How Elon Musk is reshaping the world
Here’s a personal observation on Elon Musk: in front of an audience he lacks charisma. I learned this at the UAE launch of Tesla last month, and it was surprising because he probably ranks in the world’s top 10 most interesting people.
That this thought occurred to me while Musk carefully — some would say ponderously — outlined his plans to wean the UAE off petrol cars (which, by the way, would be a staggering achievement) shows that I think small, while he works on a far grander scale. Sharpening up a sales pitch for a room of Dubai hacks is presumably not top of his priorities. To illustrate this fact, here’s a snapshot of how he actually fills his days. Musk wants to revolutionise transport by getting us to drive electric cars. This hasn’t been easy and Tesla has undergone many ups and downs. But mainstream opinion is now coming round to his point of view: combustion engines are in their final stages of usefulness.
This vision is part of Musk’s wider quest for sustainable energy. Firstly because the planet will one day run out of fossil fuels and we’ll go back to rubbing sticks to make fire — if we still have trees. And because if we wait until nearer that day of reckoning to find an alternative, our use of hydrocarbons will have defrosted the icecaps and drowned humanity’s only home (more on that shortly).
This realisation didn’t occur to Musk once he’d made billions and was sitting around on a yacht feeling guilty about his good fortune. When asked at a TED interview what inspired him to take on the auto industry, he replied: “It goes back to university when I thought about the problems that are most likely to affect the future of humanity.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but sustainable energy wasn’t my most pressing concern between the ages of 18 and 21. True, I was worried about life in some vaguely existential way. Whereas Elon Musk was hashing out ways to actually fix humanity’s ills. And that’s the point: he’s a doer. We’re not talking about what-ifs, maybe-someday projects. Stuff is getting built.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about SpaceX. Musk wants to go to Mars by 2022 and is busy testing rockets. This is because, as he rightly points out, humanity faces two choices. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation, and a multi-planetary species.”
Our overreliance on Earth is something that most of us flat-out deny, don’t like to think about, or it depresses us to the point of paralysis. Rising to the challenge only occupies the minds of a brilliant few.
So you can see why I was disappointed that, given his track record, Musk wasn’t more impressive during the Tesla press conference. He definitely wasn’t one of these over-polished TED-clones peddling lifestyle choices in a San Jose conference hall.
But that’s the whole point. Musk is not using his time on Earth (or Mars) to sell us a dream. He’s busy shaping the reality of tomorrow. No wonder the guy’s mind is elsewhere. As his sister, Tosca, once told Esquire, "Elon has already gone to the future and come back to tell us what he's found." Pretty big deal, huh?