If there's a gene for entrepreneurship, Elon Musk has it. From his first project at age 12 creating and selling a videogame called Blastar for $500, to his $1-billion-plus sale of PayPal to eBay in 2002, the 37-year-old South African is every bit the born mogul. These days he's chairman of Solar City, the largest residential solar-power provider in California. He's also the founder and CEO of Space X, a space-exploration company that made headlines last September when it launched the first privately developed rocket into orbit. But lately it's Musk's newly minted role as CEO of the San Carlos, California-based start-up Tesla Motors that is drawing the most attention. In October, amid global financial tumult, Tesla received a $40-million cash infusion from private investors and announced that by 2011 it would begin selling an electric sedan powered by lithium-ion batteries with an unthinkable 244-mile range. The Model S won't overtake Tesla's 125mph Roadster, but it will be nearly half the price, at $60,000, and made in America. We spoke with Musk about his push to make affordable high-performance electric cars and why hybrids have no future.
Q: Can you be successful selling an alternative-fuel car now that gas prices have dipped below $3 a gallon?
A: Absolutely. The cost difference between electric and gasoline is gigantic. When we started Tesla in 2003, gasoline was around $2.50. It takes 60 kilowatt-hours to charge the Roadster's battery. So at California's special rate for electric cars, currently seven cents a kilowatt-hour to charge at night, it costs roughly $5 to go 250 miles. And we're zero-emissions.
Q: But gas cars are still more affordable.
A: Today. Remember, in their early days, gasoline cars were really "toys for the rich." All technology gets optimized. The typical electric motor is 90 percent more efficient at converting energy into motion than the internal combustion engine. You get an overwhelming advantage in both carbon emissions and energy per mile.
Q: Why not go hybrid?
A: We looked closely at developing a hybrid, but we decided it's a red herring. If you stay purely electric or purely gasoline, you're going to make a better car. As soon as you try to split the difference, you have something that's neither fish nor fowl. A Prius is a weak gasoline car with a little bit of electric charge. And once you've used up the electric charge, you have an underpowered gasoline engine or a weak electric car.
Q: How will drivers recharge the battery pack in the Model S?
A: You'll head to a battery-swap station, drive your car onto rails that lock your car into position like at a car wash, and a customized forklift device will grab the pack from beneath the car, pull it out, and replace it with another pack. It'll take roughly five minutes -- less time than filling your gas tank. For a high-speed recharge, the car will also have onboard chargers that let you plug into any wall socket and charge up in 45 minutes.
Q: Tesla has delivered only 50 Roadsters. How do you plan to get 15,000 Model S cars out annually?
A: For the Roadster, we made a few architectural errors and lots of mistakes in our choice of suppliers. And we were developing the first version of a new technology. With the sedan, we already have the powertrain in a rolling prototype, so there's much less uncertainty around the technology. That said, the recent economic situation has forced us to push back production six months, to mid-2011.
Q: You run a green company. Would you say you live a green lifestyle?
A: I'm not too hardcore about being green. I think it leads to a very constrained life. I have the Roadster and a Porsche Turbo. But once the sedan comes out, I'll hand in the Porsche. Waste is not good, but we can't conserve our way to a solution. If everyone were a super-green conservationist, it would just delay the inevitable. We have to find sustainable means of producing and consuming energy.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.