Do you think Musk shames Silicon Valley? There’s a great quote from one of your Business Week articles in the book, that gets quoted a lot, that this is will be the first tech bubble to leave nothing behind: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Was that a motivation?
Vance: Part of the reason I wanted to do the book was to shame them. It’s irrelevant whether Elon is a dick or not: at least he’s trying to make things. If I couldn’t have done the biography, that would have been the whole book. I’m depressed about millennial so-called entrepreneurs. A lot of them are just playing the game to make money.
How much of a grand strategy does he have? How much is improvised. Like power, for example. There’s massive opportunities here doing arbitrage and selling stuff back to the grid, and Powerpacks seems to be part of that.
Vance: He comes up with some of the stuff as he goes along, sure.
In California there are so many Teslas in this area there are neighbourhoods where they are storing huge amounts of energy already. At night they have to have set aside times when to charge them, because there are so many in a concentrated area, they’re pulling on the grid, and it’s becoming a problem. He’s had the software for arbitrage. SolarCity is the largest installer of solar panels now and it’s got minuscule capacity compared to a real energy company, but it’s a lot of megawatts to manage. It could be bigger than an automotive company.
Where are you on Musk’s prophecies of AI doom? It doesn’t seem that close to me – software isn’t getting smarter. If anything, it's the opposite.
Vance: I have trouble taking that too seriously. I tend to err on the same side as you, especially when I’m trying to get my Windows computer to work well.
I’m in Mountain View so I’m in the robot cars test track, really. I saw a Google car the other day that was freaking out. We totally had to treat it like a drunk driver. It kept putting its right blinker on to go into the right lane, then halfway across would swerve back. Half of the car didn’t want to go.
I can see problems where nobody wants to carry the can for the algorithms they’ve written: the algorithms do something harmful, and then you can’t put people in prison. But not sentience. Anyway, Musk has got a lot of flak about being a subsidy chaser in the past few weeks. Somebody even suggested everything was designed around farming government subsidies, and so he can't be a proper entrepreneur.
Vance: I definitely think Elon has been pretty masterful how he plays it, but the idea that he designed it all from the outset to get subsidies is just not true. Tesla tapping a loan was a desperation move. He was a software guy, and the hardware ended up being so much more difficult than he anticipated. If you look at their original numbers for how much the factory would cost, it was laughable to everyone else in the automative industry.
With SpaceX, the problem was that their ambition kept growing. The current contractors who were assembling stuff were asking for tons of money and SpaceX wanted to do it cheaper. It was only after Elon started to buy parts did they realise how expensive it really was, and he decided to make his own stuff cheaper. And once you start to make those decisions, your own costs grow.
What SpaceX is doing for NASA to me is not a subsidy. It’s work for the Government. The Government doesn’t have a choice. SpaceX has been doing resupply missions for the Govt and it’s now going to fly the space satellites. Lockheed and Boeing charge $300m for this, and SpaceX charges $90m.
Elon put some money in and the Government put some money in and it seems like everyone’s happy. ®