There’s a sort of Elon Musk cult on Quora, with questions like: How did Elon Musk learn so much? Is Elon Musk a visionary or just a crazy man? Does he think ten times faster than other people? Why doesn’t he wear the same outfit all the time like Mark Zuckerberg does? Does he take vacations? And also: Has Elon Muck committed any crimes? With Elon Musk hurting so many people’s business, how does he stay safe from people that want him “gone”?

(If you’ve time to waste on this, start here and look at the related questions panel.)

For ordinary folk, the non-believers, Elon Musk is the Tesla guy. The space rocket guy. The crazy who wants to live on Mars. Also the guy who co-founded Paypal. He’s definitely rich, presumably clever and unquestionably ambitious. Not perfect, though. Watch him on YouTube (here he is launching his domestic solar panels on the set of Desperate Housewives) and you’ll see he’s a pretty dismal presenter. His delivery is stilted, awkward at times, and a little repetitive, a man who is untroubled by adherence to a script and certainly doesn’t bother to rehearse.

But the message is amazing. I thought Tesla was about electric cars. It’s really about accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy. You don’t have to be a signed-up member of the cult of Elon to admire the clarity of his vision. He says providing sustainable energy has three parts: energy generation, storage and transport. His solution is: affordable, attractive solar panels; larger better batteries; and desirable electric vehicles. Each of those three parts is described in this piece, and each one feels attractive and achievable. Perhaps it’s his outrageous ambition that inspires adulation.

So here are three take-aways about Elon Musk:

First, his cars are not what matter. Sure, Tesla seems disruptive in the motor industry. But the reason the automotive industry should really fear Elon Musk is that he’s not really competing with them. Like he says, there was no shortage of car companies in the world, good “gasoline car companies”. He’s not really in the car business – not as an end in itself. He’s in the sustainable energy business. The aim is not to build a better car but to create an alternative ecosystem. That must include how we power transport, one of our biggest uses of fossil fuel. So he’ll keep working on electric transport. Perhaps that’s where the Hyperloop fits in. It seems daft but it’s just another experiment in energy-efficient transport.

Second, he isn’t a great presenter but he knows how to create a good proposition. In a throwaway fashion, he delivers one of the best propositions ever. It’s here, six and a half minutes in. He says they’re aiming for a solar roof that looks better, lasts longer, has a better insulating effect, provides your electricity and where the cost of the roof plus electricity is less than a normal roof. The core idea is super-slim solar panels in the form of glass tiles which are printed to look like small clay tiles, large terracotta tiles, French slate, whatever you fancy, and all tougher and more resilient than those materials. Summed up as “beautiful, affordable and seamlessly integrated”. Just like his electric cars are way more desirable than both other electric cars and most combustion engine cars, his solar panel roof isn’t just nicer than an ugly solar panel, it’s preferable to a standard roof. That’s what will drive uptake of sustainable technologies. As the great man says, “if all those things are true why would you go in any other direction?”

Third, his big idea really is a big idea, and a coherent one. The real vision of Elon Musk is a sustainable future. If he succeeds we all benefit. Good luck to him.

Comment | May 2018