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Elon Musk's future: robot cars, people on Mars and AI run amok

Thursday, June 2, 2016 - 16:13
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SpaceX and Tesla Motors Inc founder Elon Musk has never been shy about making bold predictions. His latest pronouncements: that most cars won't have drivers in three years and people will arrive on Mars by 2025.

[SAN FRANCISCO] SpaceX and Tesla Motors Inc founder Elon Musk has never been shy about making bold predictions. His latest pronouncements: that most cars won't have drivers in three years and people will arrive on Mars by 2025.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp could start sending people off-planet by 2024 (they take months to get there), starting a 26-month cycle that will colonise the Red Planet and form the foundations of a space-faring civilisation, the chief executive officer of both companies told Recode's Code conference.

As for fully autonomous vehicles, safety-prone regulators - not technology - are the hold-up, the billionaire PayPal co-founder said Wednesday.

"I consider autonomous driving to be basically a solved problem. There's really only one area where it's a little dodgy, and that's where you're at 30 to 40 miles per hour" in cities, he said.

"We're less than two years away from complete autonomy. Regulators however will take at least another year; they'll want to see billions of miles of data."

The South Africa-born entrepreneur is known for his unvarnished views on, say, how malevolent artificial intelligence could doom the human race or space exploration being key to humanity's evolution. 

Mr Musk - who said he occasionally succumbs to delusion -- debated the best form of government (democracy) for a putative Mars colony, and the need for entrepreneurs to start businesses from iron-ore smelters to pizza delivery that can thrive in that planet's harsh environment.

But he also touched on matters far closer to home, including the divisive US elections. Asked about controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump, Mr Musk said no one person had the clout to affect the entire country, not even the Commander-in-Chief.

"I don't think this is the finest moment for our democracy," he said. "Being US president is being the captain of a large ship with a small rudder. There is a limit to how much good or bad a president can do."

Business-wise, Mr Musk welcomed competition in what he called an increasingly crowded electric and self-driving arena, including from Apple Inc, which he expected to begin producing cars in volume by 2020. The iPhone maker however has never confirmed any plans on that front. Google Inc on the other hand, which has spent years researching and testing autonomous vehicles, posed no direct threat.

"There've been so many announcements of autonomous EV startups. I'm waiting for my mom to announce one," he said. "Google's done a good job of showing the potential of autonomous transport, but they're not a car company."

Still, it's neither dreams of Mars nor his myriad business ventures that give him most pleasure - that honour goes to his children. Mr Musk makes it a point to spend time with them, whether it's playing video games or sharing butterbeers recently at Universal Studios' new Harry Potter attraction.

"Kids by far make me the happiest," he said.

BLOOMBERG