Exclusive interview with Elon Musk: we'll have a self-driving Tesla within five years

Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk

The CEO of high-end electric vehicle (EV) pioneer Tesla and interstellar haulage firm SpaceX, Elon Musk made his billions from Paypal. That business revolutionised retail on the web and beyond, and he's continued to innovate in his subsequent projects.

Musk is now involved in everything from producing electric cars, so as to help save the planet, to planning a colony on Mars, just in case he fails to save the planet.

Tesla's latest vehicle is the Tesla Model S P90D (click that link to read our review). it's an electric supercar with a "Ludicrous Mode" that rockets it from 0-60mph in 2.8 seconds. That's 0.4 seconds quicker than a Lamborghini Huracan.

At the opening of Musk's latest European car factory in the hinterlands of the Netherlands, the big-thinking e-car magnate spoke candidly about everything from why it's a bad idea to wrap your lips around an exhaust pipe, to the need to price CO2 emissions more stringently, to Tesla's $5 billion Gigafactory 1 battery plant.

The Tesla factory, the Netherlands

Is it true that you'd like to die on Mars?

Elon Musk: Ha! I said that it is disappointing humans won't reach Mars in my lifetime. But if you had to pick one place to die, then yeah, Mars would be pretty cool. It's better than dying on Earth.

In the mean time, the whole Dieselgate crisis must be good for business, right?

We have hit the limit of physics with the combustion engine, so the improvements with diesel technology are quite incremental. What I imagine happened at VW is that lots of engineers were under a lot of pressure to make improvements but they hit a wall and then trickery was the only option.

What we need is a fundamental architectural change in the car industry. Moving to electric vehicles really is the only way to achieve zero emissions driving. And why do we need it? Listen, your air intake is right up against the exhaust pipe of the car in front. If you really want to do serious damage to health, wrap your lips around an exhaust pipe.

Do you think Dieselgate will help boost subsidy for zero emissions vehicles?

Something needs to be done to correct the economic error that's going on with CO2 emissions. If you ask any economist, they will tell you the same thing, that we are currently not pricing CO2 correctly. The cost of CO2 is tiny!

If the CO2 capacity of the air and the ocean is like a bank account, then we are just spending like it's nothing.

So in that regard, all CO2 activities are being subsidised in some way. Every gasoline or diesel car is not paying its way for CO2. There are two ways to address that: put a real price on CO2 or subsidise electric vehicles that don't produce the same amount of CO2.

Don't electric cars just pass the pollution buck to the energy plants?

So let's put a price on CO2 at a powerplant level, and at a car level. So all the people that say the electric vehicles push the emissions to the powerplant can be corrected. We'll pay our way too. I'm totally happy with that.


When will we see the first self-driving Tesla on the road?

Technologically, it's possible to do it soon. But there's a difference between me speculating when it will be and me telling you when it will be. I'm just speculating here, but I think it will be technologically possible in three years but it's going to be up to regulators to finally approve a self-driving car.

We will have to compile a lot of statistical evidence to show that the accident rate is lower with autonomy. And even at that point, regulators typically have to look at the evidence before imposing new rules. It takes at least a year. So realistically, it will be another five years until we see one on the road.

Leon Poultney

Leon has been navigating a world where automotive and tech collide for almost 20 years, reporting on everything from in-car entertainment to robotised manufacturing plants. Currently, EVs are the focus of his attentions, but give it a few years and it will be electric vertical take-off and landing craft. Outside of work hours, he can be found tinkering with distinctly analogue motorcycles, because electric motors are no replacement for an old Honda inline four.