February 15, 2008 4:00 AM PST
Newsmaker: Elon Musk on rockets, sports cars, and solar powerSee all Newsmakers
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For a brief period, you guys planned on selling batteries to third-party car companies. Is it the kind of thing that you want to come back to?
Musk: I think we'll have some discussions with car companies, but I think Tesla got too far ahead of itself by having discussions with supplying battery packs to other companies before our product was ready. We have to make sure we've got things sorted out with our own product before we try to sell to others. But I think there's a good chance that there'll be some power train supply deals. It could be the motor, the electronics, the system, the software that governs all of that. I think there's a good chance of seeing an announcement later this year but I wouldn't expect to see anything actually come to market before next year at the earliest. It'll be at the earliest next year for us to supply power train components to other companies.
Do you take orders from foreign clients?
Musk: Right now the car is only available in the U.S. Some additional modification is necessary to meet European standards. It's just a slightly different set of rules. I think it'll probably be 2010 before we deliver cars to Europe.
What do you think of all the money going to biofuels? Do you think biofuel will be able stand a chance against electric?
Musk: It depends on the biofuel application. I think for high-value applications like jet fuel, it makes a lot more sense than it does for cars. Biofuels such as ethanol require enormous amounts of cropland and end up displacing either food crops or natural wilderness, neither of which is good.
What about cellulose?
Musk: That's certainly a possibility. It's obviously tricky to convert cellulose to a useful biofuel. I think actually the most efficient way to use cellulose is to burn it in a co-generation power plant. That will yield the most energy and that is something you can do today.
But in general, crops are not a very efficient way of turning sunlight into mobile energy. A solar panel from SunPower is probably 20 to 22 percent efficient, but if you look at the actual efficiency of plants, if you take the sunlight incidence and then how much of that gets converted into plant matter and then what it takes to take that plant matter and convert it into ethanol or some other energy source, it actually ends up being well under 1 percent efficient. I mean, in some cases 0.1 percent.
Another way to think about it is, the current cultivated land is what's needed to provide food for about 6 billion people. The energy used by a car is much greater than a person. A person might use 3,000 calories in a day, but a car would use 300,000. Cars take a lot more energy than people do.
On a completely different topic, how is SpaceX doing?
Musk: Good. Last year we were profitable for the first year with over $100 million in revenue. We'll do either two or three launches of our Falcon 1 vehicle this year.
When is the next launch?
Musk: It's contingent on our satellite tests. It's currently tentatively scheduled for June because that's when they will be ready. We have 12 launches on manifest going forward. Over the next two and a half years we'll do 12 launches at least. In fact we'll probably add more to that manifest.
How much does each launch cost?
Musk: A Falcon 1 launch is about $8 million although, of course, if you ask for any kind of special work then it would be more. Then a Falcon 9 launch is anywhere from $35 million to $55 million.
Do you have more or less respect now for NASA and the government space agencies now that you've been doing this?
Musk: Well, NASA is our largest customer so I have enormous respect for them.
Why do you keep managing the company yourself? I mean, obviously you're an investor but you are also a CEO and you like to manage.
Musk: Well, yeah, I'm primarily an entrepreneur and a technologist. So with SpaceX, I'm the CEO and the chief designer of the rocket.
Don't you think there are too many things on your plate?
Musk: Yes, I do have too many things on my plate. I absolutely think that. SpaceX is really what I do on a day-to-day basis. The intention with Tesla is that of two to three days a month, although for the last several months it's been much more than that. The CEO (Ze'ev Drori) and I are working closely on getting the company on track and making sure that our business fundamentals are good.
It's certainly a significant strain on me personally, but I'm hopeful to reduce my time with Tesla to only two to three days a month. My intention is with Tesla and with SolarCity that those together don't take up more than 20 percent of my time. Actually, fortunately SolarCity is doing extraordinarily well and requires very little of my time.
How did you get involved with SolarCity? A solar-panel installer seems kind of low-tech.
Musk: Lyndon (founder and CEO Lyndon Rive) is my cousin.
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