The inventor-entrepreneur talks to Maxim about conquering space, competing with Big Oil, and the future of humanity.
Illustration by DKNG Studios
Yesterday, billionaire inventor, entrepreneur, and Internet mogul Elon Musk presented his plans for the Hyperloop, a solar-powered, supersonic train which would travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 30 minutes. According to Musk – a co-founder of Paypal who parlayed the money he made selling that company into Tesla Motors and SpaceX – the Hyperloop train would travel at 800 miles per hour, and cost much less than a plane. “You could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco that leave every 30 seconds,” Musk told Businessweek. “It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland.” Though it may sound closer to science fiction than science, if anyone could pull this off it’s Musk. With Tesla Motors, he created the “highest performing, highest-rated all-electric car” in existence, while SpaceX was the first private company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station. He was also one of the inspirations for Tony "Iron Man" Stark, and has been linked to a number of Hollywood starlets. Earlier this year, Musk discussed his various endeavors with Maxim. Here, the complete interview.
When you were getting started in business, did you have any idea how wide-ranging your various pursuits would be?
I’ve always been interested in things I thought would affect human destiny—the Internet, sustainable energy, and space. As it turned out I’ve been able to be involved in all three of those areas. Of course there’s a long way to go, but if you’d asked me back then if I would be involved in space travel I would have said “No.” When I started PayPal, it wasn’t about making a lot of money. Actually, I never thought I’d make a lot of money from the Internet, because nobody had yet.
Courtesy of SpaceX
I always wondered whether humanity could become a multi-planet species or not, because if we could, it would be a huge thing for the future, and I was kind of puzzled as to why we hadn’t made more progress in space. Why have we not sent anyone to Mars? I kept expecting it would occur, and then year after year nothing happened. Finally, I looked into it and was surprised to discover there wasn’t even a plan to go to Mars! So when I had a little money, I decided to do something about it.
Courtesy of SpaceX
With Tesla, SpaceX, and the Hyperloop, you’ve really taken on the future of transportation, but it almost seems like we’re going backwards. There’s no more Space Shuttle, no more Concord.
I know, it’s terrible that the Concord is no more, it's a very sad situation. Radical innovation tends to be driven by new entrants to an industry, whereas the big incumbents tend to savor minor incremental improvement, and actually can sometimes go backwards. The issue with, say, aircraft is that you have this duopoly between Airbus and Boeing, and the safest thing that the CEO of either company can do is make a plane that’s 5% better than the last one. And as long as they both agree, so as long as they both have their jobs secure, that’s all they do. This tends to be true of most industries where there are large incumbent interests, and it’s true to some degree in the car business. The car business is more competitive than the aircraft business, but in the US there are three big car companies, and the youngest of them is Chrysler at about 90.
You’ve also been a big champion of sustainable energy. Are these various industries tough to crack while still maintaining that focus?
Big Oil is certainly problematic. I mean, you can’t expect any kind of corporate entity to just roll over and die; they’re going to try and protect themselves except. In the case of Big Oil they just have an ungodly amount of money. Until Apple recently overtook them, ExxonMobil for ages and ages was the most valuable company in the world. They make 10 billion dollars in profit every quarter, so they can buy every politician in DC and barely notice it.
Courtesy of SpaceX
Teslas run on electricity, and the Hyperloop would be solar powered. Do you think Big Oil and the auto industry will embrace or develop these technologies?
Every now and again one of the big oil companies does, say, buy a solar power company or something like that, but it’s difficult. For a while BP were calling themselves “beyond petroleum,” which was extremely untrue, of course. They are anything but beyond petroleum.
How do you balance being a good global citizen with being a successful businessman?
Well, there are certainly easier ways to make money than the car business or the space business or the solar business. I think one could spend a lot less effort and make a lot more money in other industries than those three. But I do think there is a lot of opportunity in those areas because so few people are competing in those arenas. Still, it is a ridiculously tough battle.
Courtesy of SpaceX
Do you feel like you came along at the right point in history to take on all these different projects?
Yeah, I feel like I’m here at the right time. If not for the Internet, where it’s possible to start with no capital and end up with a valuable company, it would have taken me a long time to build up these other businesses. It’s important to remember that being a good global citizen and a good businessman are not mutually exclusive.
Read more about Musk in Meet the Real-Life Tony Stark and Woman With a Tool.