Full text – fireside chat with Elon Musk — serial entrepreneur — founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX at TED conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Elon Musk_ The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity …
Chris Anderson: Elon, what kind of crazy dream would persuade you to think of trying to take on the auto industry and build an all-electric car?
Elon Musk: Well, it goes back to when I was in university. I thought about, what are the problems that are most likely to affect the future of the world or the future of humanity? I think it’s extremely important that we have sustainable transport and sustainable energy production. That sort of overall sustainable energy problem is the biggest problem that we have to solve this century, independent of environmental concerns. In fact, even if producing CO2 was good for the environment, given that we’re going to run out of hydrocarbons, we need to find some sustainable means of operating.
Chris Anderson: Most of American electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. How can an electric car that plugs into that electricity help?
Elon Musk: Right. There’s two elements to that answer. One is that, even if you take the same source fuel and produce power at the power plant and use it to charge electric cars, you’re still better off. So if you take say natural gas, which is the most prevalent hydrocarbon source fuel, if you burn that in a modern General Electric natural gas turbine, you’ll get about 60% efficiency. If you put that same fuel in an internal combustion engine car, you get about 20% efficiency. And the reason is, in the stationary power plant, you can afford to have something that weighs a lot more, is voluminous, and you can take the waste heat and run a steam turbine and generate a secondary power source.
So in effect, even after you’ve taken transmission loss into account and everything, even using the same source fuel, you’re at least twice as better off charging an electric car, than burning it at the power plant.
Chris Anderson: That scale delivers efficiency.
Elon Musk: Yes, it does. And then the other point is, we have to have sustainable means of power generation anyway, electricity generation. So given that we have to solve sustainable electricity generation, then it makes sense for us to have electric cars as the mode of transport.
Chris Anderson: So we’ve got some video here of the Tesla being assembled, which, if we could play that first video — So what is innovative about this process in this vehicle?
Elon Musk: Sure. So, in order to accelerate the advent of electric transport, and I should say that I think, actually all modes of transport will become fully electric with the ironic exception of rockets. There’s just no way around Newton’s third law. The question is how do you accelerate the advent of electric transport? In order to do that for cars, you have to come up with a really energy efficient car, so that means making it incredibly light. And so what you’re seeing here is the only all-aluminum body and chassis car made in North America. In fact, we applied a lot of rocket design techniques to make the car light despite having a very large battery pack.
And then it also has the lowest drag coefficient of any car of its size. So as a result, the energy usage is very low, and it has the most advanced battery pack. And that’s what gives it the range that’s competitive, so you can actually have on the order of a 250-mile range.
Chris Anderson: I mean, those battery packs are incredibly heavy, but you think the math can still work out intelligently — by combining light body, heavy battery, you can still gain spectacular efficiency.
Elon Musk: Exactly. The rest of the car has to be very light to offset the mass of the pack, and then you have to have a low drag coefficient so that you have good highway range. And in fact, customers of the Model S are sort of competing with each other to try to get the highest possible range. I think somebody recently got 420 miles out of a single charge.
Chris Anderson: Bruno Bowden who is here did that, broke the world record.
Elon Musk: Congratulations.
Chris Anderson: That was the good news. The bad news was that to do it, he had to drive at 18 miles an hour constant speed and got pulled over by the cops.
Elon Musk: I mean, you can certainly drive — if you drive at 65 miles an hour, under normal conditions, 250 miles is a reasonable number.
Chris Anderson: Let’s show that second video showing the Tesla in action on ice. Not at all a dig at The New York Times, this by the way. What is the most surprising thing about the experience of driving the car?
Elon Musk: In creating an electric car, the responsiveness of the car is really incredible. So we wanted really to have people feel as though they’ve almost got to mind meld with the car. So you just feel like you and the car are kind of one, and as you corner and accelerate, it just happens, like the car has ESP. You can do that with an electric car because of its responsiveness. You can’t do that with a gasoline car. I think that’s really a profound difference, and people only experience that when they have a test drive.
Chris Anderson: I mean, this is a beautiful but expensive car. Is there a roadmap where this becomes a mass-market vehicle?
Elon Musk: Yeah. The goal of Tesla has always been to have a sort of three-step process, where version one was an expensive car at low volume, version two is medium priced and medium volume, and then version three would be low price, high volume. So we’re at step two at this point. So we had a $100,000 sports car, which was the Roadster. Then we’ve got the Model S, which starts at around $50,000. And our third generation car, which should hopefully be out in about three or four years will be a $30,000 car. But whenever you’ve got really new technology, it generally takes about three major versions in order to make it a compelling mass-market product. And so I think we’re making progress in that direction, and I feel confident that we’ll get there.
Chris Anderson: I mean, right now, if you’ve got a short commute, you can drive, you can get back, you can charge it at home. There isn’t a huge nationwide network of charging stations now that are fast. Do you see that coming really truly, or just on a few key routes?