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Shit Elon Says - Transcript - Elon Musk: Q&A Session at University of California

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What questions can I answer?

[Spare battery for a Tesla?] It is not practical to carry an extra battery pack in an electric vehicle. So for the battery pack swap there would have to be some kind of swap station. However if you have a 300 mile range car, you're really not talking about a lot of swap stations. You just need say one between LA and San Francisco. And then there's the question as to whether people will want to swap battery packs rather than simply park their car at a highway rest stop, grab a meal or a coffee, hit the restroom, come back in 20 or 30 minutes and you're recharged enough to complete the journey. I think most people will probably do that. But we wanted to preserve the optionality of a fast pack swap just in case there were people in a hurry.

[What about Project Better Place?] Right, so Better Place actually got the idea for battery pack swapping from Tesla, when Shai Agassi came and visited. We told him that we were going to incorporate battery pack swapping, and he was like 'Oh, good idea!' So yeah. Not that I think it's a genius move - you have cellphones and laptops that have battery packs that swap. But we're not currently working with Better Place. Not that we don't like them or anything, but we don't see any technical advantage or anything to working with them. It is not obvious how we'd make the consumer experience better with Better Place.

[How much propellant does Dragon need to land?] Well, it's sort of on the order of 1000 pounds of propellant that you need to expend to land propulsively.

Well, the rocket booster is what delivers you to a parking orbit, then you use a little bit of propellant to maneuver over to the space station, then depart from the space station, initiate a deorbit burn, control your reentry during the descent phase. In total there's about 3000 pounds of propellant, so you use maybe 1000 in terms of getting to the space station and departing and deorbiting, about 1000 on landing, and you'd have probably 1000 spare, roughly speaking. Now if there were something unusual that happened like you had to temporarily abort an approach to the Space Station, then you might use another 500 pounds of propellant or something like that. We will actually still have parachutes as an emergency on Dragon. So you test the engines at say a couple miles of altitude, make sure they're working, if they're not then you deploy the emergency parachutes. Kinda like the Cirrus aircraft [recovery parachute].

[Question about Model S production] It's not yet in production! On a go-forward basis, most of the engineering is done. We're at the 90% engineering complete stage right now. The factory - we were fortunate in being able to purchase the NUMMI factory in California which was jointly owned by Toyota and GM, although in recent years it's only been making Toyota products. It's where they made the Carolla and the Tacoma. So we were able to buy (at a very good price!) a great factory, and thus minimize the incremental tooling cost to produce the Model S. So there's an existing paint shop, so we only have to modify a paint shop instead of building one from scratch. There's stamping machines and all sorts of things there that are helpful.

The two biggest milestones this year I think probably getting our stamping line operational, to stamp the aluminum body for the aluminum body panels. The Model S is actually going to be the only aluminum car made in North America. The Audi A8 and a few of the advanced German cars are aluminum, but currently there are no aluminum passenger vehicles made in the United States. Although for me, coming from the space arena, it's like, 'obviously you'd make it out of aluminum. What else would you make it out of?' Steel is really heavy and not great.

And then the second thing is the paint shop. Painting a car is actually really difficult, if you want to get a spectacular paint job. And we're aiming for something which we call a 'piano finish,' like the kind you'd see on a grand piano. Something that's noticeably better than any other car. So that's a high bar, particularly to do so without adding a lot of cost to the process. So we're optimistic that we'll get maybe not all the way there, but most of the way there. Those are the big production milestones this year.

I'm not getting a lot of hands. Somebody way in the back of the room!

[Question about Musk's statements on existential risks to humanity] There will certainly be issues that we have to deal with. But by less than one percent, I mean less than one percent annihilation of humanity. Even if we do massively increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, it is unlikely to result in the annihilation of humanity. It could kill a few hundred million people due to rising sea levels and that kind of thing, which is obviously not good, but it's not an annihilation event. But if you look at the fossil history, there have been several annihilation events, mostly due to meteors of one kind or another, possibly some due to supervolcanoes, and some due to who knows what.

So we obvious suffer from some risk of a similar annihilation event, and potentially something man made like a supervirus. It could be something like with the CERN Large Hadron Collider potentially could see a press release saying, 'the good news is we've discovered a new law of physics. The bad news is there's a small black hole that's rapidly growing.' Now I think that's extremely unlikely, to be clear, but you know, we've discovered new laws of physics before.

[Question about pitching an idea] Well, I'm not a venture capitalist. People sometimes think I am a venture capitalist, but actually I am... uhh, I am an engineer. So when I apply capital it is to my own companies, and occasionally to the companies of close friends of mine, where I do zero due dilligence and I just basically invest on the basis that I think they're good and likely to succeed. So I'm not the guy to pitch on ideas to be funded, because that's what a venture capitalist does. It's better to pitch a venture capitalist.

[What about a space related idea?] Well, I suppose if it were to help the space program. I would be quite surprised if that were the case. But it's possible, yeah.

[How different would a reusable spacecraft look?] It would look a little bit different, but not that much. My view on reuseability is you have to take the first stage basically has to turn around, re-light its engines, boost back to the launch pad, and land propulsively. It's tricky, [but] it's very doable.

And the second stage, the second stage is harder because you're pound for pound trade-off with payload. Any mass that you add - in terms heat shield or reentry systems, is directly subtracted from the amount you can put into orbit. Whereas the first stage is anywhere from a 5:1 to 10:1 ratio. So you add 10 pounds of mass and it takes away one pound of payload. And there's also a lot more you have to do with the second stage. You need a much more significant heat shield, you have to de-orbit the stage, control it during reentry, it's got to have some lift-over-drag so that you can steer back to the launch site, and then you've got to either propulsively land or perhaps use a parafoil or something like that. All those things cost mass.

But that's kinda how I think it can and should be done. That basic architecture is what we're going to try to do. The trick is to do it with- just very mass efficiently. You've only got that three, maybe three and a half percent of mass to play with, and you want to try to get say 2 percent of your liftoff mass to orbit. So that only leaves about one and a half percent for everything else, which is not much.

[Question about super heavy lift and cyclers] Yeah, I think long term you'd see that sort of thing. And maybe even in the initial phase. It kind of depends on whether the United States builds a super heavy lift or not, like a Saturn V class vehicle. If you have a Saturn V class vehicle you don't need to do on-orbit assembly. If you have something smaller than that then you do if you want to go to Mars. So it kind of depends on how things unfold in that direction. I think it would be great to have a super heavy lift vehicle. If it's done in the typical government way I think it will not come to fruition, because of massive schedule overruns and massive cost overruns. So it really depends on whether NASA decides to take a commercial approach to super heavy lift, if there will be super heavy lift and obviate the need for on orbit construction.

And you know, when there's a lot of traffic between Earth and Mars I would expect there'd be some large space cruiser that's circulating between Earth and Mars, and you just take a small shuttle craft up to the space cruiser if you will, and the space cruiser gets refueled from Earth or from Mars. But that's a long term optimization, and it would be driven by a lot of traffic occurring between the two planets.

[Question about NASA, funding] Well I think it's generally good. Well NASA's our biggest customer for SpaceX, so they certainly are huge on the customer front. About 40% of our launches are for NASA. They haven't- they did pay for demonstration flights, so they were sort of a quasi-funder, but it was specifically for their needs. So it wasn't just sort of, 'here is some money, do what you want,' it's, 'we have this specific need. We'll pay you as you demonstrate milestones in that direction.'

In the case of Tesla we were fortunate enough to receive a government loan last year, which was unrelated to the bilout. Unfortunately it was announced at the same time as the bailout, so people assumed it was somehow bailout, but the loan we received was actually part of a program that was initiated in 2007 in boom times, and one of the requirements of that loan program was that you had to be a viable entity in your own right, and provide 20-30% of private capital as a matching contribution. Which therefore excluded for example GM and Chrysler, who were bankrupt. So Ford, Nissan, and Tesla did receive essentially lines of credit, which in our case were specifically related to the engineering and production costs of the Model S. So it was certainly helpful from a capital dilution standpoint. If we repay the loan early then there's no capital dilution, but if we don't repay the loan early then the U.S. Government gets a bunch of stock warrants in Tesla. So in the grand scheme of things of all the various government deals that are done, I think this is one of the smarter ones.

[Renewable electricity sources] There will be many sources of electricity that are sustainable. Wind, geothermal, hydro... but my personal view is that we'll generate more electricity from solar than any other single source. It may not be a majority, but I expect at least a plurality from solar power. That will be a combination of photovoltaics at the point of use - the roofs of houses and businesses, which is also good from the standpoint of not requiring additional power lines. And then at the power plant level I think we'll see a lot of solar thermal generation. Where essentially you're just using the sun to heat a working fluid, and then steam and power a turbine. There are a bunch of those projects that are going to come online in California and other places in the united states soon.

And if you think of solar power, beyond humanity's need for electricity, the Earth is almost entirely solar powered. The entire weather system is solar powered, (almost the entire weather system is solar powered, some of it is from Earth rotation). All precipitation is solar powered. The only reason we're not a frozen dark ice ball at four degrees kelvin is because of the sun. The whole ecosystem is solar powered. Plants are essentially a solar powered chemical reaction. So really we're just talking about replacing this itty-bitty thing called electricity and having that also be solar powered.

[Question about competitor's electric cars] That was the intent! That was the whole idea.

No, I don't think so. Like I said, the whole purpose of Tesla was to draw the car industry into electric cars. So I'm- the more electric car programs more I see announced the happier I am. "The success of Tesla as a company financially is going to be a function of the quality of the products that we produce. So we have to make better cars than, say, GM and Chrysler. I don't see that as a huge challenge." *laugh*

The sad thing is that generally in the United States, if someone can afford an expensive car, they do not buy an American car. And I think it's- I think in the 60s the U.S. made great cars, and before that made great cars, but then something happened in the 70s. I don't know what happened. A lot of bad things... architecture went to hell, fashion was questionable, and our cars turned to shit. As a friend of mine summarized, the Tesla strategy long term is to make cars that don't suck.

So I think we'll be ok. There's some vindication in that Toyota, which is the the largest car company in the world and the leader in hybrids is an investor and partner with Tesla. If it was easy, they would simply do it themselves and not bother to partner with us. Daimler was the inventor of the internal combustion engine car, and the maker of Mercedes and Smart, and again they would not ask us to be a supplier to then nor would they be an investor in Tesla if they thought it was a simple matter to replicate what we are doing.

[Question about aluminum in cars, price] No, aluminum is great. The Audi A8 is an aluminum car. All the airplanes you fly are mostly aluminum. Aluminum is a little harder to work with in terms of bonding and joining. It's harder to weld than steel for example. So it's technologically more difficult to work with, but it's a superior metal for anything that weight is important. That's why planes are not made of steel. In fact, the Model S, our design target is to meet five star crash rating by 2012 standards, which are higher than... a car that's five star by 2010 standards is only a three star by 2012 standards. So we have a very high bar we're aiming for from a safety standpoint. And obviously I'll be driving the car, my friends will be driving the car, our beloved shareholders will be driving the car, so safety is extremely important. I don't think there will be a safer car on the road.

Oh sorry. So the price, it's kind of like the 5-series BMW, so depending upon configuration it would vary from about $50,000 to about $100,000.

[Question about outsourcing] I generally think that there's been a bit too much outsourcing in general. Both outsourcing out of California and outsourcing out of the United States. Businesses sometimes tend to be a little sort of fad-y. For a very long time there was a very strong outsourcing fad. But I don't think people really looked at the fundamentals in a lot of cases when they outsourced. Particularly when the technology is developing rapidly, it's important to have a very tight iteration loop between engineering and production, so as soon as you design something you can bring it to production right away. And the the engineers can go on the floor and see the mistakes that they've made, the production people can talk to engineers and say, 'here are some good ideas,' and so you can evolve the product and get to a better design solution faster. I think this is an important thing that's often overlooked. At SpaceX our rockets are lower cost than the Chinese, the Indians, anyone else, and that's before reuseability is taken into account. I think it's largely because of that tight iteration loop.

And in the case of Tesla, the Freemont plant, the NUMMI plant, until April 1st of last year they made the Corolla there which is a $17,000 car. So if it was fundamentally too expensive to operate in California, how could they make a $17,000 car? So I think in California we do need to be cautious about adding more and more costs to living here. I do think we're close to- we're on the cusp of a tipping point, I think if the taxes start getting much higher than they are- in California the marginal tax rate is 11%, you could go to say Washington and pay 0%. So it's an expensive place to live. I like living in California. So I'm here, but I know many people people who have moved out because the taxes are too high, or workers comp and other costs are too high. California does tend to over-regulate a bit. So I think generally California is going to have a real tough thing to do, which is it's got to cut the cost of what it spends on the state level, and maybe even reduce the taxes a little bit to be competitive with other states, and deregulate. Those are the things that could be done to increase employment in California. Politically these are difficult things to do, and I'm not entirely sure how California gets out of this bind. It might have to be a proposition or something, because the legislature seems to be unable to arrive at anything sensible.

[Question about material limitations] No, no material limitation in space. Silicon, don't worry about silicon from a limitation standpoint - there's lots of silicon. Copper is probably OK too. There's quite a lot of copper in the world. For battery packs, one of the challenges we had was cobalt actually, cobalt is only available in a few places in the world, it's quite expensive, and one of the biggest source is the Congo, which tends to vary in its political stability. That's why going to the Model S we changed the chemistry to require only about a quarter as much cobalt, and thus reduce the cost of the battery pack, and also increase the energy of the pack.

If you're going to worry about any material shortages, maybe some rare Earth elements are maybe a concern. China has a huge concentration of rare Earth elements which are used in permanent magnet motors. To avoid that issue, well actually there are other reasons as well, but Tesla uses an electric motor design that doesn't use any rare Earth elements. I wouldn't worry about it too much on the commodity front, except on the non-reusable commodities like oil and that type of thing. By the way, oil's gonna go way way way up, if anyone's wondering.

[Question about charging infrastructure] I'm not too worried about recharging stations. The great thing about electricity is that it's really ubiquitous. There are more power outlets than anything. There are more power outlets than access to any other kind of power by orders of magnitude. In the case of Tesla and most of the new electric cars that are coming out, the charger is built into the car so you can charge it anywhere. If you want to charge fast, you're going to need a high power outlet. What we're seeing with use of the Roadster is that almost all charging happens at home. Ninety percent plus.

Now it is important that you've got to have a range that's reasonable. So if you've got a 50 mile range, then you can't do a lot of round trips. 25 miles is your max, and you're being really sporting if you do that. As you reduce the range, you start to require a lot of charging stations, but as you increase the range the number of charging stations you need tends to drop with the square of the range. So you've got a circle you can travel in, so the bigger that circle is the fewer recharging stations you need. For something like the Tesla Roaster, you only need one charging station between LA and San Francisco. It's a 400 mile trip, you've got 250 miles of range, so you need one charge station. But if you have a 50 mile range you'd need probably 10 charging stations. 8-10 charging stations. So I think you'll really only see a lot of useful charging stations, at least as far as Tesla cars are concerned, on the interstates. So when you're making really long distance trips, that kind of thing. But otherwise not a lot.

[Question about insourcing] In the case of SpaceX, unfortunately the supply chain in the rocket business is very shallow. Very often there's only one supplier, and it's a very expensive supplier, and they're really not designed for reuseability, so you're screwed if you don't make it yourself basically, for the most part. So that's lead to SpaceX being maybe 70-80% of the rocket being built in-house, literally from raw material. I guess another way to look at it is, to the degree that you inherit the legacy components, you inherit the legacy cost structure and limitations. So it's not from any sort of religious bias toward insourcing, but rather on the fundamentals we were driven to do that. In the case of Tesla the automotive supply chain is much better. It's much more competitive, there are many suppliers for any given component, and so maybe 40-50% of the Tesla Model S is insourced.

[Will parts of your rocket be used in other programs?] You mean use parts that are in our rocket in something else that they're doing? Not yet. There have been a few inquiries about using our engines in some other programs, which we've responded to, and it could happen that our engines are used in some other government programs.

[Question about heavy lift] We do. Yeah. Just to distinguish between heavy list and super heavy lift, because there are rockets like our Falcon Heavy, there's the Delta IV Heavy, and these are on the order of- in the case of the Delta IV Heavy it's maybe 25 tons to orbit, in the case of Falcon 9 Heavy it's maybe 30, 35 tons to orbit. But compared to the Saturn V, which was over 100 tons to orbit, there's a pretty big difference there. So generally we call that super heavy, in the 100 ton plus class. SpaceX would really like to build a super heavy, and I think we could do it for a small fraction of what what people think it would cost. "I've gone on record as saying I think we could do a super heavy development for on the order of two and a half billion, other estimates are about 10 times that. And the super heavy that I'm alluding to would have about a 160 ton to orbit capability, so way more than a Saturn V. In fact, I've even gone as far as to say that I will guarantee that personally. And stake everything on SpaceX that it will happen. So, I mean we'll see."

There are strong political forces that don't want us to do that, so I'm trying to eliminate any argument that they could have for not at least allocating a small portion of the super heavy lift funding to give us a shot at making it work. They can take all the rest of the super heavy lift funding and apply it to the traditional way, we will take the sort of 10-20% of that number on a fixed milestone basis (so if we don't achieve the milestone, we don't get paid), and I will personally guarantee it. So if we don't achieve the milestones then that money can then be applied to the other programs, so it's a no-lose proposition. But logic does not always prevail.

[Question about the federal government] I think Tesla will be ok. Actually on balance the federal government has been helpful to Tesla. In the space arena... Man, this is a complicated situation. Out of budget necessity, NASA has gone commercial as far as cargo transport is concerned. And then last year President Obama said, 'we should also outsource astronaut transport to commercial entities. If we can fly Boeing airliners and Airbus airliners and feel good about that, then why can't our spacecraft be built by commercial entities too?' There was a battle royale last year against that, which won by a 3% margin in the House of Representatives. That was a hairy battle. But it is moving in that direction. It's kind of unavoidable. It's going to be that or nothing. So I think it's going to be that. So overall I'm pretty optimistic about it. I probably worry slightly more about, in the space arena, about some of the big government contractors. They would definitely like to see SpaceX die. I'm sure I am being tortured in effigy right now. You know when you see a movie, and there's the bad corporation in the movie that's like the big defense contractors. Those are our competition in a lot of cases.

I'll take a couple more questions, and then...

[Question about suppliers] Yeah, that's happened many times. Actually, we didn't start out insourcing 70-80% of our hardware. Initially we thought, 'well, we'll try to do as little as possible,' but then over time we just insourced more and more out of necessity. And we found many times we'd sign a deal for supply of a component, and then that supplier would find a reason to triple the price. Basically as soon as they thought we didn't have any way out, then they would start with the conclusion which is 'triple the price' and insert reasoning. That's happened several times. And then we've insourced the part to best price, but often with a lot of grief. I'm very pleased with how things are now, but it was very hairy for a couple years there in late 2007 to say the first half of 2009. We came close to not making it.

Last question. Is there anyone I've been ignoring for a long time?

[Question about Virgin Galactic] Richard who? *laugh* No, actually Richard Branson is a friend of mine. He's a very affable guy. He's not a technologist. So he's sort of, his strength is brand and marketing and that sort of thing. He's very good at that. I think going into the rocket game is tricky, because it's very much a technology problem. So I think he's going to encounter some challenges there. Also, what Virgin Galactic is doing is a suborbital flight, which is only about 1.5% of the energy you need to get into orbit. So it is a much simpler problem. Basically you shoot up to about 60-70 miles, and then you fall down. That's essentially what they're doing. It's like the world's best roller coaster ride. So it's like a really fun trip, but it's not a technology path that could ultimately take us off- to other planets, and that kind of thing.

But I think for a lot of people there's not a clear distinction between getting to space and getting to orbit. And space is somewhat of a loose definition, it's kind of 'where does the atmosphere get thin?' And you can sort of define, 'how thin is thin?' It's pretty darn thin at 60 miles altitude, but you can't have a satellite up there because a satellite would, the orbit would decay very quickly and it would reenter. And going up and staying up is actually about how fast you're zooming around the Earth. It takes much more energy to do that zooming around the Earth bit than it is to get to altitude. In fact the only reason you need altitude at all is to get out of atmospheric drag. If the Earth had no atmosphere you could be orbiting Earth at an inch off the ground.

So to get to orbit you need at least to go about 25 times the speed of sound for Earth, and the energy required scales with the square of velocity, so that's say 625 units of energy. To do a suborbital flight such as what Virgin Galactic is talking about you need maybe about Mach 3, which is 9 units of energy. So it's a pretty huge difference. And then if you want to reenter, you have to burn off 625 units of energy, or burn off 9 units of energy. So it's just a giant difference.

So alright, thank you!

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