In 1996, space enthusiast, Peter Diamandis announced the $10 Million XPrize for the first private spaceship to fly 100 kilometers into space. The only problem was: he didn’t have $10 Million, not even close! Nevertheless, his audacious challenge inspired dozens of teams all over the world to compete and he did eventually find a sponsor…and a winning team. The dramatic story that helped jumpstart the private space race is told in Julian Guthrie’s new book “How to Make a Spaceship” which comes out on September 20th. The book has a foreword by Virgin’s Richard Branson and afterword by superstar scientist, Stephen Hawking.
I interviewed Julian and Peter at the Singularity University Summit and they shared their unique insights into the band of renegades who finally succeeded in winning the XPrize. Peter talked about how he was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight to win a $25,000 prize. Today, this original XPrize has spawned many others. Over $80 Million in XPrizes continue to drive tech innovation in energy, education, medicine and space exploration.
“This incentive challenge really touched a nerve globally and brought out this entrepreneurial spirit internationally. You had people taking big risks and sacrificing a huge amount…They were fueled by their own passions and obsessions, and dismissed their own fears and naysayers. There’s a lot of bravery in what was done.” Author Julian Guthrie
Last week, the BBC’s Tech Tent aired my interview with Peter. Listen to the podcast excerpt:
Backstage with Julian Guthrie, author of “How to Make a Spaceship”
Here’s a transcript of the introduction and report:
BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones:It’s 20 years since a space-obsessed entrepreneur called Peter Diamandis launched a $10M to stimulate private space flight. The XPrize spurred dozens of teams around the world to compete for the money and the glory and today the private space industry is one of the most exciting – and risky – sectors of tech innovation. This whole story is told in “How to Make a Spaceship” published later this month.
We asked the Silicon Valley journalist, Alison van Diggelen, to interview Peter Diamandis. He told her why he’s glad Virgin’s Richard Branson turned him down as a sponsor for the first XPrize.
Peter Diamandis: I pitched Richard (Branson) twice. I thought he was the perfect person to do this…The fact that he didn’t fund it and make it the Virgin XPrize, which could’ve been a cool name, led him to the point that when the $10M Ansari XPrize was ultimately won, Richard came in and bought the rights to the winning technology to create Virgin Galactic. So instead of spending $10 million on the prize purse, he spent quarter of a billion dollars developing Virgin Galactic….which I was very happy about.
Alison van Diggelen: Let’s talk about the Cambridge physicist, Stephen Hawking. He wrote (in) the afterword for your book: “The human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.” Can you explain what he meant by that?
Peter Diamandis:I had a chance to meet Prof Hawking through the XPrize. We’re actually working right now on an ALS XPrize…. When I met him back in 2007 I invited him to fly on a zero G flight. It was amazing to give the world’s expert on gravity the experience of zero gravity…He was asked why he was doing something kind of risky…for someone in a wheelchair…that frail, it could be dangerous.
“I want to promote space travel… If the human race doesn’t go into space, we don’t have a future.” Stephen Hawking
His concerns are the existential threats of nuclear war, killer virus, asteroid impact…I’m an optimistic guy. I think we have a bigger future if we go into space. The concept that Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Stephen Hawking, myself…that we talk about is the notion that: It’s time to make the earth a multi-planetary species…that we can back-up the biosphere. We have the ability to take all the knowledge, all of the genomes on this planet…and to take all the eggs out of one basket…
Alison van Diggelen: And talk about the technology. Some are saying: OK the private sector has entered the space race but we’re not any further forward than when man landed on the moon with NASA (Apollo missions). Talk about how the technology has changed with the private sector on a much more limited budget and a faster timetable.
Peter Diamandis:It’s astounding how fast the technology has changed. It’s night and day. It doesn’t come out of the large industrial military complex, which is risk averse, it comes out of an entrepreneurial mindset that’s willing to do something completely different. I give credit to Elon Musk and a team at SpaceX. They’ve pulled off the impossible. They’ve built the Falcon 9 launch vehicle which has a fully reusable first stage which could drop the cost of launching satellites into space by a factor of 5.
There’s sensors on board, there’s 3D printing engines on the vehicle. You’re mass manufacturing everything in house. You’re using the latest materials, machine learning, and AI protocols for design. You’re able to create a vehicle that was never heretofore possible.
This is for me is the most exciting time ever to be alive.
Bonus Material(these make the final cut)
Alison van Diggelen: Instead of thinking out of the box, you’re saying you should “think in a small box.” Explain that rationale.
Peter Diamandis:In Julian Guthrie’s book “How to make a spaceship” I demonstrate this. I said: This competition is over on Dec 31 2004. It’s not any spaceship to any altitude. It’s 3 people to 100km. You have to land and in two weeks do it again.
When you’re able to constrain the problem that’s when people can innovate. It gives them the ability to throw out all old ways of thinking and really innovate with something new.
Alison van Diggelen: What stimulated all this spaceship innovation?
Julian Guthrie:Innovations came from very unexpected places: entrepreneurs…these scrappy teams. Small teams can do big things and in this case they can make history. They have the ability to fail and then to move forward very quickly, and test new things. You’re not dealing with bureaucratic nightmares. You’re iterating – which is the key to success – that rapid pivoting led to a new iteration of (spaceship) design.
Alison van Diggelen: Steve Bennett (the UK rocket builder) talked about the “American mindset” of dream big. After all your book research, do you believe this mindset is exclusively American?
Julian Guthrie: What Steve Bennet is doing in the UK and telling kids: think big, follow your dreams, whatever your spaceship is, make it happen, is great! But I think there is a uniquely American quality to rolling up your sleeves…there is an American bootstrap mentality. This is the epicenter of that “ anything is possible ” mentality.
“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…” Elon Musk
Will the fatal Tesla crash slow or even derail the development of self-driving cars? That was the topic we discussed on this week’s BBC World Service program, Click.
Despite complaints by consumer advocates that Tesla should disable its autopilot feature and not beta test “an unproven technology” on the public, Tesla is standing by its strategy. Today the BBC’s Dave Lee reported from the Gigafactory that Elon Musk has no regrets about how Tesla rolled out the autopilot.
“We have the internal data to know that we improved people’s safety, not just in fatalities but in injuries.” Elon Musk, CEO Tesla at Gigafactory, July 26 2016.
Remarkably, federal regulators at the Department of Transport (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) appear to be siding with Tesla and urging a “full-steam ahead” approach. They’re focused on self-driving technology’s potential to save lives.
“No one incident will derail the DOT and NHTSA on its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new life saving technologies. We…can’t stand idly by while we wait for the ‘perfect.’ We lost 35,200 lives on our roads last year. We’re in a bad place and we should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives. How many lives might we be losing if we wait?” Mark Rosekind, Head of the NHTSA at the Automated Vehicles Symposium, July 20 2016.
The NHTSA is expected to release its new guidelines for self-driving (autonomous) cars any day now. I’ll post a link to them here as soon as they’re available.
Listen to our Tesla autopilot discussion below or at the BBC Click Podcast. The first broadcast aired on the BBC World Service at 2:30pm PST on July 26th.
Here’s a transcript of our discussion (a shorter version aired on the BBC).
BBC Click Presenter, Gareth Mitchell: Now the first death of a Tesla driver on autopilot earlier this year was bound to overshadow the recent Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco last week. But those at the meeting were also looking forward, at the latest innovations in driverless cars. BBC contributor, Alison van Diggelen was there for us, and she’s been telling me a bit more about what was being discussed.
Alison van Diggelen: The 3-day symposium assembled some of the top government authorities, academics and tech experts in the field of automated vehicles. The main topics included: the promise and challenges of automated vehicles; the federal guidance about to be released; and whether the Tesla crash will derail the development of automated vehicle technology. Mark Rosekind Head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“Nitsa”) spoke about all three topics and emphasized the technology’s potential to save lives.
Mark Rosekind: We’re not in a good place that we’re trying to make better. We lost 35,200 lives on our roads last year. We’re in a bad place and we should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives. How many lives might we be losing if we wait? We have to do everything we can to make sure the new technology doesn’t introduce new safety risks, but we also can’t stand idly by while we wait for the “perfect.”
Reports around the country seem to be sounding the alarm: they are shocked, shocked (!) to discover there’s vehicle automation that’s already here…they’re demanding to know: where was the government to stop this?
We know there will be incidents that occur with highly automated vehicles and NHTSA will always be ready to use its authority to investigate and take whatever action is necessary
New highly automated vehicles offer enormous opportunities for learning…When something goes wrong,…that data can be taken, analyzed and the lessons can be shared with all automated vehicles.
No one incident will derail the DOT and NHTSA on its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new life saving technologies.
We’re writing the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. It’s the first step that will lay the road map to the next generation of vehicle technology – a harmonized approach not just across states but perhaps even internationally. It’s an approach that’ll provide certainty to manufacturers, to make sure you’re focused on safety in the right ways.
We see a future where disabled people can reclaim independence and freedom in a personal vehicle. We even see a future when a fully automated car can relieve the occupants of all driving responsibilities, leave them free to read a book, make a phone call and yes, catch a few more Pokemon.
Gareth Mitchell: There was also talk of innovation, refining the technology and one UK voice in particular. Who was this, Alison?
Alison van Diggelen:Ian Forbes is head of the Center for Connected & Automated Cars, a joint policy unit of the UK government. I chatted to him briefly after his presentation, where he gave a flavor of the opportunities and challenges ahead. Forbes played a short video that showed a junction in a UK city. The simulation showed that connected & autonomous vehicles bunch closer together when they approach the red light. This means that when the light turns green, more cars can go through, making that junction more efficient. He says it was a result they weren’t expecting…and they expect further simulations will help predict other benefits of self-driving cars. He also talked about the importance of public perceptions and behavior. They’re starting a 3 year study…
Ian Forbes: In the UK we share a problem with everyone in this room. Like everyone here, we can see the potential benefits: fewer crashes, more efficient transport, new high value jobs. It’s also likely we face the same challenges: how do you design a regulatory framework when so much of the future technology is uncertain? How do you get maximum value for your research so that it delivers something new? One tool in our toolbox is Micro-simulation using agent based models to understand the impact of different transport scenarios to inform our future transport traffic predictions.
Gareth Mitchell: Finally Alison, the meeting was overshadowed by the tragic death of a driver in autopilot mode in a Tesla. What kind of reflections were there about how that leaves the whole driverless project?
Alison van Diggelen: I spoke with a number of conference attendees from the academic and tech worlds, including Bob Denaro, a member of United States’ Transport Research Board (TRB) and venture capitalist advisor to Motus Ventures. He reframed the the Tesla crash in its historical context, talking about the Wright brothers and one of their early passenger deaths, during a demo for the U.S. army. So I think that gives the Tesla crash an interesting historical context. He and a lot of people said, this seems a disaster short term but in the long term, it’s going to be a small bump in the road.
Bob Denaro: If we look at early days of aviation – the Wright brothers killed (one of) the first passengers….Frankly I’ve been surprised that the public reaction has been more muted than I feared it would be…I don’t think it’s going to be that big of an impediment to our progress and the speed of our progress.
The traditional automotive approach is: let’s test exhaustively over years and then put it on the market. Sometimes we make mistakes…maybe there are fatalities, recalls…The approach that Tesla is taking is: let’s put it out there early, before it’s completely done – let’s learn quickly, and because of the software updates over the air, let’s make changes…They may be on to something there.
My advice to Elon Musk would be: yes, be careful, make sure you test it, understand the results…But this approach – as different as it is to the traditional approach – just may be a better approach to minimizing the accidents we have to have along the way before we get close to perfection.
Ian Forbes shared a video that didn’t make the final cut. With a little help from Queen Elizabeth and a humorous Tweet, he sent ripples of laughter throughout the global audience. Here’s the transcript (it’s a wee bit awkward).
The Queen (via video): My ministers will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles.
Ian Forbes: That was the Queen, in the UK, back in May setting out the future legislative program of the UK government. My favorite response was on Twitter: Ah Britain – the only parliament in the world where someone turns up in by horse drawn carriage to promise everyone else driverless cars.
This week, I listened live to Tesla’s latest earnings call and was gobsmacked at Elon Musk’s audacious new goal to build half a million cars per year by 2018.
“This is based off the tremendous demand received for the Model 3, which I think is actually a fraction of the ultimate demand, when people fully understand what the car’s capable of….Tesla is going to be hell-bent on becoming the best manufacturer on earth.” Elon Musk
But how on earth is Tesla going to perform this ambitious ramp up in production? It’s a 1000% increase in Tesla’s 2015 production level (approx. 50,000 Model S and Xs). Here’s one more clue from Elon Musk, at the end of the conference call:
“We believe that there’s more potential for innovation in manufacturing, than there is in the design of the car by a long shot.” Elon Musk
Tesla’s Alexis Georgeson took me inside the Tesla factory last week to share some insights as to how this “mission impossible” just might be done.
BBC Host, Rory Cellan-Jones: This week, the entrepreneur behind the Tesla cars made an extraordinary promise to his investors. He said his company would manufacture half a million cars a year by 2018. Given the fact that Tesla has missed much smaller production targets in the past this seemed, well, brave. But as Alison van Diggelen reports from Silicon Valley, Elon Musk is confident that this time, things will be different.
Alison van Diggelen: Tesla Motors astounded the auto industry last month when it received over 400,000 reservations (325,000 in the first week) for its new Model 3, an “affordable” all-electric car. In response, CEO Elon Musk just announced a production goal of half a million cars by 2018.
Elon Musk: My desk is at the end of the production line…I have a sleeping bag in the conference room… which I use quite frequently. The whole team is super focused on achieving rate and quality at the target cost, so I feel very confident in us achieving that goal.
Alison van Diggelen: I visited the Tesla factory in Silicon Valley to find out how they can deliver on time and in such huge numbers. Though beloved by fans, Tesla is also notorious for production delays.
Last year, the company spent over 1.5 Billion dollars in capital. Its cash burn-rate looks unsustainable. With General Motors coming out with a longer range electric car later this year and other competitors hot on their wheels, Tesla is under pressure to deliver, and fast.
Alexis Georgeson: There’s already been one major reorg since Model S production started in 2012. The original end of line used to be right here… we straightened out the line so we could expand and increase production.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s Alexis Georgeson, a Tesla spokesperson who explains in great detail the 7-day process that transforms a roll of aluminium into a shiny electric car. The two-week reorg and retooling in 2014 means that Tesla now has over 1000 state of the art robots, which helped ramp-up production by over 100% last year.
A separate production line for the Model 3 is planned and hard lessons from earlier models will help speed up their manufacture, especially more in-house capabilities and more thorough supplier validation. Musk says the new Model 3 will be designed to be easy to make.
Alexis Georgeson: We’re constantly learning and innovating. The great thing about Tesla is that so much is in-house and that we are so nimble.
What’s the trade off between hubris and caution at Tesla?
Alexis Georgeson: Our mission is not just to accelerate sustainable energy and transportation …You’re creating new features that haven’t been done before in the auto industry. With that comes natural growing pains…
Georgeson: The thing that’s missed there is the capital-intensive nature of the auto industry. Especially for a company like Tesla that’s ramping production so quickly…
Alison van Diggelen: Here’s Elon Musk…
Elon Musk: Tesla is hellbent on being the best in manufacturing… We believe that there is more potential for innovation in manufacturing than in design of the car, by a long shot.
Alison van Diggelen: Musk says the first Model 3 deliveries will start in late 2017. If he can prove naysayers wrong again, the majority of Model 3 reservation holders might see their cars coming off the production line in Silicon Valley within the next two years…
Last night, I joined the BBC’s Business Matters to discuss the launch of Tesla’s Model 3 and the remarkable 325,000 deposits it garnered in just seven days. Reports suggest that even Tesla CEO, Elon Musk was surprised by the number of people prepared to pay $1000 to get in line for this mass market electric car. It appears that his “Tesla secret masterplan” had been intentionally leaked. Does this mean that the Model 3 represents an iPhone moment for the auto industry?
Here is a transcript of our conversation and a longer version of the report which aired on the BBC World Service. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the podcast here: Tesla discussion starts at 26:46
Roger Hearing: The Tesla 3…is that the way forward for electric cars? Now Alison, you’ve been having a look at the new Tesla…can you enlighten us on that?
Alison van Diggelen: Last Thursday, Tesla finally unveiled its “affordable” mass market car, the Model 3. Hours before it was actually unveiled, thousands of Tesla fans stood in line, sight unseen, to reserve one. This was a phenomenon, especially here in Silicon Valley where Tesla is headquartered and where they actually build the cars. I talked with several people who waited in line, and one Tesla fan who drives a Tesla (Roadster) but is just not interested in the Model 3…The key question now is: can Tesla deliver?
Small business owner, Tom Poppitz was one of thousands in Silicon Valley, to line up at one of Tesla’s six showrooms here. Each customer was prepared to put down a $1000 deposit for a car they’d never seen.
Poppitz:There was a lot of very well educated people in that line…they were going to buy this thing, no matter what it looked like…they were excited about it changing the world, changing the auto industry…
He likened it to an Apple product release, only better because it was sight unseen.
But what motivated Poppitz to get in line?
Poppitz: I’m not generally excited about cars…I’m a self-professed tightwad. The value proposition for this car is so completely different: frees you from buying gas… but my primary motivation: It changes macroeconomics in a major scale. Transitioning to electric cars can cure our trade deficits, it can have a quantum effect on our economy….
But not everyone is so optimistic that Tesla can actually deliver a world-changing product. I spoke with Anton Wahlman, a tech analyst.
He says Tesla’s two greatest challenges will be achieving profitability at $35,000 – where margins are razor thin – and beating some tough competition.
Wahlman: The unsexy factor in the whole equation…the product can be beautiful and all, but getting to an acceptable level of profitability is an extremely significant challenge.
He points to the brutal competition Tesla will face by the time it delivers its first Model 3’s in late 2017/and 2018. The Chevy Bolt hits showrooms later this year, and BMW, Audi, Jaguar, and others are in fast pursuit.
Walhman predicts that Tesla may face the same fate that Nissan did in 2010, when its all-electric Leaf started shipping …Many reservation holders demanded their deposits back.
Wahlman: (Nissan) They had zero competition… Tesla already has some competition …that will intensify greatly in ‘17 and by 2018, it’ll be in full bloom.
He acknowledges Tesla has a more attractive product than Nissan and its charging network is a moat-like barrier to competitors. But the Model 3 is not for every Tesla fan.
Silicon Valley techie, Carlos Morales drives a Roadster, Tesla’s limited edition sports car. He loves the quiet acceleration, and speed of his Roadster, but wasn’t prepared to reserve a Model 3. Why not?
Morals: I see a Roadster once a month… 300,000 Model 3’s have been reserved. There’s going to be a lot of them, that’s wonderful for the planet and Tesla. But it’s not going to be as exclusive.
There’s always going to be a class, a group of people who are looking at that.
Despite questions of reliability and servicing challenges pouring cold water on last week’s euphoria, Tesla true believers feel they were part of automotive history. Will this be an iPhone moment for the auto industry? At least 270,000 people hope so.
Alison van Diggelen: Carlos speaks for probably a small segment of people who won’t be attracted by the Model 3. But as of this morning they’ve now had over 325,000 willing to put down a $1000 deposit…that level of interest is unprecedented in the auto industry. A lot of people are drawing analogies with the iPhone. There’s a euphoria about this new product…the difference is: people are going to have to wait about two years before the car is actually delivered.
Roger Hearing: That’s a very long time, isn’t it? Isn’t that a lack of attraction in itself?
Alison van Diggelen: The analyst, Anton Wahlman emphasized that it’s not that these hardcore fans aren’t prepared to wait…but in the two year period, they may be tempted off their deposits. Wahlman pointed out all the competition. Jaguar is even coming out with an electric vehicle, Audi…the Chevy Bolt will actually be in dealerships this Christmas. I did speak with one big Tesla fan – Washington Post columnist, Vivek Wadhwa – and asked him if he’d be tempted by the Bolt. He said it was like comparing a rotary phone with the iPhone. That’s the level of fanboy-ism there is in Silicon Valley.
Madhavan Narayanan: We’re not discussing cars anymore. We’re discussing new patented technologies. If Tesla has patented technology that makes it distinguishable and superior to other electric cars, we’re talking about a paradigm shift, not simply a better car.
Roger Hearing: The big thing here in Britain is where you can actually get the charge? It’s fine in big urban areas… and for short journeys. Would that be true in America where there are a lot of very long journeys and presumably not a lot of electrical stopping places along the way?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, that is a big issue. Anton Wahlman pointed out that Tesla has this (proprietary) network for these long distance drives. They have hundreds of superchargers, (fast chargers) all over the U.S. They’ve introduced them in Europe too for people doing long journeys in their Tesla Model S. Wahlman described this like as a moat around Tesla’s business model and no other electric vehicle has something similar. So that could actually be an advantage (for Tesla). These other companies will have to catch up. With mass market, compared to a luxury car, there is a point: most luxury car buyers own homes and they can charge at home. If you’re living in an apartment, then that’s a whole different thing. That’s definitely a challenge, but Elon Musk is quite the visionary and he is aware of this and they are planning to double or triple their Tesla charging network.
Roger Hearing: That must be a problem in India, Madhavan, where do you charge these electric cars?
Madhavan Narayanan: Let’s look at what happened with cellphones. The paradigm of Tesla is strikingly similar. You have cell towers everywhere and they carry the signals. Why not set up a charging station network? To use Silicon Valley’s favorite expression:I see an electric vehicle ecosystem emerging. There will be new winners and losers in the game.
Roger Hearing: An electric car ecosystem? That’s a concept to carry around, as we go into what does seem to be the electric car era.
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.”