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Andrew Maynard


First the Innovation, Then the Persuasion

It’ll take more than tech for Elon Musk to pull off his audacious master plan

Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 16:00

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, recently revealed the second part of his master plan for the company, and it’s a doozy. Not content with producing sleek electric cars (which to be fair, were only a stepping stone to greater things), Musk wants to fundamentally change how we live our lives. But the road to Musk’s techno-utopia may be rocky.

In 2006, Musk announced his “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan.” Steps one to three were simple and elegant:
• Build a sports car.
• Use that money to build an affordable car.
• Use that money to build an even more affordable car.

But cutting through these was a fourth step that had a much stronger social goal in sight: to develop and “provide zero-emission electric power-generation options.”

This desire to change the world for the better is apparent in “part deux” of the master plan. Steps one to three of the new plan are superficially technological goals:
• 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 10 times safer than manual, via massive fleet learning.

Yet underpinning these goals is a revolutionary vision for transforming society. Musk doesn’t just want to fast-track the transition to renewable energy and self-driving cars; he wants to rewrite the rule book on how we build a futuristic sustainable society.

Shifting the culture with new technologies

This comes through loud and clear in his fourth step in the new master plan. Once there are enough privately owned, fully autonomous Teslas on the road, Musk wants to co-opt them into the “Tesla shared fleet.” The concept is as simple as it is audacious: Instead of your Tesla sitting idle in the garage or parking lot when not in use, it would become part of a network of fully autonomous ride-share vehicles providing driverless lifts for customers on-demand and income for individual vehicles’ owners.

Musk’s concept is a natural fusion of several trends in technology: autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and the sharing economy, to name just a few. Technologically, it makes perfect sense, especially when you throw in innovative solar and battery technologies to keep the fleet mobile and energy efficient.

Yet to succeed, it would require a seismic shift in modern culture—not only in how we live our lives, but also in how we think about possessions and ownership. Importantly, this brave new world would have to navigate our existing values and cultural norms.

And here’s the rub: Although Musk and his teams have the technical know-how to implement the master plan, it’s not clear yet whether they have the social and political savvy to make it work.

Engineering the social and political landscape

We recently saw a hint of what’s to come when a Tesla driver was killed while his car ran on autopilot. Through a combination of factors, neither the driver nor the car’s autonomous systems managed to detect and avoid a tractor-trailer across the road, leading to a fatal crash. Despite claims of the autopilot feature reducing the chances of crashes occurring, the incident has gotten people thinking about the socially acceptable use of cars that remove responsibility for life-and-death decisions from their occupants.

Just going by the numbers, Tesla’s autopilot technology makes sense. According to Musk, Tesla occupants using the autopilot feature are statistically safer than those not using it. And the more the feature is used, the better it will get at ensuring the car’s occupants are safe—thanks to the machine learning that is constantly enhancing the fleet’s auto-capabilities.

But when it comes to technological innovation, numeric logic is often trumped by what we intuitively think and feel is important. As we’ve seen in discussions around autonomous vehicles, the number of people who are likely to be killed or injured is often less important than who might be killed (whether driver, passengers or pedestrians), how they might be killed, and who (or what) makes the decisions. Here, even the argument that autonomous vehicles save lives—and are safer than human-driven vehicles—faces an uphill struggle.

That’s not to say that the hurdles Tesla and Musk face in implementing their master plan are insurmountable; they’re not. But as Musk begins to implement part two of the plan, he’s going to need to become increasingly adept at navigating an ever-more-complex social and political landscape.

Innovating through the wicked problems

Musk appears to be aware of this. In 2015, through the Future of Life Institute (FLI), he backed an $11 million research program to support the robust and beneficial development of artificial intelligence—an important technology for carrying out his master plan. Included in this initiative is the Strategic Artificial Intelligence Research Center, a collaboration between Oxford and Cambridge universities that aims to help develop policies to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits from artificial intelligence.

The tea leaves suggest Musk is thinking broadly about what it takes to develop societally successful technologies. Yet to succeed in his master plan, I suspect he’ll need to think more broadly still—and fast.

Part of the issue is that the relationship between technology and society is highly complex and constantly shifting. Successfully developing transformative technologies while benefiting society as a whole leads to what some are fond of calling “wicked” problems, i.e., ones that are so slippery they change and shift in response to attempts to solve them. (If you want an example, just look at the introduction and use of genetically modified foods.) Changing society through new solar technologies, autonomous vehicles, and driverless car-sharing will take a lot more than smart technologies, safety research, and policy recommendations.

To navigate what is a wickedly complex social and political landscape, Musk is going to need to make friends with people in a whole bunch of new areas, from responsible innovation and the governance of emerging technologies, to technology assessment and risk innovation, this last an emerging approach to thinking and acting differently about risk. Here, I’m admittedly a little biased, as this is what we do in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. We are part of a growing global community of experts who are developing the know-how to ensure that emerging technological capabilities are developed responsibly and successfully.

To be sure, Musk’s master plan for Tesla Motors is nothing if not inspired. It’s visionary, elegant, likely to improve lives, and technologically within reach. Yet without coming to grips with the increasingly complex social and political challenges it faces, the plan runs the risk of not getting much further than the metaphorical paper it’s written on.

And that would be a shame. Because if it’s implemented responsibly, Musk’s vision could be a game changer for how we go about building a more sustainable world.

Andrew Maynard is the director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


About The Author

Andrew Maynard’s picture

Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard is a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, and the director of the Risk Innovation Lab. His research and professional activities focus on risk innovation and the responsible development and use of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Maynard is widely published, has testified before congressional committees, has served on National Academy panels, and is co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology.