Are SpaceX and Tesla Motors the Future of 21st Century Transportation?
On September 28, 2008, Falcon 1 Flight 4 lifted off at 4:15 p.m. (PDT) from the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launch site on Omelek Island at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) in the Central Pacific, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It achieved an elliptical orbit of 621 x 643 km, 9.3 degrees inclination, and carried into orbit a payload mass simulator of approximately 165 kg (364 lbs), designed and built by SpaceX specifically for this mission. Here’s a video of the launch:
The Falcon 1 – designed and manufactured from the ground up – became the first privately-developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.
SpaceX is but one of two notable ventures by the former co-founder of PayPal, 38-year-old Elon Musk. He is also Chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors, developer of high-end electric automobiles.
By the age of 12 Elon Musk had sold his first commercial software, a space game called Blaster. Sixteen years later he sold his first company, Zip2, to Compaq’s Alta Vista division for $341 million in cash and stock. His next venture was PayPal, acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock in 2002. Musk’s SpaceX venture is developing a set of launch vehicle and spacecraft products intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation. With the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles, SpaceX intends to offer highly reliable/cost-efficient launch capabilities for spacecraft insertion into any orbital altitude and inclination. Starting in 2010, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will provide Earth-to-LEO transport of pressurized and unpressurized cargo, including resupply to the International Space Station (ISS).
Musk says he was motivated to found SpaceX after learning NASA had no plans to send man to Mars. Musk considers space exploration one of the main areas that will "most affect the future of humanity:"
Currently, the space transport business serves both national government and large commercial customer segments. This involves government payloads, including military, civilian and scientific satellites, a market segment estimated at nearly $100 billion a year.
SpaceX is far from the only commercial space vehicle manufacturer — ARCASPACE, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, EADS Astrium, Reaction Engines Ltd., Space Adventures, and XCOR, to name a few, are other private ventures to watch. The fledgling space industry is reminiscent of the early days of the personal computer, when a number of established vendors and startups reversed-engineered Microsoft’s DOS and manufactured PCs using the Intel 8080 chip set. From Zenith to IBM to Compaq to HP and Dell, we’re likely to see a similar industry shakeout in the private space vehicle market segment in the coming decades.
Back on terra firma, Musk’s Silicon Valley electric vehicle (EV) startup — Tesla Motors — is currently the only automaker building and selling non-prototype highway-capable EVs in North America or Europe. (The name Tesla, of course, comes from Nikola Tesla who invented a resonant transformer circuit around 1891 that produced alternating current electricity.) A sleek Tesla sedan called the Model S is expected to come standard with a lithium-ion battery — the kind used in laptops and cell phones — and a 160-mile battery life. It’s also rumored to have a 300-mile extended battery upgrade option is lighter than lead and releases a lot more energy. Tesla plans to have the Model S in production by 2011:
Privately held Tesla has reportedly received more than $185 million in funding from Capricorn Management, Compass Technology Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, JP Morgan, Valor Equity Partners, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Elon Musk Technology, and US Venture Partners. An IPO may be in the offing in 2009.
Tesla, along with Ford and Nissan, are scheduled to get new loans from the U.S. government to help them offset the costs of research and development for more energy-efficient vehicles. The Obama administration has set a 2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) legislation deadline to improve the fuel mileage of all new model vehicles to meet a minimum of 35.5 MPG and reduce emissions.
Comparisons of Tesla Motors with the early Ford Motor Company are perhaps not inappropriate. Ford was launched in a converted factory in 1902 with $31,000 in cash from twelve investors, most notably John and Horace Dodge, who would later found the Dodge Brothers Motor Vehicle Company. $31,000 adjusted for inflation is approximately $687.000, a shoestring budget when compared with the $185 million reportedly available to Tesla. If the drive, entrepreneurial spirit, and engineering management abilities of Elon Musk are anything like that of the early Henry Ford, his considerably larger start-up funding could bode well for Tesla.
Ford introduced the world’s first moving assembly line in 1911, which reduced chassis assembly time by a factor of 10. Eighteen thousand Model Ts were initially built at the Piquette Road Manufacturing Plant, the first company-owned factory. By the time the company moved to its Highland Park Plant in 1911, it was producing over sixty-nine thousand of the increasingly popular “Tin Lizzies.” The company had developed all of the basic techniques of the modern assembly line and mass production by 1913.
Could Tesla’s Model S become the Model T of electric cars? Motor Trend suggests that this might be more than hyperbolic fantasy – given Musk’s deep pockets and reliable engineering. Last year, SpaceX, along with a rival in the private launch-vehicle business, Orbital Sciences, received a $3.5 billion NASA cargo resupply contract to provide payload deliveries to the International Space Station after the Shuttle fleet is grounding for good next year (and before NASA’s own Orion is operational). SpaceX’s share will be $1.6 billion for 12 launches of it Falcon 9 vehicle (numbers which could easily increase).
Could Tesla’s Model S become the Model T of electric cars?
While we’re likely to see significant demand for energy efficient electric cars as fossil fuel prices continue to rise –- particularly in urban areas –- there are major impediments to mass acceptance of EVs. Potential plug-in vehicle consumers do not have an adequate place to charge their vehicles. This problem is even more pronounced in places like San Francisco, where only about 16% of cars are parked in garages overnight and the rest end up curbside or in parking lots.
Also, while the U.S. power grid probably has enough overall capacity to supply energy to a nation of plug-in vehicles, it may not have the ability to charge them all when they plug in and demand energy at the same time –- for example, 6pm every weekday.
But these obstacles are not insurmountable given increased market demand for low-cost, high mileage green vehicles. With Falcon rockets delivering payloads to space and Tesla’s electric cars putting market pressure on established players like Ford, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla Motors are likely to become dominant players in 21st century transportation.