Elon Musk: In 20 years, most cars will be electric

At TechCrunch Disrupt, the PayPal co-founder and founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX offers his vision of the future, and what would-be entrepreneurs should expect when trying to start new companies.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--In 20 years, a majority of new cars will be electric and the world's single largest source of energy will be solar power, Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said today.

Speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference here, the 40-year-old billionaire co-founder of PayPal shared his vision of the future, and also gave the room full of would-be entrepreneurs some sobering advice about what they should expect when trying to get companies off the ground.

Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder Elon Musk (seen here on the left in 2007) says that in 20 years, the majority of new cars will be electric. Stefanie Olsen/CNET

"Expect it to be difficult," Musk said. "A friend phrased it well: 'Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.'"

Those are no doubt harrowing words, but in speaking them in the closing talk at Disrupt it would seem Musk wasn't trying to discourage those in the room from seeking their own innovations. Rather, he wanted entrepreneurs to have a decent sense of what's in store.

Musk has in recent years tackled two major efforts: making exciting electric cars, and building a profitable private space industry. And though his perspective may be colored by his own experiences, he said he feels the two biggest problems humankind must solve to have a bright future are clear.

"I think the biggest problem humanity faces in the 21st century," Musk said, "is sustainable energy, terrestrially" and achieving life beyond Earth.

This is a man, of course, who should be taken seriously when he tackles problems or poses challenges. After all, SpaceX has already been chosen by NASA as the provider of the rockets that will replace the now-retired Space Shuttle program for getting cargo and astronauts (what he called "biological cargo") to the International Space Station. And this isn't a pipe dream: the first SpaceX missions could begin docking at the Space Station within a few months, and the first astronauts could start riding SpaceX rockets to the ISS within three years or so.

But most entrepreneurs will never be able to take on challenges quite so large. So Musk said that especially when it comes to first-time founders, building Internet companies may be the perfect way to go, given the relatively low costs of creating an online business. "Unless you've got a ton of capital," he said, "you have to start a company that requires a small [investment]. It would have been impossible for me to have done electric cars or rockets right from the start."

Even those who start companies will almost never find themselves doing what Musk does: running two high-profile outfits at once. And to hear him talk about it, it's not something most people would ever want to do. "I do it with great difficulty," he told the Disrupt audience. "It's quite hard...I don't recommend it. I tried not to run two companies, but I didn't have a choice: one of them would have failed" otherwise.

Musk wouldn't say which of the two companies would have faltered without his leadership, but he did say that Tesla, which has become a darling of Silicon Valley A-listers like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, had to contend with a series of hurdles as it attempted to reach its goal of producing a high-end electric car, and later a more mainstream version.

"There were certainly many hiccups," Musk said of Tesla's short history. "It was more like almost choking to death and surviving...We knew it would be hard, but we didn't know it would be as hard as it was."

Vision of the future
Before his time onstage was over, Musk was asked to share his vision of the world 20 or more years from now. And when he did, it was an optimistic outlook. "On the energy side," he said, "I think by the mid-point of the century...solar power will be the single largest source of energy. Maybe not a majority, but the largest single source."

Plus, he said, within two decades years, he expects electric cars to represent the majority of new vehicles. Together, those visions represent a much more sustainable future, at least from an energy perspective, than what the world is contending with today. And though Musk is certainly biased in his view, especially when it comes to electric vehicles, his track record entitles him to be taken seriously.