Tag Archives: Elon Musk

Next Space Race Won’t Have Just One Winner

Until Jan. 3, no human being had ever set eyes on the “dark side” of the moon — the side always facing away from the Earth. It was a mystery. But no longer. China’s National Space Administration successfully landed a lunar lander, Chang’e-4, at South Pole-Aitken, the moon’s largest and deepest basin. Its lunar rover Yutu-2 is sending home dozens of pictures so that we can see the soil, rocks, and craters for ourselves. Seeds it took on the journey also germinated (before freezing to death), making this the first time any biological matter from Earth has been cultivated on the moon.

Scientists had long speculated about the existence of water on the moon — which would be necessary to grow crops and build settlements. India’s Chandrayaan-1 satellite confirmed a decade ago that there was water in the moon’s exosphere, and in August 2018, it helped NASA find water ice on the surface of the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions.

India’s Mangalyaan satellite went even further, to Mars, in 2014, and is sending back stunning images. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a manned mission to space by 2022, and one Indian startup, Team Indus, already has built a lunar rover that can help with the exploration.

The Americans and Soviets may have started the space race in their quest for global domination, but China, India, Japan, and others have joined it. The most interesting entrants are entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Team Indus’ Rahul Narayan. They are space explorers like the ones we know from science fiction, driven by ego, curiosity, and desire to make an impact on humanity. Technology has leveled the playing field so that even startups can compete and collaborate with governments.

In the 50 years since the Apollo 8 crew became the first to go round the moon and return, the exponential advance of technology has dramatically lowered the entry barriers. The accelerometers, gyroscopes, and precision navigation systems that cost millions and were national secrets are now available for a few cents on Alibaba. These are what enable the functioning of Google maps and Apple health apps — and make space travel possible.

The NASA space shuttle program cost about $209 billion over its lifetime and made a total of 135 flights, costing an average per launch of nearly $1.6 billion. Its single-use rockets were priced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Musk’s company SpaceX now offers launch services for $62 million for its reusable Falcon 9 rockets, which can carry a load of 4,020 kg. And yes, discounts are available for bulk. Team Indus built their lunar rover with only $35 million of funding and a team of rag-tag engineers in Bangalore.

NASA catalyzed the creation of technologies as diverse as home insulation, miniature cameras, CAT scans, LEDs, landmine removal, athletic shoes, foil blankets, water-purification technology, ear thermometers, memory foam, freeze-dried food, and baby formulas. We can expect the new forays into space to yield even more. The opportunities are endless: biological experimentation, resource extraction, figuring out how to live on other planets, space travel, and tourism. The technologies will include next-generation nano satellites, image sensors, GPS, communication networks, and a host of innovations we haven’t conceived of yet. We can also expect to be manufacturing in space and 3D-printing buildings for space colonies.

Developments on each of these frontiers will provide new insights and innovations for life on Earth. Learning about growing plants on the moon can help us to grow plants in difficult conditions on this planet. The buildings NASA creates for Mars will be a model for housing in extreme climates.

As with every technology advance, there are also new fears and risks. Next-generation imagery can provide military advantages through intelligence gathering. The military already has an uncanny ability to track specific people and watch them in incredible detail. For any sort of space station or base on another planet or moon, there is the question of who sets the rules, standards, and language that’s used in outer space. Then there’s the larger question of whose ethical and social values will guide the space communities of the future — and the even larger question of whether places beyond Earth are ethically claimable as property at all.

Regardless of the risks, the era of space exploration has begun and we can expect many exciting breakthroughs. We can also start dreaming about the places we want to visit in the heavens.

Vivek Wadhwa is the author of “Driver in the Driverless Car,” which explores how we can create the amazing future of Star Trek. And he is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School.

Dear Elon: Ask Apple or Google to Acquire Tesla

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Steve Jobs wanted to build an electric car as far back as 2008.

In 2014, current Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly funded the project. To date, though, Apple  has had little to show for it, and the rumors are that its electric vehicle will launch as late as 2025 — long after such things become common commodities. Alphabet’s Google  has had self-driving electric cars on the road for about four years, though it has decided to focus primarily on the software.

A decade after Tesla announced the Model S, and six years after its delivery, no other company has been able to produce anything comparable. The big automotive manufacturers are claiming that they will soon eat Tesla’s lunch, but even the strongest offerings — those of BMW and Mercedes — are merely souped-up cassette players trying to compete with an iPod.

Tesla learned the hard way the intricacies of combining legacy automotive technologies with modern software — through trial and error and constant delay. It also struggled to automate production. Using advanced robots, however, it has finally figured out how to build an astonishing 6,000 cars per week, some in a tent.

At a crossroads

Now, as Tesla struggles with its cash balances, extremely negative press, and CEO Elon Musk’s erratic tweets, it is at another crossroads and, in order to reach its potential, needs a strategic partner. It may not make sense for it to continue as a public company.

The best acquirer would not be Saudi Arabia, whose interest Musk tweeted about, because that nation’s interests inherently conflict with Tesla’s. Electric vehicles and solar technologies will cause the price of oil to plummet and decimate the value of Saudi oil reserves, so it would lose heavily if its investment in Tesla paid off. Technology companies, however, share Musk’s goals and ambitions, particularly Apple and Google. They have the money, technology, and marketing strengths to greatly enhance Tesla’s offerings. Apple also has great manufacturing prowess and distribution channels.

Tesla would provide Apple with an entirely new set of technology platforms on which it could build a new line of products. Apple desperately needs these in order to sustain its trillion-dollar market capitalization; after the release of the iPhone, in 2007, it has had virtually no world-changing products. It needs to enter new markets, and, with its automotive, energy storage and solar technologies, Tesla would provide them.

Apple’s existing products would also benefit from the advanced technologies that electric cars have incorporated, such a batteries and in-car electronics. And Apple would gain the second-best self-driving software in the industry.

The iCar

Tesla could, in turn, integrate the iPad, Apple TV, iTunes, and App Store into its automotives, literally turning its vehicles into iCars. And it could replace its clunky operating system with macOS. I am sure that all Tesla owners — such as me — would love to be able to download apps and music onto a console that’s more user friendly than the Tesla’s present one.

Apple would bring its world-class manufacturing and inventory-management process to Tesla and create new types of automobiles, in different sizes and shapes — and at lower prices. This would give it a second chance to wow markets it has largely lost; specifically India and China.

A match for Waymo

Google’s interests also coincide with Tesla’s. Google doesn’t have Apple’s manufacturing capability, but its maps and self-driving software are one or two notches above any other. Tesla’s mapping software is substandard, and its self-driving software could use a major upgrade. Google’s self-driving-car spinoff, Waymo, could focus on the software and let Google’s Tesla arm deal with the hardware.

Given that Morgan Stanley has just valued Waymo at $175 billion, Tesla’s $70 billion price would be a no-brainer, and the combination would be formidable.

Getting Musk to the table

Would Musk even entertain such an offer? Given that he reportedly turned down an offer from Google in 2013 and laughed off the idea of Apple buying Tesla in emails I exchanged with him in April 2014, and in an investor call last year, it would seem very unlikely. Yet, having reached his personal limits and being close to burnout, as Musk has admitted; after seeing the disastrous impact of his tweet about having secured funding; and with Saudi Arabia offering investment in a competing startup, things may have changed.

I’ll bet that Musk would take an offer that solved his financial problems and gave him autonomy. With the headaches of funding and quarterly stock pressure taken away, the world’s greatest innovator would be free to develop world-changing ideas that transform entire industries, including automotive, energy and space. That would be a win-win for Tesla — and for humanity.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author.