Idiocy Squared?

15 January 2017

Yesterday (14 January 2017), I watched SpaceX launch a cluster of ten communications satellites into precise orbits, while returning the launch vehicle to an autonomous barge in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve been following rocket launches since I saw the first Vanguard rocket self destruct on its launch pad in December, 1957, to the chagrin of the entire nation.[1] Yep, I’m a technology buff. Technology fascinates, amazes and delights me. Maybe that’s why I became an engineer.  — C.H.


Elon Musk and the Vision Thing

Elon Musk is an interesting man. He envisions the future. Then he acts on that vision in a systematic (and courageous) manner. Actually, he goes beyond “systematic” – he insists on thinking from first principles,[2] rather than on starting with the present art. At the same time, he remains focused on his vision, to the consternation of many.

This post focuses on two of Musk’s businesses – SpaceX and Tesla — and examines the visions they embody, with examples of initiatives in place to realize those visions.

SpaceX’s Vision:

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

That’s right – Musk’s vision for SpaceX is nothing less than colonizing Mars.[3] The purpose of SpaceX’s commercial launch program is to fund the development of the technology necessary to do so. That technology is complex and its development will be enormously expensive. Keep in mind that SpaceX is already doing things that only governments have done before (and some that nobody has done before). Also remember that the Apollo program that sent astronauts to visit moon – but not live on the moon – was, at its peak, consuming about 4% of the entire federal budget!

Here is some of the technology currently under development:

>> Advanced rockets and spacecraft: The Falcon rocket and the Dragon spacecraft are both original designs, developed from first principles as steps on the way to Mars.[4]

>> Reusable launch vehicles: Yesterday’s SpaceX launch vehicle was safely landed, joining launch vehicles from about a half dozen earlier SpaceX launches. The objective is to reuse them. Reusable launch vehicles are the key to sharply reduced costs. Imagine the cost of an airline ticket if the airplane could only be used once. Look for a SpaceX launch using a previously used rocket within this year.

>> The Falcon Heavy: With three times the lift capacity of the current Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is scheduled to test launch this year. Trips to Mars will require massive lifts into orbit.

>> The Raptor engine: SpaceX has test – fired a new rocket engine that will burn liquid methane instead of kerosene. Liquid methane will provide considerably more thrust per unit of mass than does kerosene. Methane is also available on Mars, so methane refueling on Mars could facilitate return trips!


Tesla’s Vision:[5]

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.

So, Tesla is about accelerating the advent of sustainable energy. Wind energy, solar energy and hydroelectric energy are all potentially Sustainable, but none of these are directly applicable to vehicles. However, if the vehicle is powered by electricity, all of them are applicable. So, Tesla makes electric vehicles. Tesla also recognizes that it cannot, of itself, make enough electric vehicles to make electric vehicles the world’s standard. There are many constraints to doing that.

Here are a few of them:

>> Vehicle performance: Drivers expect electric vehicles to perform at least as well as petroleum fueled vehicles. Hence Tesla’s emphasis on acceleration, comfort, handling, safety and related matters.

>> Style: Drivers like cool, classy, functional cars. Tesla vehicles turn heads.

>> Range: Drivers expect electric cars not to strand them. That requires that vehicles have a range between fueling that compares their current vehicles, and that refueling be available almost anyplace. That’s why Tesla cars have 250 – 300 mile range between recharging, and why Tesla is so intent on building recharging facilities worldwide. Tesla is not waiting for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Batteries: Over 15 million new cars were sold in the U.S. in 2016, and several times that many worldwide. For electric vehicles to become a substantial portion of those numbers, a ready, reliable source for suitable batteries is necessary. That’s why Tesla is building a giga-factory – the largest factory in the world – to produce the batteries. Again, Tesla isn’t waiting for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Update 1/19/2017 : Tesla just announced that it will increase its investment in the giga-factory by $350 million in order to manufacture electric motors and drive trains for Tesla automobiles. Yet again, it appears that Tesla sees a need to produces hundreds of thousands of 200 – 400 horsepower motors that meet their requirements, rather than wait for somebody else to do it for them.

>> Price: In order to sell enough vehicles to even begin to make a difference, Tesla has to produce vehicles that sell at mass market price points. Hence the coming Tesla Model 3.

>> Production Technology: In order to meet drivers’ expectations at a mass market price while generating a reasonable profit, Tesla is re-inventing vehicle production technology from first principles. It will be interesting to see just how the Model 3 is produced.

>> Marketing and sales: Tesla regards the existing authorized dealer model of vehicle sales as inefficient. Instead, Tesla wants to use Amazon – style sales methods. Not surprisingly, existing dealerships are resisting fiercely.

>> Self-driving vehicles: In 2015, there were 35,092 people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. alone.[6] Tesla believes that self driving technology can reduce that figure by at least a factor of ten. Accordingly, all Tesla vehicles produced right now come equipped with the necessary equipment to do this. As self driving technology becomes more commonplace (and traffic regulations change), insurance costs most drop sharply, not to mention the reduction in human suffering. This technology addresses the human side of triple bottom line Sustainability, as electric power addresses the environmental side.

>> Critical mass of vehicles: To make a real difference, electric vehicles have to become a significant fraction of the world’s fleet of vehicles. Tesla cannot even hope to produce anything close to the number of vehicles needed to do that. That’s why Tesla made its large body of patents available without charge to all manufacturers that want to produce electric vehicles.


Elon Musk says that starting an automobile company in the U.S. is “idiotic”, and that starting an electric vehicle company is “idiocy squared”. Chuck says that if Tesla is idiocy squared, then SpaceX is exponentially so. But I like the way Elon Musk thinks. He reminds me of Henry Ford. The world needs people like them — people whose vision and actions transcend accepted bounds. Musk may be idiotic, but I do own some Tesla stock.

Chuck - Red RocksThoughtful comments and experience reports are invited and appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.


[1] For those who were not around in 1957, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were heavily engaged in the Cold War. The U.S.S.R. shocked the U.S. by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October 1957. The clear implication was that the U.S.S.R. was ahead of the U.S. in rocket technology, hence had an important military advantage. Catching up with the Soviets was so important that the Vanguard launch attempt was televised live.

[2] Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains thinking from first principles and why it is so uncommon in his bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farriar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2011)

[3] For more and SpaceX and for a presentation on the Mars project, see SpaceX’s website at https://www.spacex.com

[4] In contrast, the Atlas V launch vehicle, which is used to compete with SpaceX for commercial launch business, is the latest in a series of Atlas rockets that began in 1957. The original Atlas was, in turn, a descendent of the German V-2 rocket from World War Two.

[5] For more on Tesla and on Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla, see: https://www.tesla.com/blog/master-plan-part-deux

[6] Traffic fatalities figure from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year