Monday, September 09, 2013

Elon Musk, Tony Stark, and the Future of Design

So is Elon Musk, the American entrepreneur, industrialist and inventor a sort of real-life version of fictitious hero Tony Stark, Marvel Comic's Iron Man? I don't think he really cares. He's got his hands full with ventures like SpaceX (space launcher) and Tesla (Electric cars) is hardly out of the headlines at the moment. The difference is that, in contrast to some others trying to develop alternatives to petrol engines, Elon has engineering at heart. Other companies are driven purely by design. That might work for an app. It doesn't seem to be working when it comes to designing an electric car - which is basically a giant battery on wheels.

Musk is worth following because he shares at least some of what he's up to. Look at his recent release on the future of design. It's like Microsoft's Kinect, but then in 3D. Why would hand gestures be useful? Because you have direct control over the navigation rather than trying to fiddle with a joystick.

SpaceX is exploring methods for engineers to accelerate their workflow by designing more directly in 3D. We are integrating breakthroughs in sensor and visualization technologies to view and modify designs more naturally and efficiently than we could using purely 2D tools. We are just beginning, but eventually hope to build the fastest route between the idea of a rocket and the reality of the factory floor. Special thanks to Leap Motion, Siemens and Oculus VR, as well as NVIDIA, Projection Design, Provision, and to everyone enabling and challenging the world to interact with technology in exciting new ways.

They Threw Away the Best Bits

The Dutch current affairs TV programme, Een Vandaag, conducted an interview between Elon Musk and (what they claim) is his Dutch counterpart Michiel Mol (who currently lives in New York). The first bit of the interview was the PR stuff to please the Dutch authorities. Of course that went out on air. But I had cause to explore the public broadcaster's website for a client, and discovered a longer un-cut version of the interview with Elon Musk. Skip the first bit that was used and explore the latter half of the interview. The interviewer gets into a discussion about the technology, especially in current capabilities of batteries. They are not there yet, but much further than I thought.

Elon says the Model S has a useful range of around 400 km at the moment. The new car can charge at 120 kW, 60 times the power consumed by the average household. So the charger and battery need to perform a dance which needs to be monitored. Charge too fast and the battery will overheat (and could catch fire I suppose). Charge too slow and the customers start looking for alternatives. Public expectation is that the battery can be charged just a little slower than filling the tank with conventional gas. Science hasn't yet caught up, but you can be sure they are working on it.

By the end of this year, there will be supercharging stations in metropolitan cities in the US. It should be possible to drive coast-to-coast in the US and remain in range of an electric charging station. As far as Tesla is concerned, the first charging stations in Europe will be installed in Norway. These guys, who made their fortune with oil, have now bought more electric vehicles than anyone.

By the end of 2014, you will be able to be able to travel across Europe and charge the car through the network. And charging is always going to be free. The charging stations are powered by solar cells. Elon also explains why he got involved in the SpaceX project and his fascinating with the planet Mars. He points out that for the first few years they got no help from the government, relying on something like the Lean Startup Method in order to get across Geoffrey Moore's Chasm that faces most hardware entrepreneurs.


Google has been setting up Hangouts between Richard Branson, Elon Musk and the public. Pity that Google doesn't do anything like the preparation required to bring tempo to such a fascinating conversation. Note how emotional Elon becomes around 39'10"into the interview when he went through a very difficult year and had to decide where to put what was left of his money. Clearly he is passionate about what he does. That's the mark of a true world entrepreneur. We shall continue to watch and learn. Hope that Elon comes to this part of the world more often.

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