Solar Tribune

Elon Musk’s Complete Master Plan


Sustainable energy and transport, shared autonomy, and saving the world. Here’s how Elon Musk’s vision is becoming reality.

Tesla Master Plan, Part 1

From 0 to Mainstream: Hot off the heels of his PayPal victory and determined to change the status quo, Musk launched Tesla in 2003, at the same time he was building SpaceX. His Master Plan for the nascent company was essentially as follows:

  • Build sports car that runs on zero-emission electric power generation
  • Use the revenue to build an affordable electric car
  • Use that revenue to build an even more affordable electric car

“The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model,” he writes on Tesla’s blog.

1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive


The Roadster, Redefining The Electric Car: Tesla debuted the Roadster, a luxury electric sports car, in 2008. The vehicle was the first mass-produced electric car to use lithium-ion batteries, and the first to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge.

Just as he envisioned, the Roadster immediately broke preconceptions about what an electric car could be. The vehicle set the world distance record of 501 km for a production electric car on a single charge in October 2009; It could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds.

Tesla sold 2,450 of these high-end sports cars at a base price point of $109,000, and funneled the revenue into development of the Model S.The company stopped producing the Roadster in 2012, and plans to replace it with a second-generation version in 2019. Even so, the original Roadster served its purpose by raising eyebrows, funding the Model S, and setting Tesla’s Master Plan into motion.

Musk put as much of the profits from the Roadster as possible back into research and development, with the aim of creating a slightly more affordable but still luxurious family-oriented car.

2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price


Model S, Setting the Standard for Luxury Cars: Telsa released the Model S, a second-generation luxury vehicle at a lower price point, in 2012. The new model became one of the top-selling all-electric vehicles in the world and won numerous awards, including Time Magazine’s Best 25 Inventions of the Year Award in 2012 and Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2013.

Model X, Addressing the Other Half of the Car Market: Tesla rolled out the Model X, a luxury SUV sporting falcon-wing doors, in September 2012. While the model was absent from the company’s original master plan, Musk couldn’t ignore the fact that SUVs comprised 50% of the vehicle market.

The car was difficult to manufacture, and the pace of deliveries suffered. Soon after its release, a litany of glitches appeared. While many were related to the falcon-wing doors (such as the possibility of injury while closing), customers also reported issues with stubborn front doors, frozen touch-screens, and underperforming heaters. Elon now refers to the Model X as “step 2.5” of his Master Plan, and claims that Tesla’s “hubris” in adding so many new features was the source of its flaws.

3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car


Model 3, Mass-Market Adoption: With the Model S and Roadster under its belt and the Model X behind it, Tesla is now working on the key piece of its strategy—a high-volume car with a low price point. Meant for the masses, the Model 3 will start at a mere $35,000 before government incentives.

More than 100,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 flooded in sight-unseen in the 24 hours before Musk even displayed the prototype in March 2016. There were roughly 400,000 total pre-orders as of May 2017.

Production of the Model 3 is slated to begin in mid-2017 and ramp up to 500,000 cars per year in 2018. The first deliveries are scheduled for late 2017.

4. Provide solar power

Solar roof tiles. Source:

Tesla Acquires SolarCity for a “Whole-Home” Energy Solution: While the Powerwall can work in concert with solar panels and Tesla car chargers, truly seamless integration would require a merge between SolarCity and Tesla, Musk decided. Tesla bought SolarCity in 2016, moving Musk one step closer to his vision of a comprehensive energy solution for consumers, complete with rooftop solar generation, battery storage, and electric vehicle charging. SolarCity is slated to begin producing solar panels at its own gigafactory in Buffalo, New York in the summer of 2017.

Re-Inventing Solar for the Mass Market: With the other pieces of the renewable energy puzzle in place, Musk felt it was it was time to take rooftop solar to the next level. That meant a differentiated solar product with curb appeal for the masses—the solar roof.

Tesla rolled out roof tiles with invisible solar cells to widespread acclaim in October 2016. The tiles provide greater coverage with a seamless, integrated aesthetic. Homeowners can choose from four different styles that mimic traditional shingles. Made of tempered glass, they’re also quite tough; the tiles are designed to withstand hail impacts of up to 200 mph. Tesla’s solar roof lasts longer than a traditional roof, and at a lower cost when factoring in the electricity it generates.

The solar roof product was approved for permitting and installations by from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in May 2017, and installations will begin in California in June 2017. Inventory has already sold out well into 2018.


In Elon’s own words:


As you know, the initial product of Tesla Motors is a high performance electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be aware of the fact that our long term plan is to build a wide range of models, including affordably priced family cars. This is because the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.

Critical to making that happen is an electric car without compromises, which is why the Tesla Roadster is designed to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown. Then, over and above that fact, it has twice the energy efficiency of a Prius. Even so, some may question whether this actually does any good for the world. Are we really in need of another high performance sports car? Will it actually make a difference to global carbon emissions?

Well, the answers are no and not much. However, that misses the point, unless you understand the secret master plan alluded to above. Almost any new technology initially has high unit cost before it can be optimized and this is no less true for electric cars. The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.

Without giving away too much, I can say that the second model will be a sporty four door family car at roughly half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable. In keeping with a fast growing technology company, all free cash flow is plowed back into R&D to drive down the costs and bring the follow on products to market as fast as possible. When someone buys the Tesla Roadster sports car, they are actually helping pay for development of the low cost family car.

Now I’d like to address two repeated arguments against electric vehicles — battery disposal and power plant emissions. The answer to the first is short and simple, the second requires a bit of math:

Batteries that are not toxic to the environment!
I wouldn’t recommend them as a dessert topping, but the Tesla Motors Lithium-Ion cells are not classified as hazardous and are landfill safe. However, dumping them in the trash would be throwing money away, since the battery pack can be sold to recycling companies (unsubsidized) at the end of its greater than 100,000-mile design life. Moreover, the battery isn’t dead at that point, it just has less range.

Power Plant Emissions aka “The Long Tailpipe”
(For a more detailed version of this argument, please see the white paper written by Martin and Marc.)

A common rebuttal to electric vehicles as a solution to carbon emissions is that they simply transfer the CO2 emissions to the power plant. The obvious counter is that one can develop grid electric power from a variety of means, many of which, like hydro, wind, geothermal, nuclear, solar, etc. involve no CO2 emissions. However, let’s assume for the moment that the electricity is generated from a hydrocarbon source like natural gas, the most popular fuel for new US power plants in recent years.

The H-System Combined Cycle Generator from General Electric is 60% efficient in turning natural gas into electricity. “Combined Cycle” is where the natural gas is burned to generate electricity and then the waste heat is used to create steam that powers a second generator. Natural gas recovery is 97.5% efficient, processing is also 97.5% efficient and then transmission efficiency over the electric grid is 92% on average. This gives us a well-to-electric-outlet efficiency of 97.5% x 97.5% x 60% x 92% = 52.5%.

Despite a body shape, tires and gearing aimed at high performance rather than peak efficiency, the Tesla Roadster requires 0.4 MJ per kilometer or, stated another way, will travel 2.53 km per mega-joule of electricity. The full cycle charge and discharge efficiency of the Tesla Roadster is 86%, which means that for every 100 MJ of electricity used to charge the battery, about 86 MJ reaches the motor.

Bringing the math together, we get the final figure of merit of 2.53 km/MJ x 86% x 52.5% = 1.14 km/MJ. Let’s compare that to the Prius and a few other options normally considered energy efficient.

The fully considered well-to-wheel efficiency of a gasoline powered car is equal to the energy content of gasoline (34.3 MJ/liter) minus the refinement & transportation losses (18.3%), multiplied by the miles per gallon or km per liter. The Prius at an EPA rated 55 mpg therefore has an energy efficiency of 0.56 km/MJ. This is actually an excellent number compared with a “normal” car like the Toyota Camry at 0.28 km/MJ.

Note the term hybrid as applied to cars currently on the road is a misnomer. They are really just gasoline powered cars with a little battery assistance and, unless you are one of the handful who have an aftermarket hack, the little battery has to be charged from the gasoline engine. Therefore, they can be considered simply as slightly more efficient gasoline powered cars. If the EPA certified mileage is 55 mpg, then it is indistinguishable from a non-hybrid that achieves 55 mpg. As a friend of mine says, a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil.

The CO2 content of any given source fuel is well understood. Natural gas is 14.4 grams of carbon per mega-joule and oil is 19.9 grams of carbon per mega-joule. Applying those carbon content levels to the vehicle efficiencies . . . the hands down winner is pure electric

The Tesla Roadster still wins by a hefty margin if you assume the average CO2 per joule of US power production. The higher CO2 content of coal compared to natural gas is offset by the negligible CO2 content of hydro, nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar, etc. The exact power production mixture varies from one part of the country to another and is changing over time, so natural gas is used here as a fixed yardstick.

Becoming Energy Positive
I should mention that Tesla Motors will be co-marketing sustainable energy products from other companies along with the car. For example, among other choices, we will be offering a modestly sized and priced solar panel from SolarCity, a photovoltaics company (where I am also the principal financier). This system can be installed on your roof in an out of the way location, because of its small size, or set up as a carport and will generate about 50 miles per day of electricity.

If you travel less than 350 miles per week, you will therefore be “energy positive” with respect to your personal transportation. This is a step beyond conserving or even nullifying your use of energy for transport – you will actually be putting more energy back into the system than you consume in transportation! So, in short, the master plan is:

Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
Don’t tell anyone.

Tesla Master Plan, Part 2

With the company’s initial goals well on their way to fruition, Musk publicly expanded his Master Plan in a 2016 blog post. He mapped out Tesla’s future endeavors as follows:

  • Integrate energy generation and storage
  • Expand to cover the major forms of terrestrial transport
  • Implement self-driving technology
  • Enable car sharing

1. Integrate Energy Generation and Storage


Home storage: Storage has long been considered the “holy grail” for solar. When paired with storage, intermittent renewables like solar and wind can be just as reliable as energy based on fossil fuels. Storage can also sync solar production (which peaks at midday) with demands on the grid (which spike in the morning and evening).

While there are various ways to store energy, batteries are the only practical option for homes. Still, household-sized batteries remained expensive and difficult to maintain. Musk knew that solving storage would change the game for solar.

He achieved this goal in 2015 when Tesla released the Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for residential storage, and the Powerpack, a larger version for commercial and utility-scale projects.

The attractive, sculpture-like Powerwall simply mounts to an external or internal wall, and requires little maintenance. It debuted at an astonishing $3,000, and sold out through the following year almost immediately.

Scaled Battery Production: Musk knew that making batteries attractive and affordable wasn’t enough—rooftop solar with storage had to meet or beat the utilities on cost per watt. That meant large-scale production.

In 2013, Tesla announced plans to build a massive “gigafactory” near Reno, Nevada. While the facility is still under construction, it began producing battery cells for Powerwalls and Powerpacks in January 2017. The factory is about 30% complete, with roughly 4.9 million square feet of operational space planned. That figure may eventually double. Even at its originally planned footprint, the facility is the world’s largest building by square footage. Boeing’s plant in Everest, Washington comes in second at 4.3 million square feet.


The massive facility will manufacture 35GWh of battery cells and 50GWh of packs per year by 2020, all with renewable energy. Production at the gigafactory will likely slash the cost of batteries by more than 30%. A total of just 100 such facilities could provide the storage needed to transition the entire world to sustainable energy.

While Tesla can’t build all 100 of them, Gigafactory 1 is just the beginning. The company will also release plans for 2-4 new gigafactories later this year. Musk is hoping that other companies follow his lead and build their own gigafactories to address the world’s energy needs.

2. Expand Into All Forms of Ground-Based Transportation

With the SolarCity deal locked in and construction on Gigafactory 1 underway, Tesla could focus on the next phase of its Master Plan—expanding its line of vehicles. A full transition from fossil fuels to clean energy would require heavy-duty electric trucks and vehicles for shipping goods, in addition to passenger sedans and SUVs.

In December of 2017, Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi. Musk projects the new vehicle will beat diesel trucks on cost per mile, and has an estimated range of up to 500 miles. Tesla plans to begin production of the vehicle in 2019.

3. Vehicle Autonomy

Musk plans to roll out autonomous capability as soon as possible, and not just for the coolness factor—he’s primarily concerned with safety. Tesla will integrate self-driving components such as cameras, radar, and sonar with all of its vehicles as the technology evolves, he reports. Autonomous systems will be fail-operational, meaning that a vehicle will still drive itself safely if a component system breaks. While it will be some time before self-driving vehicles become street-legal, Tesla cars will be ready.

“I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future,” Musk writes on Tesla’s blog. “The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”

4. Sharing

Once your car is self-driving, you can put it to work for you when you’re not using it, Musk says. It will essentially be an “Uber driver,” but in Tesla’s shared fleet. Your Tesla may eventually end up paying for itself, meaning that anyone could afford to buy one.


It’s a win-win for both Tesla and the consumer, and the final phase of Tesla’s Master Plan—as far as we know. Judging from the company’s history, it could be the path to funding “Master Plan: Phase 3.” Musk may just be getting started.

In Elon’s own words:

The first master plan that I wrote 10 years ago is now in the final stages of completion. It wasn’t all that complicated and basically consisted of:

Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
Provide solar power. No kidding, this has literally been on our website for 10 years.
The reason we had to start off with step 1 was that it was all I could afford to do with what I made from PayPal. I thought our chances of success were so low that I didn’t want to risk anyone’s funds in the beginning but my own. The list of successful car company startups is short. As of 2016, the number of American car companies that haven’t gone bankrupt is a grand total of two: Ford and Tesla. Starting a car company is idiotic and an electric car company is idiocy squared.

Also, a low volume car means a much smaller, simpler factory, albeit with most things done by hand. Without economies of scale, anything we built would be expensive, whether it was an economy sedan or a sports car. While at least some people would be prepared to pay a high price for a sports car, no one was going to pay $100k for an electric Honda Civic, no matter how cool it looked.

Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people, implying that we felt there was a shortage of sports car companies or some other bizarre rationale. Unfortunately, the blog didn’t stop countless attack articles on exactly these grounds, so it pretty much completely failed that objective.

However, the main reason was to explain how our actions fit into a larger picture, so that they would seem less random. The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That’s what “sustainable” means. It’s not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone.

By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse. Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better.

Here is what we plan to do to make that day come sooner:

Integrate Energy Generation and Storage
Create a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app.

We can’t do this well if Tesla and SolarCity are different companies, which is why we need to combine and break down the barriers inherent to being separate companies. That they are separate at all, despite similar origins and pursuit of the same overarching goal of sustainable energy, is largely an accident of history. Now that Tesla is ready to scale Powerwall and SolarCity is ready to provide highly differentiated solar, the time has come to bring them together.

Expand to Cover the Major Forms of Terrestrial Transport
Today, Tesla addresses two relatively small segments of premium sedans and SUVs. With the Model 3, a future compact SUV and a new kind of pickup truck, we plan to address most of the consumer market. A lower cost vehicle than the Model 3 is unlikely to be necessary, because of the third part of the plan described below.

What really matters to accelerate a sustainable future is being able to scale up production volume as quickly as possible. That is why Tesla engineering has transitioned to focus heavily on designing the machine that makes the machine — turning the factory itself into a product. A first principles physics analysis of automotive production suggests that somewhere between a 5 to 10 fold improvement is achievable by version 3 on a roughly 2 year iteration cycle. The first Model 3 factory machine should be thought of as version 0.5, with version 1.0 probably in 2018.

In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicle needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport. Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year. We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate.

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

As the technology matures, all Tesla vehicles will have the hardware necessary to be fully self-driving with fail-operational capability, meaning that any given system in the car could break and your car will still drive itself safely. It is important to emphasize that refinement and validation of the software will take much longer than putting in place the cameras, radar, sonar and computing hardware.

Even once the software is highly refined and far better than the average human driver, there will still be a significant time gap, varying widely by jurisdiction, before true self-driving is approved by regulators. We expect that worldwide regulatory approval will require something on the order of 6 billion miles (10 billion km). Current fleet learning is happening at just over 3 million miles (5 million km) per day.

I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future. The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.

According to the recently released 2015 NHTSA report, automotive fatalities increased by 8% to one death every 89 million miles. Autopilot miles will soon exceed twice that number and the system gets better every day. It would no more make sense to disable Tesla’s Autopilot, as some have called for, than it would to disable autopilot in aircraft, after which our system is named.

It is also important to explain why we refer to Autopilot as “beta”. This is not beta software in any normal sense of the word. Every release goes through extensive internal validation before it reaches any customers. It is called beta in order to decrease complacency and indicate that it will continue to improve (Autopilot is always off by default). Once we get to the point where Autopilot is approximately 10 times safer than the US vehicle average, the beta label will be removed.

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.

You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

In cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet, ensuring you can always hail a ride from us no matter where you are.

So, in short, Master Plan, Part Deux is:

Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it

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