The City of the Future According to Elon Musk

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.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.