) as the most efficient transportation mode between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The jury's still out on this one, but it's getting ever harder to bet against Musk.

In his fascinating and readable book about Musk, Vance acknowledges that he started in the "he's a crackpot" camp and ended up in the "he's a visionary" camp. He tells a rollicking tale of how Musk ended up where he is now, including some warts on his professional and personal resume. He describes Musk's drive and commitment, almost obsession, to his projects. He gives some insight into how Musk keeps so many balls in the air - running one company as groundbreaking as SpaceX would be challenging, but adding Tesla to the mix, then batteries, and hyper-loop as a side project is truly amazing. (Hint: he spends a lot of time on airplanes).

This is a great read. Good Christmas gift book idea too.

* That other Internet mogul who's interested in space, Jeff Bezos, has also started a space company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin recently successfully had a spacecraft and rocket booster return to earth to be reused. However, Blue Origin has a much more modest goal than SpaceX; it simply wants to get to the edge of space for space tourism while SpaceX wants to send up spacecraft that go high enough to reach orbit.

P.S. Here's a link to list of books I've read, reviewed, liked or disliked.

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