In conversation with TED’s Head Curator Chris Anderson, serial entrepreneur and future-builder Elon Musk discusses his new project digging tunnels under LA, the Hyperloop, Tesla, SpaceX and his dreams for what the world could look like.
Below, highlights from the conversation.
Why are you boring?
“We’re trying to dig a hole under LA, and this is to create the beginning of what will be a 3D network of tunnels to alleviate congestion,” Musk says, describing the work of his new project, The Boring Company. Musk shows a video of what this system could look like, with an electric car-skate attached to an elevator from street level that brings your car vertically underground into a tunnel. There’s no speed limit in the tunnel — and the car-skates are being designed to achieve speeds of 200 km/h, or about 130 mph. “You should be able to get from Westwood to LAX in 5-6 minutes,” Musk says.
Why aren’t flying cars a better solution?
“I do rockets, so I like things that fly,” Musk says. “There’s a challenge of flying cars in that they’ll be quite noisy. If something’s flying over your head, a whole bunch of flying cars going all over the place, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation. You’ll be thinking, ‘Did they service their hubcap, or is it going to come off and guillotine me?’”
How will these tunnels tie in with Hyperloop?
The Hyperloop test track is the second biggest vacuum chamber in the world, smaller only than the Large Hadron Collider, Musk says. The proposed transportation system would propel people and freight in a pod-like vehicles in a vacuum, and tunnels end up being great for creating vacuum. “We’re cautiously optimistic that it’ll be faster than the world’s fastest bullet train, even over a .8-mile stretch,” Musk says.
What’s happening at Tesla?
Tesla Model 3 is coming in July, Musk says, and it’ll have a special feature: autopilot. Using only passive optical cameras and GPS, no LIDAR or radar, the Model 3 will be capable of autonomous driving. “Once you solve cameras for vision, autonomy is solved; if you don’t solve vision, it’s not solved … You can absolutely be superhuman with just cameras.”
Musk says that Tesla is on track for completing a fully autonomous, cross-country LA to New York trip by the end of 2017. “November or December of this year, we should be able to go from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey.”
More news from Tesla: a semi truck, which Musk reveals with a teaser photo. It’s a heavy-duty, long-range semi meant to alleviate heavy-duty trucking. “With the Tesla Semi, we want to show that an electric truck actually can out-torque any diesel semi. If you had a tug of war competition, the Tesla Semi will tug the diesel semi uphill,” Musk says. And it’s nimble –it can be driven around “like a sports car,” he says.
What else is going electric?
Showing a concept photo of a house with a Tesla in the driveway, Powerwalls on the side of the house — and a solar glass roof, Musk talks about his vision for the home of the future. Most houses in the US, Musk says, have enough roof area for solar panels to power all the needs of the house. “Eventually almost all houses will have a solar roof,” he says. “Fast forward 15 years from now, it’ll be unusual to have a roof that doesn’t have solar.”
And to store all that electricity needed to power our homes and cars, Musk has made a huge bet on lithium-ion batteries. Moving on to a discussion of the Gigafactory, a diamond-shaped lithium-ion battery factory near Sparks, Nevada, Musk talks about how power will be stored in the future.
“When it’s running full speed, you can’t see the cells without a strobe light,” Musk says as a video of the factory pumping out Li-ion batteries plays behind him. Musk thinks we’ll need about 100 such factories to power the world in a future where we don’t feel guilty about using and producing energy, and Tesla plans to announce locations for another four Gigafactories late this year. “We need to address a global market,” Musk says, hinting that the new factories will be spread out across the world.
Let’s talk SpaceX.
At TED2013, Musk talked about his dream of building reusable rockets — a dream he’s seen realized with the success of the Falcon 9, which to date has had nine successful launches and landings. Earlier this year, a used rocket completed a second successful landing for the first time in history. “It’s the first reflight of an old booster where that reflight is relevant,” Musk says. “Reusability is only relevant if it is rapid and complete, like an aircraft or a car … You don’t send your aircraft in to Boeing in between flights.”
What about Mars?
Showing plans for a massive rocket that’s the size of a 40-story building, Musk talks about what it’ll take to get to Mars. “The thrust level for this configuration is about four times the thrust of a Saturn V moon rocket,” the biggest rocket humanity has ever created, he says. “In units of 747s, this would be the thrust equivalent of 120 747s with all engines blazing.” The rocket is so massive that it could take a fully-loaded 747 as cargo. While it may seem large now, “future spacecraft will make this look like a rowboat,” Musk says.
And when can we can hope to see it? Musk thinks the Interplanetary Transport System SpaceX revealed earlier this year will take 8-10 years to build. “Our internal targets are more aggressive,” he says.
“There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing,” Musk says.
But why work on projects like getting to Mars when we have so many problems here on Earth?
Sustainable energy will happen no matter what, out of necessity, Musk says. “If you don’t have sustainable energy, you have unsustainable energy … The fundamental value of a company like Tesla is the degree to which it accelerates the advent of sustainable energy faster than it would otherwise occur.”
But becoming a multi-planet species isn’t inevitable. “If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 we were able to send somebody to the moon. Then we had the space shuttle, which could only take people to low-Earth orbit. Now we can take noone to orbit. That’s the trend — it’s down to nothing. We’re mistaken when we think technology automatically improves. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.”
What’s your motivation?
“The value of beauty and inspiration is very much underrated, no question,” Musk says, “But I want to be clear: I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”