Elon Musk is on a mission to transform the way cities are powered. We look at how his plans could shape our future world, and whether we want them to

Elon Musk wants to change the world. Almost inarguably, he has done so already, both in past endeavours with the creation of PayPal, and more recently with his Space X efforts, as the CEO of the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

But the future, as partially laid out in the Tesla Master Plan Part Deux, holds even more promise and, if Musk is successful in his ambition, could see the entrepreneur change aspects of our lives almost beyond recognition.

The question thus begged is: do we want him to?

The Potential of Power

In the aforementioned Master Plan Part Deux, it was announced that Tesla would be merging with SolarCity, both Musk companies that have thus far run separately. By combining the two, the intention is to bring together Tesla’s power storage technology with SolarCity’s panels. Or, as he put it in the Master Plan, “create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage”.

These solar roofs will not just be a module on the existing roof but act as the roof itself. And they will inevitably be operating in conjunction with Tesla Powerwall, the home battery designed to charge from solar during the day then power your home during the evening.
Ultimately, the intention seems to be for Tesla/SolarCity equipped houses to go off-grid, achieving a net zero energy rating in which their consumption is only as much as their production.

Image courtesy of OnInnovation. Featured image courtesy of Jag_cz / Shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of OnInnovation. Featured image courtesy of Jag_cz / Shutterstock.com

In Musk’s words: “The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what ‘sustainable’ means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing – it matters for everyone.”

The importance of the continued development of sustainable energy is obvious and, with innovations such as Harvard’s ‘bionic leaf’, the plausibility of large-scale replacement of fossil fuel dependency is increasing. To take the idea to its furthest conclusion, we must imagine a future in which houses, possibly even entire cities, are powered by sustainable energy alone.

At most, the grid would act as a sort of backup generator in case of emergency or excess demand. Perhaps the grid will not exist at all, supplanted by greener measures.

Means of Production

Musk is in the energy game on multiple fronts but it’s the way he’s applying it at Tesla that is perhaps most revelatory. We already knew that Tesla planned to expand its product line and that it was working on autonomous vehicles.

What we didn’t all know until the latest entry in the Master Plan was that the product line expansion will see Tesla offering commercial vehicles alongside affordable cars, and that the autonomous development has far loftier aims than a base level of self-driving vehicles.

The next few years may well see the roads filling up with Teslas, all of which will, by one means or another, ultimately be recharged by solar power

To look first at the expansion of Tesla’s product range, it has announced development of both heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport. Both will of course be electric.

Alongside cornering the market on affordable-to-run municipal vehicles, Tesla is expanding into vehicles aimed at the standard consumer, with the new Model 3 starting at a price of $35,000.

As a result of the expansion into low-cost vehicles, the next few years may well see the roads filling up with Teslas, all of which will, by one means or another, ultimately be recharged by solar power.

Beyond its own vehicles, though, Tesla is looking to lead on a broader scale of manufacturing and sooner than may have been expected, beginning work on “designing the machine that makes the machine” as they start on factory machines that claim to be first-version-ready in 2018.

Autonomous Automobiles

With Tesla leading the way on the vehicle side of affordable electric, as well as enhancing the means of manufacturing, the vision of a nation of Tesla drivers is not so farfetched. Except, that is, for the fact that Tesla doesn’t plan for you to be driving the car.

As a leader in the development of autonomous vehicles, Tesla’s goal is to put a car on the road with a self-driving capability that is ten times safer than a human driver. And more than just driving itself, the car will be summonable at the touch of a button and, when not in use, can be added to the shared Tesla fleet to earn you money.

The importance of the fleet is multi-faceted. Aside from earning you extra cash, when your car links into it your vehicle will, in a sense, be improving itself. As the larger the Tesla fleet grows, the more data the company will have to improve between-car awareness and other fleet AI technology.

Image courtesy of Tesla

Image courtesy of Tesla

Additionally, outside of the customer-owned fleet, Musk has asserted that Tesla will operate its own fleet in cities where demand exceeds the availability of customer-owned cars, meaning that there should always be a Tesla available to take you where you want.
There have already been suggestions as to Tesla aiming to compete with Uber using its autonomous vehicles, and the idea certainly seems to fit with the emerging vision of a Tesla future. However, it is important to take note that this is still very much a future concern.

The recent death of a Tesla test-pilot is indicative that there is still plenty of work to be done with the technology. Yet we must also take into account that the wide-reaching approach is not a typical ‘business’ move, but instead an extension of Elon Musk’s apparent desire to save the world.

It is unfortunate that, as of now, saving the world consists of ‘beta-testing’ potentially dangerous technology with average consumers. While it is easy to be blinded by the potential of the autonomous car, it is important to remember that it’s failings in arguably simple areas resulted in a man’s death.

And, as pointed out by the director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences group Dr Patrick Lin in an article for IEEE Spectrum, these are failings that the average consumer is likely to be susceptible to. “Over-trust and inattention are known problems that technology developers need to design for, and simply telling customers not to do what comes naturally is probably not enough” he said. “It’s as if Tesla said, ‘Don’t ever blink,’ and customers promised not to: they just don’t understand what they’re signing up for.”

Ozymandias complex

There’s something more than a little comic book about Elon Musk. His plans practically scream “I want to save the world”. He was the partial basis for Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Iron Man. And he has the money, intellect and world-spanning plans of a super villain.

While his aims are certainly impressive and almost indubitably for the good of the world, it’s hard not to wonder if that kind of concentrated power is a good thing

There is no doubt that this is a man that wants to change the world and, more importantly, a man who has the capability to. His success however, could see control over our energy and driving needs placed largely in the hands of one man. While his aims are certainly impressive and almost indubitably for the good of the world, it’s hard not to wonder if that kind of concentrated power is a good thing.

It is not to say he is a man without rivals. Fisker was supposedly birthed from designs originally intended for Tesla’s Model S. Other big-name manufacturers are also getting into Tesla’s market, whether with hybrids or pure-electrics.

Autonomy, too, isn’t a project unique to the Tesla vehicles as everyone from Google to Mercedes has a stake in the technology.

SolarCity, meanwhile, certainly isn’t the only solar company out there, even if it may be one of the biggest. Both in the US and abroad, there are companies nipping at its heels. Furthermore, rivals aside, it is entirely possible that Musk’s companies will implode long before their rivals get a chance at them.

As pointed out by a CNN Money article: “SolarCity’s net loss grew to $250m in the second quarter from $156m in the same period a year earlier, the company announced in its earnings report ‒ before talking up the solar roofs. Likewise, Tesla revealed last week that its losses for the second quarter ballooned to $150m, more than twice what Wall Street had expected”.

However, assume the businesses hold out. Assume that their plans pay off and that the hybrid of Tesla/SolarCity becomes the largest in the clean energy field. The Elon Musk future then is one in which entire communities, perhaps cities, are running off SolarCity panels and Tesla Powerwalls.

A future in which the roads swarm with a fleet of autonomous Tesla cars, earning money for their owners during the day and available to provide a lift at the touch of a button. The hyperloop train carries passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 35 minutes.

factor-archive-28These are cities that hum with electricity, all of it off-grid and cleanly generated. And all of it, ultimately, is in the hands of one man. It is a brilliant future. It may well be one to fear. For one company to have so much influence is an idea worthy of concern. But a future where Tesla fails may well be an even worse one.

Smart cities are sold to us as utopias where everything is easier and more convenient, but if we’re not careful we could end up living in drab, intrusive spaces. We consider what smart cities mean for the people who will inhabit them

A young woman, let’s call her Carrie for now, walks on the sidewalk of a major city. Men and women with their eyes fixed to smartphones walk to her right; autonomous vehicles whizz past to her left. A car drives straight through a puddle and splashes her. She stops, twirls and raises her arms, exasperated.

The brief pause gives her time to survey the city that surrounds her. It’s all high-rises, made of glass. It’s not clear whether they’re office buildings or apartments, whether they’re designed for work or play, but she reasons that there has long since been any distinction between the two and moves on.

She notices an autonomous bus approaching; once upon a time it would’ve shown an advert for her popular newspaper column, but now it displays an advert tailored to her: a pink tutu to replace the one that was soaked through moments earlier. Where is she? New York, London, Tokyo or Paris? Who knows: all these city states stopped trying to distinguish themselves from one another a long time ago.

We don’t want to turn cities into sensor-filled, plutocrats’ playgrounds where citizens, far from identifying with cities, become data contributors who populate tall, glass boxes filled with sensors

The world’s major cities are getting smart, but does smart always have to be so samey and creepy? The utopian, urban vision of smart cities powered by artificial intelligence and the internet of things is exciting, who isn’t looking forward to day when autonomous vehicles deliver us to the office or smart roads make us aware of sparsely populated streets.

But who are smart cities designed for? Will they work to make life easier, more convenient and secure for citizens or are they really designed by and for private companies who can see value in the raw data contained within? Until now the city has been a melting pot of cultures and traditions, and most of us would like to keep them that way. We don’t want to turn cities into sensor-filled, plutocrats’ playgrounds where citizens, far from identifying with cities, become data contributors who populate tall, glass boxes filled with sensors.

More sensors also inevitably means more surveillance. The smart city is essentially a vast network of electronic ears, eyes and noses. IBM’s Intelligent Operations Centre in Rio de Janiero is already in operation and looks like a Jason Bourne nightmare. Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has previously boasted: “The operations centre allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Even the most trusting citizen would have to admit that giving city officials a window into every nook and cranny is frightening. We don’t necessarily want to wipe out the opportunity for transgression. What would happen to bottom up, social movements if we did that?

Silicon Valley syndrome

When we think of smart cities we think about the technology that’s inside of them rather than the people, so we imagine a multitude of sensors gathering an increasing amount of data which can then used by councils, governments and big-tech companies. This kind of smart city may have some trickle-down benefits for inhabitants, but real advances for citizens and communities appear negligible. A city used to be what it is because of the people that live there: Londoners make London, New York is what it is because of New Yorkers etc. So what part will citizens play in the smart cities of the future?

“The idea that citizens have information and data which is of value is an important issue, but smart cities isn’t just one way traffic. It’s not just better automation of transit and energy and so on, it’s also the provision of new facilities for people to engage and interact,” says Professor Michael Batty of University College London’s MSc in Smart Cities and Urban Analytics. “You could almost say that social media is a kind of low-level version of that where people are communicating and networking in ways that are very different from the past and much fuller. That’s the good side of the smart city that it allows people to participate much more.”

Image courtesy of IBM. Featured image courtesy of Toshihiro Oimatsu

Image courtesy of IBM. Featured image courtesy of Toshihiro Oimatsu

Perhaps smart cities will offer new ways to communicate, but what will they actually look like? Are we destined to live, work and sleep in high-rise, sensor-filled buildings? The architect Rem Koolhaas isn’t too optimistic that smart cities can house great architecture.
“The rhetoric of smart cities would be more persuasive if the environment that the technology companies create was actually a compelling one that offered models for what the city can be,” said Koolhaas. “But if you look at Silicon Valley you see that the greatest innovators in the digital field have created a bland suburban environment.”

Batty isn’t as pessimistic about how the appearance of our cities will change over time, but he does agree that smart cities are influencing architecture. “There is a case for saying IT has influenced architecture,” says Batty. “But it’s probably not just IT, it’s contemporary styles in architecture, new materials, massive use of glass and the ability to twist stuff into strange shapes. All of these things make a difference, and they’re all related to IT, computation, data and so on.”

If you want my data pay for it

Ultimately the value from a smart city comes from the data it generates, but who owns this data and do citizens have to willingly hand it over? Consider the value advertisers get from knowing your shopping preferences or the advantage politicians get from knowing when and where to target you. Google has already realised how much this information is worth and has become one of the biggest companies in the world because of it, but imagine how much more data there will be to mine when our cities become smart. But will citizens ever get to make money from selling the information that they provide?

I believe that the data is intrinsically valuable, and the actual proportion of time spent on translating the data into a form where it’s sold on is tiny compared to its value

“In principle the answer would appear to be yes, if you generate data and somebody else wants your data then they should pay you or compensate you in some way rather than just collect it remotely without your knowledge which is what happens at the moment,” says Batty.

“The real issue is whether we’ll ever reach a situation where that’s the case. My suspicion is we won’t, and it’s more to do with the nature of the capitalist system. We see this in terms of the electoral role, for example, where you register for voting which is sold on to companies like 192.com. I’ve never quite understood why that is possible, but local government have decided that it will sell it.

“They would argue that they’re capturing the data, and the argument is often that the data that is collected has no value; value is added to it by making it available. Now, I don’t actually believe that. I believe that the data is intrinsically valuable, and the actual proportion of time spent on translating the data into a form where it’s sold on is tiny compared to the value of the data. I think generally speaking most people would believe that; it’s just an excuse really. It’s a big area of controversy.”

The city that never sleeps

When we give cities, or city officials, the power to monitor every street corner 24 hours a day, seven days a week that brings with it the capacity for a new level of intrusion. Add to this the fact that more than 2.5 billion of us already, voluntarily, wear a tracking device – the smartphone – and you’ve got the recipe for a Big Brother, dystopian nightmare.

Rio’s IBM-built operations centre began as a tool to predict rain and manage flood responses, following a series of deadly floods and mudslides that swept through the city’s Favelas, before it morphed into a high-precision control panel for the entire city. And that’s the danger with the smart city: that whatever the original intention is, smart cities have the capacity to become places that never sleep, where someone is always watching.

“The control centre thing is very much a top down view of controlling a city. There are all sorts of dystopian views about it being like Big Brother, but I think one can go over the top on that,” says Batty. “To some extent that’s a problem, but when these things are built I’m not sure the motivation for them is quite as Big Brotherish as people imply.

“I think one of the problems is that it’s a very naive solution to a very complex problem. These control centres, if you look at what is being controlled, they do tend to articulate the city as though it’s something like an aircraft simulator, and nothing could be further from the truth. Cities are such complicated things; and we’re all part and parcel of them. You can soon see when something is thought of as an aircraft simulation can all go very wrong when people react differently.”

factor-archive-28Smart cities have the potential to revolutionise what we think a city is, and we can already see cities being reborn all over the world thanks to the IoT and smart tech. But we shouldn’t try and copy and paste smart technologies the world over, and ignore the people who make those cities what they are.

We want cities to express public values not just be built to profit the private sector, and we don’t want a situation where, as Rem Koolhas predicts, “a Faraday Cage will be a necessary component of any home – a safe room in which to retreat from digital sensing”. It’s ok for our cities to get smarter, as long as they don’t become grey, creepy spaces.