The Future We Want: The Year in Elon Musk

Elon Musk announcing solar shingles


But what about the future we need?

As a child of the Space Age, I have been watching rocket launches all my life and never tire of them. Last week I watched the latest SpaceX launch and more dramatically, the return of the booster, watching the feed from its cameras as Cape Canaveral got closer and closer, to the incredible landing. Watch the landing at 23:00:

It really is amazing to watch, and if Elon Musk did nothing else in his life, he would go down in history for this spectacular achievement.

But I find his other achievements more problematic. The man is a genius, but I worry about the future he wants, a future of big beautiful suburban houses with Teslas in the garage, Powerwall batteries on the walls, and solar shingles on the roof. Because it is a very expensive future, available to a very small portion of the population.

Tesla 3 from above

Of course, his cars are also amazing. He single-handedly changed electric cars from ugly, underpowered geek-mobiles to serious objects of desire, and his newer, more affordable Model 3 is a huge hit with hundreds of thousands of orders. Even TreeHugger families are in line. I love its minimalist approach, writing:

I have long been a skeptic about Teslas, but I like this car. It’s not too big yet has lots of cargo capacity. But I really like how they have dealt with the interior, how they have simplified it so much. Fundamentally an electric car is much simpler than a gasoline-powered one, and they really have stripped out every unnecessary feature. It might even encourage drivers to keep their eyes on the road because there are so few distractions. I live in hope.

Sami also notes that the car is a lot smarter, storing settings in the cloud so that you can get in any car and have it adjust to your settings. It sounded silly to me, like not one of the world's serious problems, but Sami thinks it's important:

This, however, should remove many of those inconveniences and make formal and informal car sharing a whole lot more practical. Now if Tesla could also include a feature that cleans out old receipts and half-empty packets of gum...

Alas, production problems are slowing down deliveries of the Model 3. Who knows when our TreeHuggers on the list will actually get it. But when it cleans out old coffee cups automatically, I am all in.

Tesla Battery Compartment
via. Serge Kalashnik / TechSurge.IO

Meanwhile, some Tesla Model S drivers are being clever and using the Tesla charging facilities to mine bitcoins. I suspect that Mr. Musk will not put up with this for very long.

The future we want: Electric cars

I get in a lot of trouble with readers on the subject of Tesla and electric cars because, while they do reduce pollution in cities, they don't solve the basic problem of cars -- that they are big boxes with not very many people in them. It is why I continue to say We don't need electric cars, we need to get rid of cars.

In our post What would our cities be like if all our cars were electric? I quoted electric car expert Zach Shahan about how our air would be cleaner, our cities would be quieter. But it doesn't change sprawl, congestion, parking or safety of pedestrians and cyclists. It doesn't change the fact that in a crowded city, putting a single person in a big metal box is just silly.

The future we want: tunnels for cars?

Tesla tunnels
A ride through Elon Musk’s first Boring Company tunnel. Washington Post / YouTuve video screen capture

Elon Musk doesn't like congestion any more than anyone else does, so of course, he has to invent a solution, and founded the Boring Company to drill tunnels so that he can put his cars on skates and shoot them to their destinations. The Boring Company explains:

To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D, which means either flying cars or tunnels. Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight, and won't fall on your head. A large network of road tunnels many levels deep would fix congestion in any city, no matter how large it grew (just keep adding levels).

Or, one could invest in public transit. But Elon Musk doesn't like transit, telling Wired:

I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time." "It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want when you want.”

This did not go over well with urbanists.

Musk also responded on Twitter to a well-known transit expert, calling him an idiot, which is a thing someone should not do. However, it is clear from comments that in America people generally agree with him, really do hate public transit, and think I am a commie for suggesting otherwise. I followed up with Why do Americans (and Elon Musk) hate public transit so much and love chasing "Cyberspace Techno-dreams"?

The future we want: Electric transport trucks?

tesla semi image
Jason Gonderman / Tesla /

I smiled when Sami wrote about the first big order for Tesla's new tractor-trailer rigs, Budweiser pre-orders 40 Tesla Semi electric trucks, followed closely by Pepsi pre-orders 100 Tesla Semi-trucks, the largest order yet.

highway opening
Wisconsin Historical Society / Public Domain

If you go back and look at the history of beer and soda pop, you find that there were local breweries for the former and bottlers for the latter. Then after the Second World War, when the vast interstate highway was built at a cost of billions of dollars as a civil defense project, all the local breweries and bottlers closed as production was centralized, returnable bottles gave way to cans and plastic disposables, the railways were bankrupted and highway transport took over. So now, much like with cars, instead of clogging the roads with diesel rigs, Elon Musk wants to clog the roads with electric rigs. As with cars, it doesn't address the fundamental problem: local production in returnable containers is better than pushing trucks back and forth across the USA, or that, as my dad used to say, "freight belongs on rails, and people belong in planes and cars, it is crazy to mix them up on the roads."

The future we want: Big batteries that kill the duck

overcoming ducks
Teaching the Duck to Fly Targeted Electric Storage. Dr. Ravinder Soin Midnight Energy / J. Lazar / The Regulatory Assistance Project

Now, this is definitely the future we want: instead of building gas peaker plants or burning coal to "kill the duck", or shave off the peaks of peak demand, Tesla has been building giant battery installations, including one in Australia that was installed on a bet that it would be delivered in 100 days or it was free.

And he did it, with 45 days to spare. He's killing the duck in California, too. These batteries are going to be a very big deal, making renewables as reliable as any other source of electricity. As one writer noted, "All the talk of building new coal-fired power stations... no longer sounds vaguely “truthy”. It sounds ridiculous. It sounds silly. It sounds like old men yelling at clouds."

The future we want? Or the future we need?

Solar roof powered future house

I have been whining a lot about Elon Musk's Future We Want, how it doesn't scale, how it really only serves the very rich. But these big battery packs serve everyone, whether they have their own big roof or not. The smaller PowerWall battery packs address my biggest problems with Net Zero buildings; I wrote:

This TreeHugger has been forced to eat a lot of words recently after complaining how net-zero building and rooftop solar was going to create huge problems; I noted recently that Tesla’s power wall “is a real game-changer, that erases so many of the problems I have had with rooftop solar and its dependence on the grid, the whole duck curve thing, just gone.” Now that they can replace expensive and controversial peaker plants with battery packs, the game changes again in favor of solar and wind. [Tesla CTO] Straubel of Tesla is right -- this will change the world.

But I still have trouble with Elon Musk's suburban vision of the future, and still worry that it doesn't scale. It's why I am more excited about bikes than Tesla cars, subways over Boring Company skates for private cars, local craft beer over long-distance Buds. Instead of more solar energy, want a world with less energy consumption and greater efficiency. We are at the stage where we have to worry less about the future we want, and more about the future we need.