Why Elon Musk’s innovation engine shows no signs of slowing

Innovate or perish may be the most apt phrase for Elon Musk and his push to reshape the car,  space, and transport industries.

As the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Musk has shown his exceptional abilities as an innovator. Tesla’s 2010 IPO, for example, was the first by an American automobile maker in more than 50 years, defying a chorus of critics and naysayers.

Tesla: The best way to describe the all-electric Tesla Model S is a computer on wheels.  Though many cars today are packed with computer technology, Tesla has upped the ante with an electric drive train running off a large battery pack.

The electric drive system includes a battery, motor, drive inverter, a gearbox, and a microprocessor-controlled lithium-ion battery pack.  The battery comes in different sizes with the largest rated at more than 250 miles on a single charge.

And with no valves, connecting rods, gears, clutches, and other legacy components of the gasoline car, in many ways the Model S bears little resemblance to a conventional automobile.  And at some level, it’s not unlike a laptop computer – also packed to the gills with battery cells.

“We really designed the Model S to be a very sophisticated computer on wheels,” Musk said earlier this month when announcing updates to the Model S in a conference call.   “A huge part of what Tesla is, is a Silicon Valley software company. We view this the same as updating your phone or your laptop,” he said.

During the call, Musk also made it clear how different Tesla is than the typical car from Detroit. With a wireless software update (again, not unlike a laptop), Musk said an "auto steering" feature is on the way that that should be ready in a few months. With the new updates, steering, acceleration, and braking would be automatically controlled when the car is on a highway.

But the Model S is just the beginning.  The Model X, a crossover, is due in early 2016.  After that, in 2017, the Model 3, the first mass market Tesla, is scheduled to arrive.  The Model 3 is expected to be priced at around $35,000, according to Auto Express, essentially cutting the price of the $70,000 Model S in half.

Innovation also extends to the way Tesla sells its cars.  The company has been waging a state by state battle to sell its cars directly to the consumer and bypass the age-old dealer network that Detroit and foreign car makers still rely on.

SpaceX: SpaceX’s goals make Tesla’s aspirations seem tame.  The ultimate aim of the privately-held company is to colonize Mars. In the meantime, its more down-to-earth mission is to reduce space transportation costs.

The company’s core products are the SpaceX-designed-and-built Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft.

Falcon 9: the key to reducing costs is making the Falcon rocket reusable. “The majority of the launch cost comes from building the rocket, which flies only once. Compare that to a commercial airliner – each new plane costs about the same as Falcon 9, but can fly multiple times per day, and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of traveling to space by a hundredfold,” according to a SpaceX statement.

Falcon 9 made history in 2012 when it became the first commercial company to visit the International Space Station (ISS).  Earlier this year, on Jan. 10, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered a large cargo to the Space Station.  And the company will be busy this year.  SpaceX is slated for multiple launches in in 2015.

Dragon Version 2: The Dragon Version 2 spacecraft, announced last year, epitomizes SpaceX’s future.  Designed to carry astronauts “to Earth orbit and beyond.” According to SpaceX, the spacecraft “will be capable of carrying up to seven crewmembers, landing propulsively almost anywhere on Earth, and refueling and flying again for rapid reusability.”

Upgrades over Version 1 include a SpaceX-designed and built ISS docking adapter, impact attenuating landing legs, and a more advanced version of the PICA-X (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator-X) heat shield for improved durability and performance.

Dragon v2’s robust thermal protection system is capable of lunar missions, in addition to flights to and from Earth orbit, according to SpaceX.

Unbelievably, though, Musk isn’t limiting his ambitions to the already-ambitious Tesla and SpaceX ventures.

Hyperloop: Mostly a vision at this stage, Musk’s idea is to develop Hyperloop, a next-generation transit system. Essentially, it is a network of tubes, kept at low air pressure, making the journey between, for example, Los Angeles and San Francisco doable in about 35 minutes by reaching speeds of up to 760 mph.

The first phase of realizing the vision is the construction of a small scale hyperloop next year. The plan is to build a five-mile track in Quay Valley in California’s Central Valley.  Construction will be funded by a $100 million public offering Hyperloop Transportation Technologies plans for later this year.

If Tesla and SpaceX are any lesson, Hyperloop is not an idle vision.  In fact, Musk’s motto might be something like, “Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.” In all three cases, Musk is not only creating – or trying to create – a groundbreaking product, but creating pioneering industries. Those industries may be Musk’s greatest legacy.