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The way Musk sees it, his three businesses are really all about changing society in marvelous ways. SpaceX will expand man’s horizons infinitely, and the Tesla electric car and SolarCity’s popularization of solar energy will help solve the energy crisis here on Earth, thus enabling the world to expand technologically—in an environmentally sound manner.

“I think you have to enjoy what you are doing. Otherwise, it is hard to do it,” says Musk. “There are three things you look for: You have to look forward in the morning to doing your work. You do want to have a significant financial reward. And you want to have a possible effect on the world. If you can find all three, you have something you can tell your children.”

For an admitted fan of fast, stylish cars it is hard to imagine something more fun—and more possibly world-affecting—than Musk’s involvement with the Tesla, the first all-electric roadster ( Musk has invested upwards of $70 million in the startup (not by him this time; Tesla was founded by Silicon Valley electrical engineer Martin Eberhard) and has since taken over the company’s chairmanship. Named after Nikola Tesla, the early-20th-century Slavic inventor and electrical theorist, the car runs about 220 miles on a charge, is sleek and fast, and costs about $100,000. It’s the kind of thing George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger have put deposits on. Musk himself is the proud owner of the seminal test model, Tesla No. 1.

“Tesla is important because it shows people that you can be sporty and good for the environment—that you don’t have to give up something that is fun to be conscious of the Earth,” says Musk. “I certainly intend to make money on it, too.”

The company started delivery of its pre-ordered roadsters in July, producing about four cars per week initially, which will increase to about 100 per month by December, according to a post on its website by Tesla president and CEO Ze’ev Drori. By the end of 2009, Musk hopes to be selling as many as 10,000 Teslas, some at $50,000, and to eventually have a model that will sell for $30,000. The firm has already opened two showrooms, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles and in Menlo Park, California, next door to Stanford.

“Our product is good for the country, good for the world, and good for the environment,” says Drori, a long-time Silicon Valley technology executive whom Musk installed a year ago after a long-running dispute with Eberhard, who left the company in January 2008. Drori acknowledges that even though Musk spends most of his time these days with SpaceX, he still has a lot of hands-on suggestions at Tesla.

“Look, Elon is a very creative guy, very intelligent,” says Drori. “He knows about cars. He definitely knows about technology. And he clearly knows about business, so why would I not take his advice? He is the face of this company. After all, he put a lot of money in it, so why can’t he be the face?” Musk’s celebrity could be a key to the company’s success, Drori adds. “He is well-known, which certainly puts Tesla ahead of other electric cars, as far as marketing them.”

Musk is a little less directly active in his most recent investment, a reported $10 million commitment to SolarCity, an innovative solar-panel leasing business run by his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive.

“We went to Elon and he knew immediately how to modify our idea,” says Lyndon Rive. “The barrier to getting individuals to use solar power was the up-front cost of installing the panels.” SolarCity now arranges financing for leases on the equipment for the homeowners or businesses, so the panels are rented rather than owned by the customer. Customers usually use less energy, so those savings help offset the monthly rental on the panels, resulting in overall reductions on energy bills.

“We’re in the vanguard here in California, and we will soon be in Arizona and Oregon,” says Rive. “But what has made us go is our association with Elon. He is one of the few people in the world to have extreme talent in technicality—that engineering and technical background—and, at the same time, in business. It is rare you have an individual like that. Then you add his passion to make the world a better place.”

That passion for whatever he sets his mind to can sometimes look more like obsession, to colleagues and rivals alike. “Yes, there is something about Elon that he has to work 18 hours a day, it seems,” Rive says. “You tell him to slow down and he speeds up. You would think he wouldn’t need the money or the aggravation any more, but that is the way he is.”

Musk acknowledges this view—but to him it looks more like freedom. “I came to the United States because this was the one place where all of this was possible—to make your fortune, but to also realize dreams,” he says. “On the other hand, you can’t just dream, you have to work hard at it.

“If I have to be accused of something, I am happy to have it be that.”

Robert Strauss is a freelance journalist and teaches writing at Penn.


The Next, Next Thing By Robert Strauss

“Tesla is important because it shows people
that you can be sporty and good for the
environment,” says Musk.

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  ©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/08