Why The World Pays Attention When Elon Musk Proposes An Idea

Aug 13, 2013
Originally published on August 13, 2013 3:46 pm

Derision: It's what would usually greet plans for a futuristic transportation system that could take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. But when Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor behind PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, unveils such a plan, the world pays attention (even if it draws skeptics).

Here are four reasons why the world listens to what Musk has to say:

1. Fanciful Ideas: Before he came up with the idea for the Hyperloop, Musk said he planned to put a man on Mars in 10 to 20 years — and eventually build a colony on the red planet with 80,000 people. For a civilization that hasn't put a man on the moon since 1972, Mars seems far away; Mars in under two decades seems impossible. But 10 years ago, so did a hyped electric car and a successful private space company.

2. Record Of Success: Before Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City and even PayPal, Musk was behind Zip2, which provided media companies with Internet solutions during the heady dot-com days. He made millions when he sold that company to Compaq in 1999.

3. Comparisons With Iron Man: Musk's transition from just another dot-com millionaire to the man whose SpaceX became the first privately held company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station has led to some comparisons with Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy who dons the Iron Man suit in the comics and the movies. In fact, Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man, says that when he had no idea how to make the character seem real, actor Robert Downey Jr. told him to "sit down with Elon Musk." Musk himself has joked that "there are some important differences between me and Tony Stark, like I have five kids, so I spend more time going to Disneyland than parties. I feel a bit like Tony Stark's dad."

4. A Hacker Of Processes: Lost amid the media attention is the fact that what Musk wants to do is be disruptive. Kevin Roose, writing in New York magazine, calls the Hyperloop "a political statement aimed squarely at the Establishment."

"Musk wants to train normal people to look to private enterprise, not government, for the innovations that will improve their lives, and he wants them to pressure lawmakers to get out of the way of technological progress. That's a far different project than moving people from San Francisco to L.A. in half an hour, but in many ways, it's the greater challenge."

In unveiling his plans for the Hyperloop, Musk called California's $70 billion plan to build a high-speed train between the two cities too expensive and too slow.

"How could it be," he wrote, "that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL — doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"

Those things may be true, but for now the Hyperloop lives in Musk's imagination. Still, if it's one thing we know about Musk, he's the man who can move it to the realm of reality.

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