Following Volkswagen CEO, Herbert Diess, and Volvo Cars CEO, Jim Rowan, on day one of the FT Future of the Car Summit 2022, there was no doubting the biggest draw on day two: an hour-long “keynote conversation” with Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, covering Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX, self-driving and more.
The part live, part digital session was hosted by The Financial Times’ Global Motor Industry Correspondent, Peter Campbell, from The Brewery in London.
Tesla early days
It started with JB Straubel, formerly chief technical officer at Tesla, now Founder and CEO at renewable energy company Redwood Materials, joining Campbell on stage to discuss the origins of Tesla, with Musk contributing via video link.
EM: “We got together for lunch and the conversation turned to electric vehicles. JB said I should test drive the tzero prototype from AC Propulsion, that was in 2003. I tried to convince them to commercialise the tzero and, after a while, they said they really did not want to. I said, do you mind if I create a commercial electric sports car?”
JBS: “That’s pretty close to how I remember it. My perspective was us trying to chat with you about this electric hydrogen aeroplane concept, but our conversation completely turned to talking about lithium ion batteries… stringing together large numbers of small lithium ion batteries to potentially have hundreds of miles of range, which seems commonplace today, but in 2003 was absolutely unheard of. You understood that concept better than anyone else.”
They went on to cover the early work on a Lotus Elise chassis with the AC Propulsion drive train.
EM: “An insane nightmare, basically… almost everything about the first design of the Tesla Roadster was wrong. It was just an important thing that needed to happen to move to a sustainable technology future.
“At the time we created Tesla, there were no startups doing electric cars, and the big car companies had really no electric car programmes going. Therefore, unless we tried, they were not going to be created. It wasn’t from a standpoint of thinking, hey, here’s a super lucrative idea.
“There’s an incredibly big graveyard of car startups. They’ve almost all gone bankrupt. You’ve only heard of a tiny number of them, the DeLoreans of the world, but there are hundreds of others.
“The only two American car companies that have not yet gone bankrupt are Ford and Tesla. Tesla almost went bankrupt so many times I lost count. To start a car company is mega pain. It’s the furthest thing from easy money you could possibly imagine.
“The car industry is hyper competitive. Throughout the world, they have entrenched customers, dealers, service, factories, existing expertise – these are veteran armies.”
At this point, Straubel exited, leaving Campbell attempting to elicit answers about the widely rumoured purchase of Twitter. We’ll only cover that very briefly here.
Musk on Twitter
EM: “I think Twitter needs to be much more even handed. It currently has a strong liberal bias. This fails to build trust in the rest of the United States and also perhaps in other parts of the world.”
PC: “Are you planning to let Donald Trump back on?”
EM: “I’ve talked with Jack Dorsey about this. I have the same mind, which is that permanent bans should be extremely rare and really reserved for spam accounts, where there’s just no legitimacy. I do think that it was not correct to ban Donald Trump, I think that was mistake because it is alienating a large part of the country.”
20 million cars a year by 2030
Global media coverage assured, conversation returned to Tesla and the ambition to make 20 million cars a year by 2030.
EM: “There are approximately two billion cars and trucks in the world and for us to really make a dent in sustainable energy, in electrification, I think we need to replace at least 1% of the fleet per year, that’s where the 20 million units comes from. I think we’ve got a good chance of getting there.
“We have an incredible team at Tesla, executing very well and our annual growth rates are faster than for any large manufactured product in the history of Earth. I think the next fastest was the Model T. If that growth rate continues then we will reach 20 million vehicles a year, but we may stumble.”
On raw materials, he continued: “The two main cathode choices are nickel and phosphate. Iron is extremely plentiful and the second biggest element is oxygen. So, I do not see any fundamental scaling constraints. Lithium is also quite common.
“Our goal is to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. The three pillars of a sustainable energy future are electric transport, stationary battery packs and sustainable energy sources – solar, wind, geothermal and hydro.
“All of Earth can easily be powered by solar and wind, stationary battery packs and electric transport. You could power all of Europe with a section of Spain, all of the United States with a corner of Utah or Texas. Obviously, it would make more sense to spread this out. I invite anyone to do the basic math in megawatts per square kilometre.”
They went on to talk about SpaceX, in particular the Falcon 9 rocket. Classic Musk: “I’m sure we’ll do more than 1,000 times the payload to orbit of all other rockets on Earth combined.”
Then, briefly, China, and the Tesla factory in Shanghai. Finally, with the hour flying by, they got to self-driving.
Musk on self-driving
EM: “I don’t think you need full human level intelligence to drive a car. You don’t need deep conceptual understanding of esoteric concepts or anything like that. Anyone who’s driven a car for any length of time, once you have some years of experience, the cognitive load on driving a car isn’t that high.
“You’re able to think about other things, listen to music, have a conversation and still drive safely. So, it’s not like matching everything a human does. It is matching enough of the silicon neural nets to at least be on a par with the biological neural nets to enable self-driving, and I think we’re quite close to achieving that. Don’t take my word for it, sign up for a beta programme, look at the videos people are posting.
“I’m confident we will get far in excess of the safety level of humans. Ultimately, probably a factor of 10 safer than a human, as measured by the probability of injury.
“It’s around a million people per year dying from automotive accidents, maybe 10 million per year are severely injured. So, with autonomy, the cars driving, or assisted driving right now, but it will be fully autonomous the future, there’s those who didn’t realise they would have crashed, or hit a pedestrian or cyclist.
“It is important to note that we have never said ever that Tesla Autopilot does not require attention. We have always made that extremely clear, repeatedly. You can’t even turn it on without acknowledging that it requires supervision. We remind you of that ad nauseam, so this was not a case of setting expectations that the car can simply drive itself.”
It was Q&A time, so I submitted the question: “Why don’t you change the name of the Full Self-Driving package? It is driver assistance not self-driving. The name causes so much unnecessary criticism.” I didn’t get an answer.
To be fair, his hour was nearly done and questions from the audience were stacking up. Classily, he stayed on for a lengthy period of overtime.
Here are some of the highlights…
On micromobility: “Scooters are very dangerous. We don’t recommend anyone drive a scooter.”
On building a small car: “There’s some probability that Tesla will do a smaller car.”
On Tesla licencing their products to other OEMs: “They may be interested in licencing Tesla Autopilot full self driving. I think that would save a lot of lives. I would be very open to that.”
On competitors: “VW is doing the most on the electric vehicle front. There will be some very strong companies coming out of China.”
On AI: “We have the best real world AI team in the world.”
On the next big innovation in personal transportation: “Tunnels are underrated, underappreciated. This notion of induced demand is one of the single dumbest notions I’ve ever heard in my entire life. If adding roads just increases traffic, why don’t we delete them? Decrease traffic. I think you’d have uproar. We already have a proof of concept in Las Vegas with a tunnel going from the convention centre to the strip. It’s working really well.”
On super capacitors: “There simply isn’t enough ruthenium. I thought about it quite a lot. Had I continued as a student and done a PhD at Stanford, a theory I had at the time was to use advanced chipmaking equipment to build solid state capacitors.”
On hydrogen: “The number of times I’ve been asked about hydrogen! If you want a means of energy storage, hydrogen is a bad choice. It’s extremely low density, maintaining it in liquid form is incredibly difficult and it does not naturally occur on Earth. So, you either have to split water with electrolysis or crack hydrocarbons. It is the most dumb thing that I could possibly imagine for energy storage.”
And finally, on wanting to die on Mars: “I just said sure, but not on impact! Really, the goal on that front is making life multiplanetary… to preserve life as we know it, not just humans, but also the other animals and plants. So we don’t end up like the dinosaurs.
“You know, there will be natural calamities that occur on Earth – giant meteors and super volcanoes – and we can also do ourselves in, World War III is maybe looking a little bit more probable these days.
“So, I think it’s important for preserving the light of consciousness that we become a multi-planet species and, ultimately, a multi-stellar species.”