Thinking the Elon Musk way

Elon Musk has a way of thinking about first principles and solving problems that is absolutely gobsmacking brilliant.  Just a few weeks ago Elon had a wide ranging conversation with Chris Anderson at the latest TED conference. Instead of talking about Tesla they started on a project that I knew nothing about. Tunnels for roading beneath the world biggest cities.

“I don’t know if people noticed it in the video, but there’s no real limit to how many levels of tunnel you can have. You can go much further deep than you can go up. The deepest mines are much deeper than the tallest buildings are tall, so you can alleviate any arbitrary level of urban congestion with a 3D tunnel network. This is a very important point. So a key rebuttal to the tunnels is that if you add one layer of tunnels, that will simply alleviate congestion, it will get used up, and then you’ll be back where you started, back with congestion. But you can go to any arbitrary number of tunnels, any number of levels.

CA: But people — seen traditionally, it’s incredibly expensive to dig, and that would block this idea.

EM: Yeah. Well, they’re right. To give you an example, the LA subway extension, which is — I think it’s a two-and-a-half mile extension that was just completed for two billion dollars. So it’s roughly a billion dollars a mile to do the subway extension in LA. And this is not the highest utility subway in the world. So yeah, it’s quite difficult to dig tunnels normally. I think we need to have at least a tenfold improvement in the cost per mile of tunneling.

CA: And how could you achieve that?”

I will add the full video clip below but right there in a couple of replies Elon shows how he manages to rethink problems in a way that is very different from what most of us do. That is a real challenege to move from simple reasoning by analogy to something where the whole problem is re-framed by changing the very dimensions of what can be done.

You should watch the full clip. I have now watched it 3 times and It is still mind blowing stuff.

There is also a sense that the various projects are all linked at some level. For example electricity in the US is mostly generated from fossil fuels but if home owners had solar tiles and Powerwall batteries they could power their home and their cars. The solar tiles, batteries and the Tesla project are all absolutely astounding and very complementary. They are also extremely disruptive (understatement alert ) to energy companies.

If that wasn’t enough now that the Tesla cars are well along the track to becoming fully autonomous. This means that once you get out of your car it could then be deployed to drive others while you are at work and not using it. This has the potential to reduce the costs of owning a car. Musk is savvy enough to realise this will invariable lead to more traffic on the road.

I hope he is wrong and that less people travel to work in the future but he is living in the US which is the home of the car culture.

As Anderson notes we are heading into a future where we no longer feel guilty about energy. But surely having more people driving around “just because autonomous cars allow it” is an unwelcome consequence of better utility.

Which is why the conversation about underground tunnels to reduce traffic congestion is part of the talk. Boring tunnels is just a hobby for Elon but watch this space. The real prize for autonomous driving will be trucks. There is a new full sized Tesla truck coming. Not autonomous but that will come sooner rather than later in my view. There are apparently 3.5m truck drivers in the U.S so even a shift of 20% in the early years would have a huge impact.

The talk is 40 mins long and when you have watched that watch the 2013 talk by Elon where he talks about Space X and we know how that turned out.
Update: May 2018 In may respects the underground transport idea is flawed but I like the way Elong thinks. For some more recent thoughts on the boring project see this.