Elon Musk and The Revenge of the Electric Car

Electric-car company founder Elon Musk is the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s title role in Iron Man. The prodigy chats with Marlow Stern about a new Tribeca Film Festival documentary featuring his Tesla Motors, life on Mars, and his thoughts on Obama.

04.25.11 10:38 PM ET

South African-born Elon Musk has always been a visionary. At the age of 10, he purchased his first computer and taught himself programming. At 12, he designed a computer game that he sold for $500. When he turned 17, he left home for Canada to avoid mandatory service in the South African military. Musk went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with bachelor’s degrees in physics and business. Upon his graduation, he identified three key problem areas in the world: the Internet, space, and clean energy.

First, Musk set his sights on the Internet, creating Zip2 with his brother, Kimbal Musk, which provided online content-publishing software for news organizations. AltaVista acquired it in 1999 for $341 million. Then, Musk founded the online financial-services and email-payment company, which would later merge with Confinity to form PayPal.

After eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion in stock in 2002, Musk focused on his second problem area: outer space. He founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), an aerospace company that manufactures reliable space launch vehicles at low cost. The company was later awarded a $1.6 billion contract by NASA, to develop a replacement for the space shuttle as a cargo-delivery system for the International Space Station.  

Finally, in 2004, Musk co-founded the electric car company Tesla Motors, and became its CEO in October 2008, with the aim of creating affordable electric vehicles for consumers. Filmmaker Chris Paine’s documentary chronicling Musk’s electric-car journey, Revenge of the Electric Car, made its world premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival this month.

And if that wasn’t enough, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a provider of solar energy and the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the Iron Man films.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, Musk, now 39, opened up to The Daily Beast about the need for electric cars, multi-planetary life, what he really thinks about President Obama, and much more.

Let’s talk about Chris Paine’s film, Revenge of the Electric Car. It’s shaped almost like the space race with Tesla, GM, and Nissan competing to see who can put out an affordable electric car first. So why should it be Tesla?

Actually, I don’t think that’s quite correct. I don’t think there’s any question: Tesla is not just first, but Tesla is what inspired General Motors and Nissan to do the electric car.

“I don’t create trouble just for the hell of it… I think there are important things in the world that need to get done. Some people don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster.”

Oh, I meant to build an affordable model of electric car, in the $30,000 range.

Certainly we want to build a car like that in the future, and we’ll get there as soon as we can, but the biggest benefit that Tesla will have on sustainable transport is inspiring others to do it. I think there’s more of a race between Nissan and GM—or other car companies—than there is between Tesla and Nissan or GM. Tesla is obviously a small company, so in order to have a significant effect on the world, we have to inspire others to create compelling electric cars to the degree that we can help others create electric cars. For example, we make the battery pack charger for the Mercedes Electric A-Class and the Smart-EV and we supply Toyota with the whole electro car train, including battery and motor, for the electric RAV-4 that’s coming out next year. Our goal is just to advance the electrification of transport.

Why are so many politicians in Washington against electric cars? Is it lobbying from the oil companies, or the perception of liberal elitism?

The president is in favor of electric cars and has been for a very long time; and there’s a strong caucus in the House and Senate that’s in favor of electric cars; and Congress has passed legislation giving a tax-credit advantage to electric cars. So I think there are more politicians in favor of electric cars than against. There are still some that are against, and I think the reasoning for that varies depending on the person, but in some cases, they just don’t believe in climate change—they think oil will last forever. I think their views are very irrational and not well thought-out because even if there was hypothetically no environment or national-security issue, and all the oil in the world was in the U.S., we would still need to find a sustainable mode of transport because the oil will run out, and there will be economic collapse. It’s just dumb.

In the film, you’re referred to as “a career troublemaker” who has taken on the banks, the space industry, and now, the auto industry.

[Laughs] You know, one person’s trouble is another person’s important change. I don’t create trouble just for the hell of it. There’s something to be said for that, I suppose, but it’s not the reason I do it. I think there are important things in the world that need to get done. Some people don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster.

Speaking of disasters, did the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan really further motivate you in the SpaceX program and your quest for multi-planetary life?

No, not really. What happened in Japan was very, very mild to what will happen in the future. I don’t mean to diminish what happened in Japan, but compared to the bad things we know have happened when observing the fossil record—that the majority of species on Earth have been wiped out several times—this is just a shot across the bow from Mother Nature.

Do you really think we can support life in outer space?

Well, it’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible, just barely, to create a self-sustaining ecosystem on Mars. That’s the only viable place, apart from Earth, and even Mars is very difficult. But it’s possible. And this is the first time in the 4 billion-year history of Earth that it’s been possible, so I think we should take advantage of that. And it’s not because I think we’re in imminent danger of demise; I think the most likely outcome is that things will be great on Earth for a long time. But eventually, there will be some really severe natural disasters. Also, you have to ask the question: Do we want a future where humanity is a space-going civilization that’s out there, understanding the stars, exploring the universe, and doing exciting, bold things? Or do we want a future where we are forever confined to Earth until the eventual disaster that takes us out? I think we want to be out there exploring the stars.

I know you’re the first and the most legitimate, but it’s become a trend among billionaires to dabble in space exploration—with Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, etc. From certain perspectives, it could seem like a bit of a dick-measuring contest.

Well, I don’t think there’s a dick-measuring contest going on. [Laughs] Amusing as that may be. That would be hilarious, actually! But you need to look at sub-orbital versus orbital. What Branson is doing is sub-orbital stuff, so it’s the most fun joy ride you could possibly have. You go in a rocket-powered glider, shoot up for 60 miles, and fall down for five minutes, so it gives you a simulated zero-G. It gives you a taste of space, if you will, and Branson is good at doing exciting, entertaining stuff like that. Branson is also not competing with SpaceX. We’re actually developing the replacement for the space shuttle, and NASA is our single biggest customer. Our competitors are not Paul Allen and Branson, but Boeing, Lockheed, and the big aerospace companies.

I read that once you finished all your undergraduate degrees, you identified three key problems in the world: the Internet, clean energy, and space. Would you still choose those three today?

I think most of the important stuff on the Internet has been built. There will be continued innovation, for sure, but the great problems of the Internet have essentially been solved. This is not yet the case in sustainable energy. If we do not solve sustainable production and consumption of energy this century, we will have massive economic collapse, not to mention the environmental disaster and also international security issues as countries fight over diminishing resources.

I recently read that you were attending a $38,500 per plate fundraising dinner for Barack Obama, and I know you’ve been an Obama supporter over the years. How do you think he’s doing?  

He’s not perfect, but he’s good. I’d give him pretty good grades. I’m personally a moderate and a registered independent, so I’m not strongly Democratic or strongly Republican. I do believe in competent government and there’s not that much in the way of competent government these days. [Laughs] But I think it’s to be encouraged. And I think Obama tries his best. I think he’s a pretty honorable guy, pretty smart. He doesn’t have a deep business background, but he does listen. I don’t worship the guy, but I think he’s pretty good.

Does it bother you though that he’s argued for more domestic drilling?

Increasing oil drilling in the United States has almost no effect on the global oil price. Oil is a global commodity and I think we produce 4 or 5 percent of the world’s oil in the United States. If we doubled that and produced 10 percent of the world’s oil, then there would be a 5 percent increase in the world’s oil production and the price would fall maybe 5 percent. Big deal! It would take massive upheaval to double our oil production. So I think we should be saving our oil resources for the future when we really need it and make sure that it’s applied for the highest use in the economy, which would be things like pharmaceuticals and plastics production. We shouldn’t really be burning the stuff in our cars. It’s pretty valuable as an industrial ingredient.

You’ve produced a film, ( Thank You for Smoking) but you’re best known in Hollywood as the inspiration for Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark in the Robert Downey Jr. franchise. What do you think of the Hollywood version of Elon Musk?

In-part. [Laughs] I’m not sure what the Hollywood version of Elon Musk is. Revenge of the Electric Car was just Chris Paine filming thousands of hours, and after a while, you forget he’s even there, so I think that’s more accurate than anything else. The Iron Man stuff… I’ve got five kids and I spend every weekend with them. I go to Disneyland with them a lot, that kind of thing. I don’t think Iron Man is doing that. Where I think I’m similar is that Tony Stark is the head designer/inventor guy, as well as the CEO of the company. Usually, the CEO is a business guy, but in my case it’s combined. And I make some pretty exotic stuff like rockets and spacecraft and electric cars, so that’s probably why Jon Favreau said I was like Tony Stark.

So it’s not the playboy reputation?

I’ve been to Disneyland like 10 times. [Laughs] I’m getting really tired of Disneyland!

With the two huge companies you run, sitting on the boards of several others, five children and a new wife, how do you do it?

With extreme difficulty. Basically, I spend the week working pretty late hours and the weekend I spend with my wife and kids. But I’m also talking with the kids and answering email and that sort of thing, so it’s helpful to have an iPhone so I can work during the interstitial moments when the kids don’t need me. But basically, my life consists of work, kids, wife, and sleep. Occasionally, I do something. I went to Coachella on Saturday night.

Who did you see?

Arcade Fire.

Did you see the LED bouncy balls come down?

Yeah, it was awesome! They got big balls! Sort of a ball-measuring contest. [Laughs]  

Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.