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Musk’s other ideas

Four other adventurous Elon Musk ideas that could disrupt everything

A file photo of Musk unveiling Tesla’s electric car, Powerwall, and solar roof in Los Angeles. Photo: Nichola Groom/Reuters
A file photo of Musk unveiling Tesla’s electric car, Powerwall, and solar roof in Los Angeles. Photo: Nichola Groom/Reuters


When state voters approved the California high-speed-rail project in 2008, Musk was “quite disappointed". In a document that appeared on the SpaceX website in August 2013, he says, “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley…would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"

He proposed Hyperloop, an ultra-high-speed transport system that uses magnetic levitation to make a passenger pod zip through a futuristic vacuum tube. That idea has translated into Hyperloop Transportation Systems, which is aiming to transport pods at speeds of up to 1,300 kmph. The estimated cost for the system is $40 million (around Rs271.6 crore) per kilometre.

Among Hyperloop’s proposed projects is a track between Mumbai and Pune. They have approached Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari and are awaiting approval to conduct feasibility studies. If the project is successful, the travel time between the two cities would be cut to 25 minutes.

Is this sci-fi journey truly possible? One of its most famous critics is mathematician and transport blogger Alon Levy, who says the proposed lateral acceleration and the angle at which the pod will travel will cause Hyperloop to be a “barf ride".

Screws being inserted into a Dryvac compressing screw vacuum pump. Photo: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Submarine Car

A month after publishing the Hyperloop document, Musk hurtled into another project. He bought James Bond’s iconic Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me at a London auction, for £616,000 (around Rs5.2 crore), with a desire to make the car’s movie transformation—from land vehicle to submarine—a reality.

In June, a viral video showed a Tesla Model S (one of the cars made by Musk’s electric car company, Tesla Motors) driving through a flooded tunnel in Kazakhstan. Musk tweeted: “We *def* don’t recommended (sic) this, but Model S floats well enough to turn it into a boat for short periods of time. Thrust via wheel rotation."

A few minutes later, another tweet: “If curious abt TSWLM car, am still planning to do a sports sub car that can drive on roads. Just a side project. Limited market potential :)"

The “side project" needs testing, of course, but it may be easier to get an electric car to go under water since it doesn’t have an exhaust.


Musk has often spoken of his fear that robots will take over the world. OpenAI is his non-profit mission to build “safe" artificial intelligence. Musk’s idea is to give as many people as possible the ability to build AI, so that no one person or one organization has control over it and can manipulate it. OpenAI is trying to get researchers to publish and share their papers, code or patents, and collaborate with companies and institutes, so that this research can build value for the world at large.

Sam Altman, president of start-up accelerator Y Combinator, is Musk’s co-chair on the project.

In November, OpenAI struck up a partnership with Microsoft to run their large-scale experiments on the company’s cloud-computing platform, Azure.

OpenAI’s strategy is counter-intuitive. As philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it, “If you have a button that could do bad things to the world, you don’t want to give it to everyone." Other critics have made the point that having open-source AI research will also mean robots can use it to build other robots, which may actually lead to the very thing Musk is afraid of: AI taking over.


Musk’s vision is ambitious: to harness enough solar energy to produce all the power the human race needs. His cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, used Musk’s concepts to found SolarCity in 2006—Musk remained the company’s chairman and majority stakeholder. Earlier this year, Tesla acquired SolarCity as its subsidiary. The two are now meant to be collaborating on integrated products.

Last month, a blog on the SolarCity website said the company has made the remote island of Ta’u in American Samoa, 4,000 miles from the US west coast, almost entirely solar powered. SolarCity built a solar-power and battery-storage microgrid that can satisfy almost all the power needs of the island’s 600 residents.

They are also working on a new roof tile project that is likely “to make solar-roof panels as appealing as electric cars", Musk said at the November launch event. “Electricity is just a bonus," he added. “So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less and—by the way—generates electricity? Why would you get anything else?"

Though some have dismissed the solar roofs as a pipe dream aimed at marketing the Tesla-SolarCity merger to fans and investors, this is another Musk idea that, if successful, can completely change the way we live.

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