Will Elon Musk's Master Plan reinvent our cities?

Tesla house with powerwall
Promo image Tesla

Elon Musk's new Master Plan Part Deux includes solar roofs, big batteries, and autonomous electric cars, buses and trucks; Derek covered it earlier here. It's a grand vision, and inspired Alissa Walker of Curbed to write 4 Ways That Elon Musk’s New Tesla Plan Will Totally Reinvent Our Cities. That inspired me to take another look and conclude that no, it really won't.

Prettier panels

Walker takes Musk’s bullet list one by one, looking first at his statement “Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage” and writes:

What Musk is proposing here is a fully integrated solution: "Create a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app." So not just a designing a better-looking panel, but designing an entirely new energy-collection system for the connected home, including the ability to share that solar energy with your neighbors. This is absolutely going to get more people switching to solar.

On the face of it, this is one of the most ludicrous first world problems that has ever needed a solution, the need for a "smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof.” The only place in America that you actually see a roof is on suburban houses; otherwise you are looking up at buildings. 95 percent of those roofs are covered with asphalt shingles, the cheapest and ugliest building enclosing material ever invented. In cities, solar panels should be on every building, but they can only add a minimal amount of power, because there just ain’t enough roof in the city to go around.

Alissa illustrates her post with a lovely photo of a gorgeous single family concrete house overlooking a lake with a big Tesla PowerWall unit on it. And that is where you will find this stuff going. This is not even a first world problem, it is a 1/10th of 1 percent world problem. Musk talks of "empowering the individual as their own utility"- but it can only empower those with roofs. The young, the poor, the urban dwellers will all have to make do with the conventional utility and will pay a lot more for power.

this or this image© Bronwyn Barry

But there is the bigger issue about how we should be dealing with the problem of energy and carbon. Do we meet our demand by putting solar panels on our roofs, which work when the sun shines, or do we reduce our demand through smart design and radical building efficiency? If we do the former then we still need generating and distribution infrastructure (or a whole lot of big PowerWall battery packs) for night and peak load times; if we do the latter, then it works ‘round the clock and ‘round the calendar, rain or shine. For everyone. Solar roofs are sexy but they are niche.

Autonomous cars are still cars

Tesla AutopilotTesla Motors/Promo image

Alissa moves on to describe how Autonomous electric vehicles will make streets safer and cleaner. She writes:

"We must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse," writes Musk. As he mentions several times in his plan, urban transportation—which includes the movement of goods—is quickly becoming a global crisis. Transportation is close to becoming the leading source of emissions, growing faster than any other contributor. Meanwhile, traffic deaths are increasing at a troubling rate, and especially in the US, mostly because Americans are driving more thanks to cheap gas. We need vehicles that aren’t killing people, either through climate change or car crashes.

There are a few issues to discuss here. First of all I have to say that I totally admire Musk and Tesla and lust after his Model S or 3 and think every car on the road should be electric, and in a few years probably will be. But after years of writing about self driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs), I think we need to look elsewhere to fix the problems of transportation in our cities.

city view© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

Because even if you fall in love with a vision like that of Rachel Skinner and Nigel Bidwell about how our cities can be improved with AVs, the fact is that for good or bad, our cities will have to be redesigned to accommodate them, and that there are forces already in play contemplating this, on a scale that has not been seen in a hundred years when pedestrians were forced off the streets to make room for cars. Alissa lists some of the people, companies and cities looking at this:

Over the last year we’ve heard from plenty of tech companies that want to solve our urban problems. Startup accelerator Y Combinator wants to build an entire new city from scratch. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is trying to fix transportation (and maybe build its own city, too). Dozens of companies have partnered with the USDOT for its Smart City Challenge, which is building a connected, sustainable transit system for Columbus, Ohio that’s very similar to the one that Tesla is proposing.

space comparison uber and AV© Jon Orcutt

But if we all realize that the current urban model has failed, that we have to re-think our cities, why are we filling them with AVs? If you look at successful cities around the world, they are filled with people. On foot. On bikes. On transit. If your issue with transit is, as Musk says, getting people directly to their destination, (the so-called “last mile” problem,) the best solution for the great majority of the population is a decent sidewalk and a nice safe street to walk in. As the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy noted with their poorly named Transport Oriented Development standard (it should be People Oriented Development Standard) we need…

TOD report© ITDP

…a fundamental shift from the old, unsustainable paradigm of car-oriented urbanism toward a new paradigm where urban forms and land uses are closely integrated with efficient, low-impact, and people-oriented urban travel modes: walking, cycling, and transit.

Or as Rebecca Solnit noted in the Guardian,

We don’t need new ways to use cars; we need new ways to not use them. Because here’s the thing people keep forgetting to mention about driverless cars: they’re cars.

As for the troubling increase in traffic deaths, the death rate in car vs car crashes has been dropping for decades. It's the pedestrian death rate in cities and suburbs that is increasing, and that is a function of urban design, political choices about who rules the roads, and the switch to deadlier SUVs and pickup trucks. It is absolutely the wrong approach to suggest that this needs a technological fix like self-driving cars; it can be solved now with Vision Zero planning. It requires a change in mindset, not technology.

I fully recognize that the majority of Americans and Canadians live in suburbs and are car-dependent, and electric cars and AVs can be a dramatic and positive force for change. But lets stop pretending this is all about changing cities; it is about changing suburbs and exurbs and fringe cities and places like Silicon Valley and has little to do with or to offer cities.

I covered more about Musk’s ideas about public transport in Will Elon Musk revolutionize transit with little autonomous buses?

Keep on Trucking

Siemens electric truck© Siemens/ another way to electrify trucking

Finally, let’s look at the transport of goods. Alissa writes:

Musk says that he has both an electric bus and a heavy truck named Tesla Semi in development (something he’s hinted at before), which will be ready to roll as soon as next year to start solving these problems.

trucks vs trains© Norfolk Southern Railway

If we are going to talk about radically changing our transportation systems and our housing technology, why continue taking the myopic vision that we should take what we have and just add solar panels or big batteries, instead of looking at the fundamental underlying problems of planning or transportation. The fact is that moving goods by truck is by far the most energy inefficient means of transporting goods other than air freight.

It is only cost effective because of the government subsidy that is the Interstate Highway System. It is fundamentally nuts to throw expensive batteries at the most energy intensive technology, when if the same effort and intelligence was applied to more efficient transportation systems like rail, could probably deliver goods almost as quickly and a lot more cheaply. We have seen what happens when you mix transport trucks with autonomous Teslas; they should not be on the same road.

Musk seems to think that we should take the suburban house that we know and put a solar panel on it, the truck that we know and put a battery in it. It is basically electrifying the status quo. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, "That’s not the future. That’s dressing up the past."

Perhaps we should be looking at the underlying problems that we are trying to solve: the design of our suburbs and cities, the way we make and move goods. Fix the problem, instead of putting a silicon or lithium band-aid on it.

Tags: Cities | Tesla Motors


treehugger slideshows