Who is Elon Musk and what is he selling?

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars.  More precisely, he wants you or me to go. It’s a bad idea.

Apart from provisioning and energy problems that are potentially solvable, there are three big problems with a Mars mission: Getting there, getting back and being there. All three problems center around an insolvable radiation problem.

On Earth, molten material under the mantle slowly circles a solid iron core. This produces a dynamo effect generating an electrical current and a corresponding magnetic field. This magnetic field is well known, and is the basis for the simple magnetic compass that has been used for centuries.

This magnetic field also serves to divert away from the earth 99.9% of the radiation and cosmic rays that bathe the universe. The remaining tiny amount that is not diverted is largely blocked by the earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere blocks radiation as effectively as a slab of steel three feet thick.

In sufficient doses, radiation is injurious or even lethal. Acute radiation sickness caused by large doses over a short time, as in Hiroshima or Chernobyl, produces nausea, hemorrhage, inflammation and, in severe cases, death in weeks, days or even hours.

The radiation in space is not likely to produce acute radiation sickness, but something more like chronic radiation sickness which damages DNA molecules, leading to cancer.

Radiation exposure is measured in a unit called “sieverts” which accounts for the combination of intensity of the radiation along with the duration of the exposure. A person on earth at sea level gets maybe 0.003 sieverts a year. A single CT scan exposes him to another 0.010 sieverts or about triple the natural yearly dose.  

A 250-day trip to Mars would incur about 0.66 sieverts of radiation – which comes out to about 66 CT scans. The trip back would subject him to another dose equivalent to 66 CT scans.

It’s not like he’s in the clear while on Mars, either. Unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetic field to divert radiation (presumably because it has no molten insides circulating around a solid metallic core). And while Mars evidently once had an atmosphere, solar radiation that was un-diverted by the non-existent magnetic field stripped away nearly all of that atmosphere billions of years ago. So our hapless astronaut will continue being subjected to full strength radiation for his time there.

Altogether, if he went to Mars, stayed there nine months and came back to earth, he’d get about 2.0 sieverts or the radiation equivalent of about 200 CT scans.

Experts believe that a cumulative sievert dose of half that – about 1.0 sieverts – produces lethal cancer in a significant number of patients. There are probably several reasons there’s no life on Mars, but this radiation problem is one of them. Any life would be short-lived. A mission to Mars is a suicide mission.

Elon Musk is not famous for wanting to send you and me to Mars, of course, but for founding the electric car company called Tesla. In that, he’s been very successful. The market value of Tesla is now over $800 billion, compared to $77 billion for GM and $44 billion for Ford.

Tesla has corned the automobile stock market, but not exactly the automobile market itself.  Tesla’s share of the U.S. automobile market is stuck at around a few percent. In Europe, it trails VW in even the electric car market.

Like the mission to Mars, electric cars face some difficult technical problems. On the one hand, an electric car is an elegantly simple machine. Electric motors have been perfected over the course of the last century to be efficient and reliable. An electric vehicle can do away with a transmission because low-rpm torque is very strong in an electric motor. Because nothing is combusted in a Tesla, there’s no need for emission controls.

But then there’s the battery. A Tesla battery weighs over a thousand pounds. For that, you get a range of a couple hundred miles, after which you have to recharge it for hours (you get maybe 15-25 miles per hour of charge) or even overnight.

Moore’s law in semiconductors said for decades that technological improvements in design and manufacturing doubled the performance of microchips every two years. Do the math. That meant that every ten years the performance of microchips increased 32-fold. Over a period of twenty years, they increased nearly 1,000-fold.

There’s no Moore’s Law for batteries. Battery technology is stubbornly static. Since they were invented in the 1980’s, the price of lithium batteries has dropped as manufacturing has improved. But they’re still heavy, expensive and time-consuming to recharge. There’s no battery breakthrough just around the corner.

As with Musk’s idea to send you and me to Mars, however, his electric car company is creative and capturing. He recognized from the outset that electric cars need to be cool, not some eco-box. Tesla’s first car was a roadster. And a pretty hot one to boot. Now his cars are on the large side, with luxury top to bottom and acceleration and handling rivaling a BMW sports coupe. 

Musk reminds me of another creative marketer, Steve Jobs. Apple is a one-hit wonder with the iPhone. It changed the way we use computers and phones. But that was well over a decade ago. Since then, Apple products are solid but not ground-breaking. A high-end Android phone is superior to the current iPhones, and at a lower price.

But Jobs was never about technical innovation as much as marketing genius. He knew that the key to success was to make computers cool, not to make them better. He succeeded.

Similarly, Musk has made electric cars cool. Someday maybe someone will make them better.

Musk does have some steak to sell along with all the sizzle. In a minor (for him) venture, he’s backing a company working on implanting computer chips into the brains of physically disabled patients for the purpose of intercepting brain waves that try to control their non-responsive muscles. The chips would then communicate with machines outside the patient’s body to perform those functions. In other words, it’s a robot controllable by brainwaves.

This sounds like snake oil, but I think it will be a reality within a decade or two. The results will be miraculous. The wheelchair bound will walk again – and run.

When not promoting his electric car company or saving disabled persons, Musk tweets. He recently descended into day trader cryptocurrency tweeting. Other tweets have gotten him in hot water with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He recently designed a whacky “yoke” style steering wheel for Tesla cars.

He’s publicly feuded with California politicians over their stupid wokeness. He recently relocated to Texas where, naturally, he plans to drill for gas.

It may have been Einstein who once said “I have so many good ideas because I have so many ideas.” Elon Musk might be that way. Maybe by thinking so far outside the box that he occasionally loses sight of the box – maybe by giving free rein to his creative mind and sorting through lots of bad ideas – he comes up with some great ones. Einstein himself had only one or two great ideas, but they changed physics forever.

When Musk comes up with a zinger, he’s got the marketing savvy and now the celebrity status and wealth to run with them. I’m skeptical about Tesla’s long-term future, but don’t count out Elon Musk.

16 thoughts on “Who is Elon Musk and what is he selling?

  1. I’ve long been intrigued with the thought that Musk could be a non-fiction Francisco d’Anconia (from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, as I’m sure you know). His cars are, as you say, good, but the whole electric car hype is based on real problems like the carbon produced in generating electricity, the simple availability of enough electricity by any means to support nationwide (or even California-wide) electric transportation, and the serious pollutants unleashed in the manufacture and ultimate disposal of the batteries and cars. His battery and Solar City initiatives are money sinks necessary to prolong the all-electric dream. His rockets seem to work, but that’s a fairly small market. Yet he’s sucked an incomprehensible amount of money out of investors and other fools betting mostly on his supposed genius. Wouldn’t it be spectacle if he one day simply shrugs and walks away laughing/

  2. Great write-up, especially popping the reality bubble concerning travel to and the colonizing of Mars. You are very correct about the radiation problem on Mars due to little or no magnetic field.

    I had read this article a while back that also cited that Mars only has about 0.6% of the atmospheric air pressure that Earth has. If this is the case, humans would be living in a virtual vacuum on the surface of the planet while also contending with massive radiation exposure that you cited and also the effects of less gravity to the body.

    It could very well take millions of years for humans to engineer a suitable atmosphere on Mars, if ever. It would be much more feasible and realistic to build a base on the Moon; the trips are shorter and humans could do work/research there for determined periods and return back home to Earth in a few days.

    Ref. https://gizmodo.com/humans-will-never-colonize-mars-1836316222

  3. I am no expert on Lithium Ion batteries.
    However, 6 months before retiring, my company converted its fleet of double wide forklifts, the big ones, to them. They operate 24/7. I was a driver, loading trucks non stop 8 hours per day, 20 tons per loaded trailer. The batteries needed only brief 15 -40 minute recharges during breaks and shift changes , maybe 3 times in an 8 hour period to maintain a sufficient charge. The lifts weigh as much as a car, plus toting nearly two tons per load trip.
    It leaves me wondering just why the typical car needs such extensive recharging periods.
    Agree on the many technical aspects of space travel. Huge hurdles to overcome.

    • Are you sure those were lithium ion batteries or were they lead acid batteries. We use heavy Scissor lifts at work that run on lead acid batteries and only have to charge them every few days.

  4. That was a curious column. I admire Elon Musk for many reasons, including his willingness to keep social/political fashion at arms length. I assume he has a response to your radiation concerns, or is working on it and believes a solution is at hand. I see Musk as a visionary more than a marketer, although he is that too. Likewise, marketing was one of Jobs’ many skills, but he was not as technically brilliant as Musk. Apple made excellent computers long before it made phones. Apple’s quality declined after Job’s death. The MacBook Pro on which I am typing this comment is more powerful, but lower reliability than the one I owned before it, which was more powerful, but lower reliability than the one I owned before it. Rumors offer explanations for why, but you seem to be correct that the company now only innovates around the margins.

  5. I kept waiting for you to mention Elon’s successful rocket business. I think the whole Mars colonization thing is a joke. Won’t ever happen. That doesn’t mean they won’t throw a lot of “our money” at it. Another great article.

  6. Agree completely about Musk. He can get pretty whacky sometimes, but he’s a visionary, he throws a lot of things at the wall, and sometimes they stick. He created the first successful electric car company, the first one to really popularize EVs, and provided a crucial push to the entire auto industry. He created a freaking rocket company, a successful one! Strange how people so readily tear down commercial success because it wasn’t “the first”. Lots of great ideas remain unknown or underutilized because they weren’t succesfully commercialized. That’s as important as the original seed idea. We need more Elon Musks.

  7. Tesla has never made any money. Every dime of money comes from Carbon Credits he sells to all other car manufacturers, he has billions to sell because he doesn’t make ANY fossil fuel cars

      • Like rocketing off to Mars, investing in Bitcoin is an attempt to escape the malfeasance of governments and other ominous realities of the natural world. He’s attempting to outwit the Apocalypse, instead of doing the hard work of trying to reform human hearts and minds. Too clever by half.

  8. Why does this guy make me think of Howard Hughes? When he gives us his Spruce Goose of a spacecraft, and no one cares, will his big, blooming, buzzing brain wind up like that of Hughes?

    And why do both men remind me of Shelley’s epitaph for Ozymandias — “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” — while all around the lone and level sands stretch away?

  9. He is selling internet access to areas deemed not profitable enough to provide fiber for $580 down and $99.00 a month. Promising 150 mb download speed and later 300 mb download speed to customers used to 1 – 5 mb download. It’s going to speed up the depopulation of the cities and accelerate the rot and fall of major cities.

    • Glad to see mention of his low-orbit sat communication network now in beta. It may turn out to be Musk’s most important innovation for large numbers of people previously estranged from real internet communication.

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