Elon Musk’s Vision of an Electric-Car Future

In 1995, Musk dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford after two days in order to explore opportunities on the Internet; four years later, he sold Zip2, a newspaper-hosting platform he’d built with his brother, Kimbal, and netted $22 million. He promptly founded a company that became part of PayPal, and cashed out with $160 million when eBay bought PayPal, in 2002. Then he began thinking about what to do next. George Zachary, a venture capitalist and a friend of Musk’s, remembers, “Elon called me up and said, ‘Do you think people would think I’m crazy if I sent mice to Mars?’ I said, ‘Do they come back?,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Well, if they don’t come back, yes.’ ”

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. Last fall, its Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately funded liquid-fuelled rocket to achieve orbit—after three failed launches, including that of a rocket containing the ashes of James Doohan, who played Scotty on “Star Trek.” (Musk says, “Technically, Scotty’s ashes did get to space, they just didn’t stay there.”) The company’s larger Falcon 9 will soon begin to resupply the Space Station, and Musk expects that the craft will be ferrying tourists into space by 2014, looping them around the moon for fifty million dollars a head.

Two years before founding SpaceX, Musk married Justine Wilson, a writer of fantasy novels he’d met at Queen’s University. The couple went on to have twins, followed by triplets; they separated last year. “Elon’s central relationship is with his work,” Justine Musk says, and Musk acknowledges that when problems began to multiply at Tesla, in 2007, “I went from working hard to working ridiculously hard. And stress breaks things.” Shortly after the couple parted, Musk met the English actress Talulah Riley, and proposed to her. Musk and Riley plan to have children, too, though Musk says his reasons differ somewhat from hers: he believes it’s the duty of the intelligent and educated to replicate, “so we don’t devolve into a not very literate, theocratic, and unenlightened future.” As part of his program for Homo sapiens, the beta version, he reminds unfruitful employees, “You should have, on average, 2.1 kids per woman.”

“Could we have some conviviality over here”

In 2004, Musk, who was interested in developing an electric car, met an engineer named Martin Eberhard, proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery. Musk agreed to underwrite the company, and he and Eberhard planned to release the Roadster within two years, at a development cost of about $25 million. It took four and a half years and $140 million. Eberhard wanted to get the first Roadster out fast, by placing an electric power train in a modified Lotus Elise chassis. Musk believed that the first Roadster had to impress—which meant that it had to have, among several expensive and time-consuming changes, a carbon-fibre body and the ability to reach sixty miles per hour in less than four seconds. (Musk denies that the changes burdened the company.) He also insisted that they focus on future models. “He’d say, ‘We’re going to be the next G.M.,’ and talk about putting a hundred thousand cars on the road by 2009,” Eberhard recalls.

Tesla’s chief technology officer, J. B. Straubel, says, “We hugely underestimated the challenge—the complexity of supply chains, of manufacturing, of the battery design. It was like working through a maze.” The Roadster’s battery is a highly engineered arrangement of six thousand eight hundred and thirty-one finger-size laptop cells imported from Japan. Tesla adds two fuses to each cell so they’re all triple-fused, packs them in six hundred and twenty-one cell modules, maintains the modules at a constant temperature with radiator coolant, and monitors them with twelve computers, then houses this amphibious latticework in a thick aluminum case shaped like a baby grand piano. The unit weighs half a ton.

Musk and Tesla’s board of directors pushed Eberhard out in 2007, as it became evident, just months after the company estimated the cost of producing the first Roadsters at $70,000 apiece, that the figure would actually be a crippling $130,000. (In May, Eberhard filed a lawsuit against Musk and Tesla, claiming that Musk had slandered him by calling him deceitful and had stolen the credit for founding Tesla; in a rebuttal on Tesla’s blog, Musk argued that “it would have been forgivable if Eberhard had simply been in over his head,” but that Eberhard had sought to keep the cost overruns from the board. Musk says that the parties are now considering mediation.)

Musk tried out two other C.E.O.s. Yet he also kept doubling his bet, putting up a total of $75 million of the company’s first $195 million. (He eventually invested ninety per cent of his net worth in Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity.) Last fall, he backed his money with a resource even more precious to him: his time. He took the job of C.E.O. himself, and immediately began focussing on price and profit. Relying in part on the fact that the storage density of lithium-ion batteries is increasing about eight per cent a year, and costs are dropping correspondingly, Musk recently vowed that Tesla will offer a third-generation car for less than thirty thousand dollars by 2014. Straubel says, “As the company has matured, it has become more of a worthy adversary for Elon. He constantly wants everything we’re doing to be really difficult, but he works really hard to make sure it’s not impossible. He almost won’t let us fail.” Justine Musk observes, “I like to compare him to the Terminator. He sets his program and just . . . will . . . not . . . stop.”

As new-car sales in America are expected to fall to ten million this year, down from sixteen million in recent years, and as Chrysler and G.M. struggle after sojourns in bankruptcy, the big automakers are, often reluctantly, developing E.V.s of their own. Ford plans to release the electric Focus in 2011, and Chrysler says it will have five hundred thousand electric cars on the road by 2013, under its new ENVI brand, aimed at “consumers who care about the planet’s future.” (For everyone else, there’s the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.) Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi are soon to release electric models, and the Chinese government, in a bid for its manufacturers to dominate the market, is setting up battery-charging stations in some of its largest cities and offering fleet owners who buy E.V.s and hybrids subsidies of up to eighty-eight hundred dollars.

But the American car buyer’s default vehicle is a twenty-thousand-dollar sedan—and that equation doesn’t work yet for E.V.s. The Roadster’s power train alone costs about fifteen thousand dollars to manufacture, five times what it would cost for a standard car. So a number of automakers have sought cheaper electric options. G.M.’s Volt, for instance, is a “plug-in series hybrid.” For longer journeys, a four-cylinder engine will kick in and repower the battery, but most trips will call solely on the battery, which has a range of about forty miles. (Nearly eighty per cent of Americans drive fewer than forty miles a day.)

A number of analysts see plugins as offering customers the best of both worlds: conspicuous greenness backstopped by the good old internal-combustion engine. And most E.V. manufacturers embrace the idea of competition, believing that the more E.V.s that enter the market the more consumers will believe that the concept, finally, isn’t going to go away. Nonetheless, Musk can’t help pointing out that in his view the Volt is an inelegant compromise; its battery pack is nearly half as large as the Roadster’s but has only one-sixth the electric range. After the Volt’s battery runs down, Musk says, “You’ll have a tiny engine pulling around a big car with a dead battery—you’ll be the worst car on the road.”

Can Elon Musk Lead the Way to an ElectricCar Future

In New York, when Musk got onstage with David Letterman, he perched awkwardly in his chair, half-turned toward the host, who was fighting a cold and was in a particularly sardonic mood. Letterman began a rant about how Detroit’s failure to produce electric vehicles had ruined the country’s economy, and how the Volt “has a range of forty miles”—a characterization that ignores the repowering provided by the gasoline engine, but one that Musk didn’t correct. “That’s crap!” Letterman growled. After the Model S was brought out from backstage, to oohs from the audience, Musk elicited applause when he noted that it would cost only $49,900 (after a $7,500 federal tax credit). As Letterman began to step into the car, Musk twice said, “There’s one very important point worth making”—intending to explain that recharging with electricity, at the equivalent of roughly forty-five cents a gallon, turns the S into a thirty-five-thousand-dollar car (if you amortize costs over seven years)—after which he’d deliver his kicker: “So would you rather have this car, or a Ford Taurus?”

But Letterman grabbed the car’s steering wheel and began flailing around and screaming, pretending that he was being electrocuted. Musk grinned gamely; interview over. Three weeks later, G.M.’s Bob Lutz went on the “Late Show” to correct the record on the Volt. He was allowed several minutes to make his points—and then Letterman grabbed the steering wheel of the Volt prototype and began flailing around and screaming.

In late March, Tesla unveiled the Model S at a cocktail party on friendly turf: SpaceX’s headquarters, next to a local airport in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles. Techno music throbbed as the hangar filled with some five hundred guests—a Bluetooth-sporting, leather-jacket-wearing crew that included the producer Joel Silver, the director Jon Favreau, and the agent Ari Emanuel, who has reserved four of the cars. Twenty Roadsters sat in rows outside, their vanity plates a chorus of eco-jubilation—EV 2, AC POWR, CYA OPEK. The air was tangy with jet fuel and Eau Sauvage.

Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was telling Musk that the only problem with his Roadster was that “now I never drive my other car”—a Porsche. Rick Rubin, the co-head of Columbia Records, told me, “I want to be a Tesla owner, but when my friend”—he nodded at Kiedis—“tried to pick me up tonight it was painful.” Rubin is a distinctly burly man, but many people have found that levering themselves into the Roadster’s low cockpit calls to mind a prison break through a ventilation shaft. Rubin said that he was going to put down a deposit for the roomier Model S: “The quiet feels really good, just taking off without a sound.”

When Musk slipped the silk cover off the show car, the crowd surged and cell-phone cameras flashed. “This car is going to show what’s possible with electric vehicles,” Musk promised. “You can fit a surfboard, a fifty-inch TV, and a mountain bike—at the same time.” There were gasps. Praising the car’s cornering, he boasted, “You’ll need a spatula to flip this thing over.” And with Tesla’s planned QuickCharging—stations that the company intends to place at highway rest stops, where you’ll be able to recharge your battery in forty-five minutes—“you could start here at breakfast and be halfway across the country by dinnertime.”

For now, if you plug your Roadster into one of Tesla’s seventy-ampere wall boxes (which the company will install in your garage for three thousand dollars), it takes nearly four hours to recharge the car completely. When I plugged a Roadster I was test-driving into a standard outlet in my sister’s garage, its battery gained only nine miles in two hours. (However, as long as cars are “trickle charged” during off-peak hours, the current grid will be able to handle charging about a hundred and seventy-five million E.V.s.)

When I asked Musk how you could possibly get your Model S halfway across the country before dinnertime, we got into a back-and-forth that included discussion of higher speeds draining the battery faster because the drag increases with the square of the velocity; a possible anode change in the battery cells from graphite to silicon; the daunting logistics of charging an E.V. in the five minutes it takes to gas up a conventional car (it would require an eight-hundred-and-forty-kilowatt connection, which would drain the grid as much as a one-hundred-unit apartment building does in the course of a day)—and, on my end, such considerations as the country’s width, and how often people need to eat and visit the bathroom, and the speed limit. “In a twenty-four-hour period,” he finally suggested, “you could get halfway across the country, how about that?”

“Using the highway charging stations that haven’t been built yet?” I said.