Image courtesy of Heisenberg Media via Flickr.
Elon Musk's Master Plan, Part Deux is out. It hasn’t caused quite the stir that many of Elon Musk’s other remarks have, but it’s still a big deal. Especially considering the media fallout from the controversy surrounding Tesla Autopilot, the master plan seems to almost slip under the rug. Tesla stock actually dropped 4% after the plan was announced, and it lost value again with the finalization of the Solar City acquisition.
Be that as it may, Elon Musk faced doubts long before even his original Master Plan when he published it in 2006. Since then, he's certainly showed the whole world exactly what he is capable of. Musk has seen many ups and downs since starting SpaceX and Tesla Motors.
To catch up on his history up until this point, check out this video from Coldfusion TV:
Despite some setbacks, it must be said that he achieved all of the goals he set out in his original Master Plan. Tesla has contributed a huge amount to the growing popularity of electric cars, making them desirable and greatly furthering solar technology in the process. However, he has a long way to go in terms of making solar technology affordable and convenient for the average consumer and homeowner.
The Gigafactory is a huge part of this ultimate dream, making electrical storage cheap enough for practical home use with the Powerwall and on a scale big enough for businesses to use with the Powerpack. The Gigafactory is also entirely necessary just to keep up with the incredibly high demand for the Model 3.
The Master Plan: Moving Forward
According to the Master Plan, Part Deux, Musk has set his sights on the following list of goals:
- Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
- Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
- Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
- Enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it
First, let's deal with two of the points in quick succession.
Part Deux discusses a very drawn out plan for creating self-driving cars, though the current tech is admittedly far from where it needs to be to make that happen. Other automakers besides Tesla have already discussed plans for similar ‘self-driving fleets’ so that concept isn’t very new or particularly outlandish, nor is the idea that it could earn you money during your work hours or night time.
So let's move on to Musk's other two points: expanding electric vehicles and developing solar roofs.
Expanding Electric Vehicles
Electric urban transport already exists today in the form of electric buses, though not autonomous ones. And an electric crossover sounds reasonable after seeing the Model X SUV. But there are definitely some seriously ambitious parts of Musk’s plan.
Another huge move Musk seeks to make is with electric semi trucks. As this Ars Technica article points out, it’s probably a great application for electric vehicle technology, as the yearly fuel costs are astronomical.
For a regular consumer vehicle, the extra price of even a Model 3 over a Prius, for example, might take 20 years of driving to pay off. But the price difference between a gas and electric semi truck might be paid off in under five years from fuel and brake repair costs alone. That makes electric semi trucks a great opportunity for Tesla.
The Nikola One semi truck runs off of natural gas and electricity. Image courtesy of Green Car Reports.
A far less ideal move that Musk mentioned, however, was to get into the pickup truck industry.
There are some serious obstacles to that goal, as TESLARATI points out. The Ford F-150 is an extremely large portion of that market right now and pickup trucks hold strong brand loyalty among drivers. Although Tesla is very popular among tech nerds like me, I can’t see them convincing the diesel brothers to go quietly, let alone turn their fanbase to silent EV trucks.
Solar Roofs with Integrated Battery Storage
Now, let’s talk about the very first major point of the new plan: “Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage”.
That is way more difficult than it sounds.
Current solar systems require a minimum of four components:
- Solar panels generate power during hours with direct sunlight. These have a maximum power output and panel voltage. (For Tesla, SolarCity currently handles these.)
- Groups of panels can be wired in series, parallel, or a combination of those for various voltage/power configurations.
- Solar charge controllers take the panel voltage and current and change it to a suitable battery charging voltage and current.
- Like the panels, themselves, the batteries can also be arranged in combinations of series and parallel “bank” configurations to fit the output(s) of various chargers.
- Batteries/electrical storage is required to allow homes to operate during hours without direct sunlight and during the night. Tesla is working on this with Powerwall.
- Solar chargers are also often specific to certain battery chemistries (lead acid or lithium ion, for instance). Tesla Powerwall currently utilizes lithium batteries, which limits charger options.
- DC-AC inverters are also needed to run the batteries’ stored energy, released as DC, into 120V/60Hz (or 240V outside of the US) sent to all home outlets and appliances.
- Like solar charge controllers, Tesla currently has made no progress developing these. They, too, have input voltages and maximum power ratings which must be matched to the rest of the system.
Wiring diagram of a solar panel system. Image courtesy of SunWiz.pk.
As you can see, stunning solar roofs are very much a tip-of-the-iceberg segment of a far larger endeavor. SolarCity has been making strides to at least make future solar roofs attractive and efficient with the new Silevo solar panel, but they are a long way off from all the other lofty goals Elon Musk has set.
Low-profile rooftop solar panels. Image courtesy of Fusion Solar Technologies.
Elon Musk has driven innovation in many fields. The Master Plan, Part Deux may be a peek at what's in store for the future. But it's easy to get caught up in the hype.
As a closing thought, consider the (in)famous Hyperloop concept Musk threw around a while back.
While at the time it seemed amazing, there are many different angles from which it ranges from implausible to borderline insane. That video I just linked and this one defending it (mind the strong language in the YouTube comments) really convinced me that the Hyperloop, while not exactly a hoax, is an unachievable mode of transport.
Though not actually being developed by any of Musk’s companies, there's an ongoing competition sponsored by Musk to try to bring this into some level of feasibility. Clearly, there are many a reason the Hyperloop isn't part of the Master Plan Part Deux.
I personally believe Musk can do great things, but that’s not to say he’s a perfect being who makes no mistakes. It’s easy to mistake great men like him for being unstoppable or infallible. The truth is, when you make bold claims, you’ve got to back them up. Elon Musk has done a fine job of that so far. Time will tell if he can keep it up.