Environment

5 Ways Futurist Elon Musk's Enterprises May Change the Course of Our Lives

The visionary, engineer and capitalist is helping to forestall our screwed-up future.

Hey, what are you up to these days? Elon Musk is helping build a future to save our globally warming asses. A gifted visionary, engineer and capitalist, the fortysomething Musk, also a founder of Paypal, has long dreamed of crucial advances in solar power, electric cars and space travel. And then he somehow went out and made them real. And real profitable. 

It's good timing. We're in a planetary emergency careening 67,000mph through space. It's long past time that we electrified Earth's fleet, or created a nationwide solar infrastructure. Or built an emissions-free mass transportation system that can hurl us from L.A. to San Francisco in minutes. Or planet-hopping rockets and pods that launch Earth's populace into a much-needed cosmological attitude adjustment.

We also need more minor and major players like Musk on one hand openly calling bullshit on fossil fools while on the other creating industries to replace their inevitable demise. For all the concern about Musk being a rich boy with rich toys, given what we are up against with climate change, that he is doing all of the below while not being an ultra-hardcore green probably says more about how far doubters, not Musk, have to go to take global warming seriously.

Here are five ways Elon Musk is hopefully helping to forestall the screwed-up future we're building together today.

1. Tesla Motors

Unplugging our entire global fleet from dirty fuels is an absolute if we want anything resembling a fighting chance. Musk's Tesla Motors is fighting back with blowout performances on the street (and the Street) from its pricy Model S, which is subsidizing a coast-to-coast supercharger buildout supporting a more affordable, accessible $35,000 Gen3, arriving in 2015. The argument that zero-emissions Teslas are clean energy for the rich should evaporate after that: Gen3's price point is well within range of popular middle-class cars and hybrids.

But Tesla's green argument is dominant: Pan-class drivers nevertheless pay in gas and blood to haul SUVs, trucks and junkers from one end of the planet to another, going nowhere. Even its luxury Model S pays back its pound of flesh, whether in recouped gas money, higher travel efficiencies and zero emissions. Last week, the Model S tripped from San Diego to Vancouver without dropping a dime on dirty fuel profiteers. Exponentially replicate that feat across the entire nation and you've got a potent solution to the death-bringer crap cars perennially spew into our worsening atmosphere. 

"Tesla Motors have some of the best vehicles on the market," Cleantechnica founder Zachary Shahan told me. "Model S was named best car in the world by some of the largest auto magazines and journalists. Consumer Reports gave it the highest rating of any car it had ever rated. Tesla has completely changed the perceptions of electric vehicles and their market." 

Tesla's current electric car market includes alternatives like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus and others hovering near the Gen3's $35,000 sweet spot. Even without its mass green appeal, Tesla has energized portfolios, having tripled this year as it motors toward $200 a share and increasingly solar homes. Speaking of....

2. SolarCity

Like Tesla, this leading U.S. home solar systems provider has experienced a meteoric rise in cultural and economic capital this year, despite only going public at the end of 2012. Chairman Musk and cousins, SolarCity founders and chief officers Lyndon and Peter Rive have plumbed their well-connected investor rolodexes to create partnerships with corporations, governments, banks and whoever else they can find—like Google, which dropped $280 million in 2011, its biggest clean-energy investment at the time—to finance much-needed nationwide residential and commercial solar installations, audits, retrofits and upgrades. Solar City's capitalization on a no-brainer infrastructure has made it a massive solar player in an increasingly crowded field in a very short time. 

But who cares? Everything from our roofs and walls to our cars and heads needs a solar panel on it, and now. “We can’t wish this problem away, and pointing fingers won’t solve it," Solar Energy Industries Association vice-president Ken Johnson told me. "That’s why it’s so encouraging to see visionaries like Musk taking the lead."

"Central to SolarCity's dominance has been the solar leasing model, of which some are very critical," Zachary Shahan added. "But it's hugely popular and has an appeal that touches many consumers. On a Tesla conference call, Musk once discussed where SolarCity's focus on solar leasing came from, noting that the SolarCity team found people much more attracted to simply leasing rather than putting money down or getting a loan. That has allowed SolarCity to blow up, and it seems that Elon was quite involved in the development of that model and market."

3. SpaceX

As Musk has noted before, we're going to need exponential innovation in our budding solarized and electrified fleets and homes if we're going to survive space in any meaningful capacity. That species necessity is reason enough to immediately send our rich and poor alike into Earth's orbit, to reality-check our heads and aspirations, to exponentially gather and process ever more astronomical and atmospheric data confirming that humanity is hanging upon a slender existential thread. Musk's SpaceX has lately begun to realize his astronomical vision.

Earlier this year SpaceX's reusable rocket prototype Grasshopper made its highest flight, while last year its reusable spacecraft Dragon became the first private spaceship to dock at the International Space Station. That uncrewed feat impressed NASA enough to commission the reusable crewed version DragonRider, now in development, which will ferry astronauts and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit. Oh, did I mentioned the rockets were reusable?

As for concerns Musk is a private capitalist looking to constrain public space travel, he has admitted it is not less but more private and public space coupling that is necessary to achieve humanity's higher astronomical ambitions, which he hopes include "a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”

"In order for SpaceX to be successful it has to become a part of the system," Musk explained recently in Dublin. "It can’t be an outsider forever. We believe it is important to develop an interplanetary transport technology, but I don’t want to compromise the fundamental goals of the organization in order to become an insider."

Musk probably wouldn't like to compromise the zero-emissions ethics of Tesla and SolarCity either, as SpaceX follows its fellow spacefarers at Kennedy Space Center into shame as some of the Sunshine State's most toxic citizens. Musk made waves this year for entertaining an offer from doomed Florida to build a private space sport while SpaceX simultaneously launches NASA missions at nearby Cape Canaveral. But he's making bigger waves working just as hard to electrify our fleets and solarize our houses, concerns that bleed directly into SpaceX's recycled rockets.

4. Hyperloop

For all of his interstellar ambition, Musk knows mass transportation on Earth comes first: Before humanity can even hope to rocket around space it needs to relearn how to move amongst itself. Musk's recently unveiled Hyperloop concept has entered the fray as what its visionary calls a "fifth-mode" alternative to traditional trains, planes and automobiles, as well as the high-speed rail infrastructure already underway. Pressurized capsules containing passengers are hurled by air and sun along elevated or subterranean depressurized pneumatic tubes from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It's comparatively cheap at $6 billion, especially compared to the exhaustive resource wars propping up our traditional, increasingly obsolete transportation system.

Having unveiled Hyperloop earlier this year as an advanced white paper on SpaceX and Tesla's sites, Musk is already developing a demonstration while opensourcing its subsequent design to anyone who can help him make it work. Hyped up by optimists and shot down by defeatists, Hyperloop is at the very least reorienting national dialogue. "The intent," Musk explained in Hyperloop's proposal, "has been to create a new open source form of transportation that could revolutionize travel."

Whether it eventually materializes or not—although, historically speaking, it would be foolish to bet against Musk—Hyperloop is another convergence of Musk's sprawling but interconnected interests. Tesla's green fleet and bettering batteries, SolarCity's sprawling sunpower production and consumption, SpaceX's galactic ambition and mobility all achieve a wider ideal for a humanity presently locked in a trophic cascade of system failures. What will Musk come up with next?

5. [Insert Invention Here]

What sounds cool? A gesture-based design system for rockets, or whatever, that routes blueprints to 3D printers? Musk created one after watching Iron Man, whose director Jon Favreau famously based character Tony Stark—who used a kickass gesture-based design system in the film—on Musk. That hyperreal bleed got cooler when Musk and Favreau traded tweets about it, closing a circle of influence that remains instructive, given how inspired Musk has been by Isaac Asimov and other sci-fi and fantasy visionaries before him. But he is also trafficking in true-life visionaries like Nikolai Tesla, whose Long Island laboratory Musk is reportedly helping to preserve.

What do we need, atop the other concerns that brings Musk's future industries closer by the day? Well, we could really use advances in capture strategies, machines to suck the apocalyptic CO2 and CH4 out the sky and put it to work for us. A system that could repurpose nuclear waste and fallout would rule right now, but Musk knows that because he visited Fukushima and donated a $250,000 solar project. So maybe he's already working on that. 

Wait, why are we waiting for him to do it? Wasn't the point of this analysis to get everyone else to up their game? Don't we want to save the world? Aren't we paying attention?

“Few things threaten our future more than climate change," Solar Energy Industries Association's Ken Johnson told me. "Sea levels are rising, we’re experiencing more intense and unpredictable storms and droughts. To his credit, Musk is leading by example."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.