Elon Musk - the driven dreamer

Elon Musk and Rory

It is when our interview is over and we are filming some introductory shots around a Tesla Model S that Elon Musk drops into conversation a prediction that makes my eyes pop.

"Ultimately," he says, "you'll be able to summon the car from New York if you're living in LA and it will drive across the country, charge itself at the various locations and come to you."

But that must surely be a long way off, I stutter. The Tesla founder shrugs his shoulders and says "not that long. A couple of years." Now, just imagine the technological advances and regulatory changes that would be needed to allow a car to drive on its own 3,000 miles, only stopping to plug itself into a Tesla Supercharger. It's completely bonkers to think this could be achieved some time in the next couple of years.

But then again, Elon Musk is both bonkers and brilliant, the most visionary technology leader I have encountered in 20 years of interviewing many of the leading figures in the industry.

We meet at Tesla's design centre in Los Angeles, just around the corner from Rocket Road where Musk's Space X business is located. In the light, airy, design building there are a number of cars draped in black cloth, and staff involved in every aspect of the look and feel of Tesla models gathered around computer screens. In another corner we catch a glimpse of James Bond's Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me, bought by Musk a couple of years ago. No pictures I'm afraid - like most of what we see, it is off-limits to our cameras.

We have arrived after driving from Las Vegas in a Model S, getting some insight into the electric car's progress towards that autonomous future its creator believes is just around the corner. On the freeway, I switch on Autopilot mode so that the car steers itself at a constant speed, unless it gets too close to a vehicle in front, and it even changes lanes once I flip the indicator.

I am somewhat on edge - though that is nothing to the nervousness of my cameraman and producer, who both have little regard for my driving skills. For the most part Autopilot seems to work immaculately, though at one stage when producer Jat Gill is driving it seems to want to follow an exit lane straight off the freeway at 60mph and he has to wrench back control of the steering wheel.

Later, a message pops up that Autopilot is unavailable, and Tesla has to remotely reboot the system via the car's 4G connection while it is plugged in at a Supercharger station. It is a reminder that all cars are going to become, like the Tesla, giant smartphones, dependent on software upgrades for new features like Summon which has just gone live.

But before this autonomous future arrives, Tesla has got to start stemming its huge losses. And given that right now most of us have a better chance of riding one of his rockets than buying one of his cars Elon Musk knows he needs to start making something affordable. "We need to make a car that most people can afford in order to have a substantial impact," he admitted.

That means mounting pressure on the team beavering away behind us at the design centre to do what has so far been a struggle - deliver a new car on time and on budget. And I can imagine that their boss displays a Jobs-like intensity every time a deadline is missed or he spots a software glitch.

Still, I get the impression of a team fiercely loyal to a man who makes Tesla one of the most exciting places on earth to work. Where else would you find a boss who talks, as he does in our interview, of "becoming a multi-planet species and travelling out there among the stars"?

There is no guarantee that Elon Musk will realise his vision. After all the competition is getting fiercer. In cars, he's up against established firms like BMW and Ford and newcomers like Faraday Future, Google - and, according to him, Apple. Meanwhile in the private space race he faces Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos's (Jeff Who? says Mr Musk) Blue Origin.

But so far he has achieved far more than even he expected - he says he thought both Tesla and Space X had only a 10% chance of succeeding. Anyone who is excited by what technology can deliver will be hoping that Elon Musk continues to pursue his dreams.

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