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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Musk's Empire - The Power of Engineering

Science is the body of knowledge learned from exploring the physical and natural world. 
Engineering is the application of knowledge in order to solve problems and fulfill needs.

No offense to Andy Weir but Mark Watney was applying his knowledge, so he didn't "Science the 💩 out of this," rather he "Engineered the excrement out of it." 😃

If you ask a scientist about a bridge design, they might say, "It works under one model, but fails under another model." So if you want to know if it would work in the real world, ask an engineer.

Engineering is about getting things to work in the real world. This is very different than getting something to work in a controlled lab. The real world has to contend with massive temperature variations, dirt, grime, margins of error, tolerances, weather, metal fatigue, wear and tear, etc.

Science's job is to be out ahead of the rest of us, making discoveries. The applications of those discoveries may not be readily apparent. When Michael Faraday first discovered the electro-motive force, his initial demonstrations were not much more than a metal needle spinning in a conductive fluid. At one of his demonstrations, he was asked what use could this invention ever have. His response was, "What use is a newborn baby?" Meaning this discovery had much-unrealized potential. Faraday didn't stop at just discovering the science; he went on to do the engineering work too and made the first electric motor and soon after the first electric generator. His discovery and the inventions that followed are at the heart of our modern world. Nearly all electricity (except solar) is created by turning a generator. This discovery was crucial; however, it was the engineering work that converted the scientific foundation from a newborn babe into useful machines.

Applying This To Elon Musk

One criticism of Musk is that the things that he's delivering were not his ideas. Musk is known for SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Co., Starlink...  The criticism goes something like: there were electric cars long before Musk was born, they were not his idea. The "vac-train" was invented in 1799, so Musk's Hyperloop idea was not a new one. Starlink was not a new idea, SpaceX had even launched satellites for OneWeb. They took the idea from their customer. Landing rockets has been common in sci-fi since Buck Rogers in the 1930s and Bell Aerosystems demonstrated vertical landing rockets in 1961. Musk and Co have never had a unique idea. </crit>

Let's disassemble this criticism. I have an idea for a matter transporter. No wait, that was Gene Roddenberry. I have an idea for a time machine. No wait, that was H.G. Wells. Now if I actually built one of these (or both, because why not), would you say, "You just copied someone else's idea!"? Of course not. Imagining these is not the hard part; creating them is where the difficulty lies.

The idea is important, but without the engineering work to bring it forth into the world as a real thing that we can interact with, it's just an idea. Great for fictional works or demonstrations of a needle spinning in a dish of water, but these alone will not bring about the next industrial revolution or change how you and I live our lives.

Musk's accomplishments (actually all the engineers and technicians that work for him) are not coming up with new ideas. The accomplishments are solving all the problems that were encountered going from concept to product.

There are millions of ideas out there. What matters is selecting from them, something that is possible, meets a need, and has not been done yet. It's about looking at the good ideas that we already have and then making them work. It's about raising the newborn babe into a functional adult.

Let's deep dive into one specific product: Solar Glass Roof. The idea for roofing materials with integrated solar is not a new one. There are several patents (including one from NASA) dating back to the 1970s for "building-integrated photovoltaic."  Many many businesses have tried to make this into a viable product and failed. Some were solar roof tiles, some had flexible roll-on solar that went over a metal roofing, others even had solar collecting windows. In 2016, Green Tech Media wrote an open letter to Elon Musk and the Brothers Rive (then running SolarCity) asking them (nah, pleading with them) not to go forward with a solar roof product. The author didn't want SolarCity (this was before they became a part of Tesla) to die upon that precipice as had so many other solar companies. The author lists nearly two dozen companies and solar roof products that seemed like great ideas but never made it beyond the prototype phase and in some cases, took the company down with them. 

Musk didn't heed this warning; he couldn't be waved off. He uses first-principle thinking to determine what is and what is not possible. This thinking had led him to determine that a solar glass roof was possible. Musk also adheres to the motto, although it may be difficult, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. He has said that when Tesla started, he knew the most likely outcome was failure. 

Tesla moved ahead with solar roof developments. They ran into many of the same problems as the other companies. However, Tesla had money, time, and brilliant engineers. Previous attempts were missing one or more of these vital ingredients. Tesla did not make the bulk of their revenue from solar, so they could take their time and work out the bugs. They had problems with wiring, couplings, clips, installation time, and more. They iterated the product, fixing, refining, improving. They hired roofing crews and had them install solar roofs on test homes and then looked at the results (how long did it take, did they get it right, how much breakage...) and they iterated more. Finally, in the second half of 2020 (five years after the Green Tech Media open letter), Tesla started installing solar glass roofs in quantity. They now have several roofing companies certified to install these shinny black roofs all around the US and they are expanding into Canada in the first half of 2021. 

This is a perfect example of the need for great engineering. The science of solar roofing was solved. Integrate a solar cell under a transparent protective roofing tile, nail them down, hook them up, and easy-peazy you have a solar roof. However, to make a product that can be installed in a day, will last 20 years under the Arizona sun, and survive Canadian winters is a difficult engineering problem.

The Physics of The Impossible

In his book, Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku defined 3 levels of Impossible ideas: 

Class I impossibilities - technologies we have no idea how to achieve today, but they do not violate the known laws of physics, e.g., energy shields or artificial gravity. These are things that might be achievable in a few hundred years plus or minus (mostly plus). 

Class II impossibilities - technologies that "sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world." These (like Class I) do not violate the known physical laws, but we know a lot less in these areas. We need to learn much more to truly understand the feasibility and, if they are deemed possible, they may require the entire energy of a star or a black hole. That certainly makes them impossible today, but with a thousand (or millions) of years of advancement may become possible. 

Class III impossibilities - These are the things that (based on the science we already know) are impossible. For example, perpetual motion machines and precognition are class 3 impossibilities.  

Musk and The Physics of The Possible

Why did we go through the list of impossibility categories? Because the first step to creating an innovative product is knowing what's possible. 

When one of Musk's companies wants to make something, they don't ask if something has been done before or how it is currently being done by their competitors. The first question is, "Is it possible? If physical atoms are arranged properly, can they function as needed?" This "atoms up" thinking, means they will try things that been attempted before either with the ignorance of past failures or hubris based on the list of "previously impossible" things that Musk Co. have accomplished. This is what I call a Class ½ Impossibility. There are no laws of physics that limit its possibility, you don't have to wait 100 years for it, but it won't be easy; perhaps some prototypes or lab samples have been created, but it has not been productized due to some obstacles. 

It's relatively easy to take an existing product and make a derivative or a minor improvement. However, this will not result in a breakthrough product. If you want to productize something that's never existed beyond the prototype phase, that will be far more difficult. You might even say it will be hell, but as we said in our Mistaking A Clear View For a Short Distance article, Musk knows it will be hell; he's familiar with hell, he's walked the trails through Hell so many times, he could be a tour guide.

Musk has been on the trail through Hell so many times that he could be a tour guide.

Tesla's Innovation Moat 

This tendency to take on Class ½ Impossibilities gives Tesla (and other Musk-o-verse companies) a competitive advantage. Most businesses are worried about next quarter's results and would not be willing to fund product development for years without assurances that it will be profitable. 

Full Self Driving is another example. This falls into the category of things that are possible, but not yet productized. Tesla has been working on this since at least 2015. They have hired a hardware and software development team with some of the best talent in the world. According to our estimate, Tesla will be working on this until 2027 before they have a true Level 5 robotaxi fleet. That's 12+ years of engineering work before arriving at the destination. Although this estimate is a decade behind Musk's original estimate, it is still likely 5 years ahead of competitors. That's more like a Silicon Valley tech company than a car company. That's Tesla's Innovation Moat.

Disclosure: I'm long TSLA

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