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.

Study finds biofuels are contributing to climate change, not mitigating it

Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are not anywhere near as environmentally friendly as previously thought.

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan, published today in the open-access journal Climactic Change, has found that biofuels actually increase the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming, despite their reputation for being a ‘clean’ fuel source.

It was previously thought that such fuels were carbon-neutral, based on the premise that the CO₂ they produce when burnt was balanced by the CO₂ the plants absorbed as they grew. However, this study has found that the crops’ CO₂ absorption only mitigated a fraction of its emissions.

Using extensive crop production data from the US Department of Agriculture, alongside data on fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions, the researchers found that during a time when biofuel use rapidly increased in the US, the biofuel crops’ CO₂ absorption only offset 37% of their emissions when burnt.

“This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it,” explained research professor and study lead author John DeCicco, from the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

The findings have significant ramifications for climate change mitigation approaches, as biofuels have increasingly been used as a cleaner alternative to petroleum. In many parts of the world they form a vital part of government-backed plans to reduce carbon emissions; a role that may well need to be reconsidered now that such strong doubt has been cast on their effectiveness.

In the US, for example, they are recommended for transportation purposes by the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which has helped to spur growth in production in the country from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013.

The researchers have even gone so far as to argue biofuels are worse than other traditional fuel sources, due to the false sense of security they provide to policymakers.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco.

“So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study's findings

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study’s findings

As a result of the shocking findings, the researchers are now recommending that policymakers reconsider their use of biofuels to mitigate climate change.

“Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels,” said DeCicco.

“This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”