“Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that,” wrote Kalanick to his staff.
Musk faced a barrage of similar criticism, with some saying he’s a crony capitalist and others claiming to have cancelled their orders for Tesla Model 3.
Last week, I joined the BBC’s Fergus Nicholl on the BBC World Service program, Business Matters. We discussed Silicon Valley tech’s furious reaction to the Trump travel ban and Elon Musk’s high pressure predicament.
Listen to the podcast excerpt below (it includes commentary from the always provocative Lucy Kellaway):
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicoll: Elon Musk has run into Twitter trouble…when he spoke to Mr. Trump in person and when he was seen having a drink with Steve Bannon in the White House, a lot of people said: “What on earth are you thinking?” And he came up with a fairly strong defense…
Alison van Diggelen: His key message is: “Activists should be pushing for more moderates like him, to advise the president not fewer.” And he asks, “How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?”
Alison van Diggelen: He’s faced a lot of criticism, people even saying they’re cancelling their orders for the next generation of cars, the Tesla Model 3. He is under this pressure, but he is a powerful influencer, a poster child for Donald Trump’s manufacturing jobs being in the U.S. Musk is an idealist, he wants to save the planet. He’s bringing his message of climate change and green jobs, almost as a Trojan horse, into Trump’s meeting rooms. I think a lot of people who think about this deeply deeply, are not having this knee jerk reaction and saying don’t associate with Trump. Instead they’re saying this might be a good conduit for Trump hearing this green point of view.
Here is some of the pushback Elon Musk received on Twitter and his responses:
Last night, Elon Musk’s SpaceX achieved a spectacular milestone in the history of space travel: its Falcon 9 rocket launched 11 satellites into orbit, performed a spin and landed back on earth, six miles from where it launched. Why is this ultimate recycling feat so consequential?
Quite simply, this could revolutionize space travel as we know it today.
and “then we could resume the journey”…to Mars and beyond. Watch the interview, starting at 35:00
The back story of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
Last night, the long awaited Tesla Model X was launched and Elon Musk took great pleasure in underlining its clean air qualities. Musk reiterated the mission of Tesla: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport and show that any car can go electric. But he couldn’t contain a smile, as he talked about air quality and referred to “recent events” i.e. the VW DieselGate scandal.
Musk showed off the SUV’s giant air filter (10 times the size of a typical one) and said:
“Recent events have illustrated the importance of air safety…(in the Model X) you can have air quality levels comparable to a hospital operating room.”
Musk then got somber, put on his superhero hat and showed the massive crowd estimates of how air quality can reduce life expectancy in some of the world’s most polluted cities: Beijing, 22 months; Los Angeles, 8 months and Paris, 7 months.
According to Musk, using the high quality “X-size” air filter plus a smaller one (still larger than an average car’s air filter) gives the Model X a 700 fold improvement in city smog filtering. The company claims it’s also 300 times better at filtering bacteria, 500 times better at filtering allergens, and 800 times better at filtering viruses.
But the biggest cheer of all came when Musk made this surprise announcement:
“If there’s ever an apocalyptic scenario, you just press the bio-weapon defence button – this is a real button.”
“Who else is going to think in that magnitude with something as normal as an air filter? These are the kinds of things that Elon pushes to the limit and delivers products that no one else can deliver. The reason he’s doing it is to save the planet. It’s all about the survival of this planet and the atmosphere.” George Blankenship
We discussed how VW’s emissions cheating scandal might impact electric car makers like Tesla.
“It’s unfortunate that others feel they have to do things like that in order to compete. It’s the absolute opposite of what Tesla does…they find a solution. It reinforces that innovative companies that come up with a solution that others don’t…there’s a reward for it: 5 star crash ratings, cleaner air than a surgical room. That’s what innovative companies do as opposed to companies that try to figure out how to bend the rules to get an advantage.” George Blankenship
After a thorough tour of the Model X features, including the elegant falcon wings, Elon delivered keys to some of the first Model X buyers. This time round, Elon beat his friend, and first Model S owner, Steve Jurvetson and got the number one Tesla Model X. There’s definitely admiration, perhaps a little envy, captured in my photo below.
Update: Jurvetson told me this morning that Elon had a check made out in advance at an early Tesla Board meeting, to make sure he secured the first Model X.
Read more about Tesla and Elon Musk at Fresh Dialogues
Technology has the potential to bring us a mind-blowing world of innovation, from self-driving cars to re-engineered food, and even colonies on Mars. Elon Musk and Steve Jurvetson are two of tech’s most influential minds. Here’s my BBC World Business Report on their vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It isn’t all good news.
BBC Presenter, Mike Johnson: Colonies on Mars, self driving electric cars, re-engineered food… How will technology change our lives in the decades ahead? It’s certainly bringing us an extraordinary world of innovation. It’s known in the jargon these days as “future shock.” Many worry about the consequences, especially the toll that increased use of robots will take on jobs. Alison van Diggelen, creator and host of the Fresh Dialogues interview series reports from California
Audio: [Sound of Tesla Factory welding, metal on metal, robot sounds…]
Tesla’s Gilbert Passin: See the robot is bringing the flat panel into the press…they are in slow motion …[factory sounds]
van Diggelen: The pioneering carmaker, Tesla Motors, has now produced over 70,000 all-electric cars and is gearing up for the release of the new Model X, a futuristic SUV with falcon wing doors. This summer, it will also start shipping Tesla Energy storage batteries for homes, businesses and utilities. Gilbert Passin leads the Tesla manufacturing team and is proud of the numerous red robots at the factory.
Passin: What we do here is really kick-ass. I mean, look around…. does it look to you like a boring old-fashioned car factory?
van Diggelen: Absolutely not.
Passin: We’re using the latest and greatest and even in some cases innovate in manufacturing techniques.
van Diggelen: The Tesla production team is so fond of its heavy lifting robots, they’re named after action heroes like Wolverine, Vulcan and Colossus.
Venture Capitalist, Steve Jurvetson drives the first Model S to come off Tesla’s production line. He has a reputation for putting his money where his mouth is and backing successful startups like Hotmail, SpaceX, and PlanetLabs. He’s a self-described “raging techno optimist” and has a front row seat on the future of innovation. I asked him what we should expect in the next 50 years…
Steve Jurvetson: (If you look far enough in the future) All vehicles will be electric. We’ll have a Mars colony. We will have to grow more food than since the beginning of agriculture. That will be largely driven by GMOs and a variety of roboticized forms of farming…and moving off meat production in the way we think of it: killing animals. We will “grow” meat in different ways within 50 years and that will have pretty profound effects on Greenhouse Gases to… everything. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, are changing the world. In that 50 year horizon, the world’s going to look markedly different than today. Future shock is a perpetually occurring phenomenon.
van Diggelen: As well as being CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk leads SpaceX, the aerospace company that recently launched its 6th mission to resupply the International Space Station.
Ambi: [SpaceX rocket countdown and blast off]
Tesla announcer: 5,4,3,2,1…and lift off…the Falcon soars from its perch to the international space station. [Rocket blasting….]
He envisioned a philanthropic mission to Mars to install a greenhouse…and jumpstart the space race. Here’s Musk:
Musk: You’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine “the money shot.” So this would be the furthest that life’s ever travelled, the first life on Mars and I thought maybe that would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…
van Diggelen: Of course, in order to get to Mars, Musk and his team would have to invent a low cost space rocket. Enter, SpaceX.
Jurvetson: Being a multi planetary species, (having a colony on Mars and probably the moon) is one of those “greatest hits” in human evolution, up there with the opposable thumb…the neuron, multi-cellular beings.
van Diggelen: These grand visions are all very well, but what will life be like here on planet earth in 50 years?
For now, the tech economy is bringing manufacturing back to the US and Europe, but in the long run robots will take our jobs. This has huge implications for the world economy, business and public policy. Jurvetson admits he’s deeply worried about the growing rich-poor divide that tech innovation is exacerbating. He doesn’t pull his punches…
Jurvetson: Imagine the robots of the future… It’s inevitable the jobs will go away…and we need to prepare for that future…talk about it now so that the transition isn’t violent and horrible….40% unemployment, 80% unemployment…we’re gonna get there.
Here are some highlights of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicholl: Elon Musk…you’ve met the man. How would you introduce him to a global audience?
Alison van Diggelen: He is a genius inventor…the (Thomas) Edison of our day…incredibly sharp minded, a big old geek, but he’s very personable. He has grand visions and wants to make it happen…he has the ability to paint a picture, and motivate a team and build a team. He’s changed the world of electric vehicles and he’s now planning to change the world of power, utilities and battery storage.
Fergus Nicholl: That is an application that would apply in many many countries, beyond India. The idea that you could weather blackouts, brownouts…you’re saying you could bank it, use it when you need it and not necessarily get hit by little domestic crises?
Revathy Ashok: Absolutely. It’s pretty common in India for a normal household to have a one to three hour battery back up.For the last 12 hours it’s been raining heavily…we’ve had no power at all, so all connectivity is lost. I have three hours of battery backup which is all gone…
Alison van Diggelen: The main idea is, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, or windpower, your house can become a power station with the addition of these batteries. No matter what natural disaster, earthquake etc. is happening, you will have a reliable source of power. You won’t need the utility anymore. You can just disconnect from the grid, go “off-grid.” So that’s the huge potential and that’s why people are really excited about tonight’s announcement.
Fergus Nicholl: The Gigafactory (in Nevada)…tell us more about it…a net zero energy factory…it’s quite an extraordinary project.
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, a net zero energy project means it will be solar powered itself and will produce as much energy as it uses to make these batteries. It’s definitely quite revolutionary and has Elon Musk’s fingers all over it.
Fergus Nicholl: In this picture, the entire roof is vast solar panels, kind of like a solar farm laid perfectly flat. I guess Nevada is probably the best place to be for that?
Alison van Diggelen: Indeed, several states were actually fighting over it. California was hoping to get it too, but Nevada won out because they gave some very juicy incentives…The Gigafactory will produce more batteries, once it’s fully operational, than the world’s supply of batteries in 2013. That’s what they’re predicting. It’s a mind blowing amount of batteries and Tesla board member, Steve Jurvetson told me they’re planning to build more Gigafactories around the world, once this one is operational. As well as being Net Zero, they’re going to be creating a lot of employment, so there will be a lot of communities wanting them in their back yard too.
Fergus Nicholl: They’ll be lining up in different countries…
Note: We didn’t have time to discuss the competition that Tesla will face in the battery storage space. There are already major players like Samsung, LG Chem and Mitsubishi working on energy storage solutions and a slice of what Deutsche Bank estimates is a $4.5Bn market. The question is, will Tesla’s strong brand and reputation for quality emulate what Apple achieved in the cellphone market, and leapfrog over the existing competition? In his usual hyperbolic (Steve Jobs) fashion, Elon Musk said last night that “existing battery solutions suck.” But the success of his high risk venture in the energy storage market will depend on swift execution and competitive pricing that makes the Tesla Powerwall a viable solution for a wide spectrum of potential buyers, from wealthy consumers and businesses in California to rural communities in India, Africa and beyond.