The unlikely story of Elon Musk

The unlikely story of Elon Musk

Chris Sorensen on the man behind the Tesla D

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Getty Images / CP

Maclean’s Archives: On Oct. 9 in Los Angeles, Elon Musk introduced the Tesla electric sedan called the D. In this profile from 2013, Chris Sorensen explains why Musk has been heralded as potentially “the greatest inventor of our time.” 

Elon Musk is a rare breed of Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Most of his contemporaries seek to improve some small corner of the world—finding better ways to shop, watch TV or share photos on the web. Musk, on the other hand, took the fortune he made as a PayPal co-founder and zeroed in on some of humanity’s biggest, most intractable problems: our overreliance on non-renewable fossil fuels and the lack of a Plan B should anything—meteorite strike, climate change—render Earth uninhabitable. Equally impressive is Musk’s knack for turning grandiose ideas into viable businesses like electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors and space transport firm SpaceX. In fact, entrepreneur may no longer be the right word to define the boyish-looking 42-year-old. He’s an industrialist for the 21st century.

Musk made his critics eat crow when Tesla reported its first-ever quarterly profit in May of this year. The following day Consumer Reports awarded Tesla’s electric Model S with its highest test score ever and, last month, it handed the Model S a coveted “recommended” rating. Buoyed by the accolades, Tesla plans to deliver 21,500 of its Model S sedans in 2013, proving that electric cars—at least ones made by Tesla—are no longer toys for tree-hugging Hollywood celebrities. There are also plans for an SUV variant, a compact car and, possibly, a pickup truck. Investors have finally decided to come along for the ride, too. The company’s stock began the year trading around $35 a share. It’s now worth $121.

There have, of course, been hiccups along the way. Tesla nearly went bankrupt in 2008. Five years later, it’s facing a fresh round of scrutiny following three Model S fires—although Musk hardly seems worried. Two of the fires occurred in Model S’s that ran over metal debris on the road, piercing the thick armour plating that protects the car’s giant lithium-ion battery pack (neither driver was harmed). The third was a high-speed accident in Mexico where a speeding Model S smashed through a roundabout, hit a concrete wall and then skidded wheelless into a tree. “The amazing thing is that he lived,” Musk recently told Business Insider editor Henry Blodget during an onstage interview, “not that there was a little fire in the front of the car.”

Musk went on to cite statistics that back up the Model S’s safety record. There were nearly 200,000 fires on American roads last year, or about one fire for every 1,350 vehicles. The rate for Tesla? One for every 6,330, or about five times fewer. “If fire is your concern, you could not be in a safer car,” Musk said.

It’s difficult to overstate how unlikely the Tesla story is. The auto industry, and the oil companies that feed it, are the very definition of entrenched big business. Launching a new car company is a feat in itself, never mind thumbing your nose at the internal combustion engine, a transportation mainstay for the past 100 years. Nor are electric vehicles the only project on Musk’s plate. In 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to send—and return— a spacecraft into low Earth orbit. In May 2012 it became the first private firm to dock with the International Space Station and supply it with cargo. Now it’s working on a reusable launch vehicle after conducting several successful tests of its vertical takeoff-and-landing Grasshopper rocket. Musk has even talked about using all this know-how to spearhead an eventual manned mission to Mars, arguing for the need to start the process of colonizing other planets in case Earth faces an “extinction event.”

OTHER 2013 NEWSMAKERS:

Amid all of this, he somehow managed to find time to propose a new form of mass transit. In August, he unveiled drawings and a 57-page discussion paper for a near-supersonic form of travel he dubbed the Hyperloop. Musk claimed that capsules, riding on a cushion of air in a vacuum-like tube, could travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just 30 minutes. He invited others to build upon his concept, calling it an “alpha” version, but said if no one takes up the challenge, he may build a Hyperloop prototype himself.

Musk also let slip in a recent interview his desire to build an electric plane capable of supersonic speeds and vertical takeoffs and landings. And he showed off new software tools that allow engineers to design rocket parts using 3D images and motion controls. The idea, Musk says, is to speed up development of complicated machinery like rocket parts by eliminating the need to design them with 2D instruments like a keyboard and a mouse. It’s not unlike the hologram-like interface that the Tony Stark character uses in the Ironman movies, a character that was actually modelled on Musk.

So what drives him? Musk told the New York Times Dealbook conference he can’t bear the thought of a future no better than the past. He couldn’t believe it when the world’s first supersonic airplane, the Concorde, was scrapped after a single accident in 2000. It similarly seemed like a step backward when California proposed spending $68 billion on a high-speed rail project that would be slower and more expensive than those in other countries, prompting him to come up with the Hyperloop. It’s a safe bet that much of what goes on at SpaceX is driven by Musk’s profound disappointment that astronauts haven’t ventured further than orbiting the Earth since 1972, the year after he was born.

Musk has been heralded as potentially “the greatest inventor of our time.” But he’s already shaping up to be so much more.