You probably know Elon Musk as either a billionaire who’s as close as we’re likely to get to a real life Tony Stark, or that guy who keeps saying crazy stuff about how robots are taking over the world and we’re all going to live on Mars. However you see him, Musk is spending all of his time and money shaping the future of our world. Here’s how he’s doing it:
In 1995, Elon Musk attended a graduate program at Stanford University for a grand total of two days before dropping out to try to change the world through the Internet. Four years later his first company, Zip2, sold for $307 million to Compaq. His next enterprise was a small company called X.com, which dealt in online financial transactions. You’ve probably never heard of X.com, but you have heard of the service that it became: PayPal. Ebay bought PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Elon Musk never intended to compete with NASA. He just wanted to use some of his insane wealth to put a greenhouse on Mars. His hope was that his humble greenhouse on the red planet would spark the public’s imagination and reignite popular interest in space exploration.
Then NASA quoted him $130 million for a rocket capable of getting to Mars, causing Musk to take a good, hard look at our existing space technology. He immediately recognized that much of the technology and manufacturing process was outdated. No one was stepping up to make space flight realistic, so he filled the niche himself. The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket costs SpaceX’s clients $7 million per launch, and that’s presumably including a very hefty profit margin. That’s $123 million cheaper than NASA can do it for.
8. Tesla Cars
Elon Musk often talks about how he’s identified a three pronged approach for bringing humanity into the future. The first approach was the Internet. The second was interplanetary flight, and the third was the electric car.
Until now, the electric car has been career suicide for any car manufacturer. They’re notorious for being slow, uncool and taking 20 hours to recharge after every two hours of driving time. Musk got on board with Tesla motors, providing funding and eventually winding up in the CEO role. Tesla cars solve several key problems. They look cool, drive fast and have relatively low charge times, with a range of roughly 22 miles per hour of charge. This makes them much more user friendly than anything we’ve seen before.
7. Tesla Museum
A 2012 web comic created by The Oatmeal brought Nikola Tesla back into the public spotlight, turning the nearly forgotten genius into an Internet celebrity. When it became apparent that Tesla’s old laboratory was going to be sold to developers and destroyed the Internet rallied, raising a million dollars through a two week crowdfunding campaign. When Elon Musk heard about this, he donated an additional million dollars to the cause, and also pledged to build a Tesla car supercharging station at the site. Tesla’s old lab is now set to become a museum dedicated to the great man and his achievements.
6. Future of Life Institute
The robot apocalypse has been on people’s minds for some time now. The Terminator movies made Skynet a household name, and The Matrix took things a step further by showing us what the world might look like after the machines completely take over.
In recent years, some of the smartest people on earth have been warning us that we’re getting close to the point where AI may surpass human intelligence. Sure, Siri can barely take a memo now, but the popular theory is that processing power doubles every two years. The singularity is getting exponentially closer.
Elon Musk is one of the voices taking the threat of AI seriously. In fact, he’s so worried that he made a 10 million dollar donation to the Future of Life Institute, which researches ways that we can peacefully coexist with machines, and also tries to identify and eliminate issues that may cause harm to people should that future become a reality.
5. Nevada Gigafactory
What do you do when your electric car company’s business plan requires more lithium ion batteries than the entire world produces? If you’re Elon Musk, the answer is to create a giant “Gigafactory” that meets your own demands.
Even for a man as wealthy as Musk, the Gigafactory is no small undertaking. The estimated cost of the factory is five billion dollars. Tesla is only worth just over three billion. That’s a bit of a funding gap. Musk got around this problem by inciting a bidding war between states who want to host the Gigafactory, which is estimated to create 22,000 new jobs and bring 100 billion dollars into the local economy over the next 20 years. The state of Nevada won with its offer of 1.4 billion in incentives, plus free land to build the Gigafactory on.
4. Mars Colony
You’ve probably heard of the ambitious Mars One project, which aims to put human life on the red planet by 2027. But Musk is planning his own Martian colony program, and he wants to do it three years earlier. While Mars One is hoping to put four astronauts on Mars, Musk’s vision would have an initial team of 10 that expands to a self sustaining colony of 80,000.
Unlike the Mars One project, who hope to fund their ambitions by turning the mission into a reality TV show, Musk isn’t looking for the best and brightest. He’s providing one way tickets to Mars to anyone who can afford the $500,000 price of a seat. Start saving your change.
3. Reusable Rockets
Not content with offering flights to orbit for one-tenth the cost of his competitors, Elon Musk is already working on the next way to save costs. He claims that if a launch mission costs $60 million, then only 0.3% of that cost ($180,000) is propellant. The rest of the cost is in building the rocket stages, which are discarded and fall into the ocean, meaning that they must be rebuilt for every mission. He compares that with the idea of airlines having to buy a new 747 for every flight.
Obviously, a reusable rocket would save a huge amount of money. You couldn’t just drop a huge rocket into the desert, though — that’s dangerous. So Musk has come up with a strategy to use drone technology to land his rocket segments intact on a sea barge. His first attempt didn’t go well, to put it mildly, but Musk is optimistic about perfecting the technology in the near future.
2. Self-Driving Cars
Google has been on the road to self-driving cars for several years now, and has said that they’re hoping to bring them to consumers in three to five years. So it should be no surprise that Elon Musk is looking to integrate the technology into his next generation of Tesla cars.
Tesla’s Model S already includes some self-drive features, such as the ability to change lanes automatically if there’s space and adjust the cruise control speed whenever the car passes a new speed limit sign. Musk has stated that the next step is to implement functionality that would allow drivers to summon their cars from the garage via their phones, at least when they’re on private property. Autonomous cars on public roads are still a legal nightmare.
The Hyperloop is what trains want to be when they grow up. Elon Musk is currently working with UCLA graduates in Texas to build a test track for his public transit system, which he claims will be capable of reaching speeds of 760 mph. For comparison, the current fastest train in the world travels at 360 mph.
The Hyperloop works by enclosing a train in a low friction tube and using air pressure to shoot the train at massive speeds. It’s based off pneumatic tube systems used in offices to send messages between floors. Musk believes that his Hyperloop would allow transit between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just thirty minutes. That’s twice as fast as making the same journey by aircraft. If successful, the Hyperloop could make the world a much smaller place. Travelling across the country could be done in a fraction of the time it takes today.