- Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
- Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk doesn’t shy away from a crisis.
- The billionaire has offered his help on everything from supplying power to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria to creating materials for affordable housing.
- He’s also trying to solve more existential problems like climate change and colonizing outer space.
- Now, he’s working on making ventilator parts and is delivering shipments of medical devices as the US and countries abroad face shortage due to the coronavirus outbreak.
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For all his bluster, attacks on journalists, and odd behavior, he is also working to solve some of humanity’s most dire problems. Climate change? Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, has made electric cars exciting. Traffic woes and all the negative health effects of congestion-caused pollution? Musk created The Boring Company to dig a network of tunnels below Los Angeles to avoid gridlocked freeways. Colonizing other planets to save ourselves from extinction? SpaceX is working on it.
Beyond these moonshot initiatives, Musk has delivered real results. After Hurricane Maria knocked out power for millions of Puerto Rico’s residents in 2017, Musk donated hundreds of solar-powered batteries to the island. And as the coronavirus spreads worldwide, Tesla has begun working on ventilator parts and shipping medical devices to hospitals in need.
Below, we check in on a few of humanity’s problems Musk said he wants to solve. Here’s where he’s at – and whether or not he’s actually helping.
Peter Kotecki contributed to an earlier version of this story.
The crisis: Rescuing Thailand’s cave boys
The fix: A “kid-size” submarine.
During the mission to save 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, Musk gathered engineers from Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company to create a “kid-size” submarine using rocket parts.
The chief of the rescue mission said the device was not practical, and the rescue was completed successfully without Musk’s device. A British diver involved in the rescue also called Musk’s actions a “PR stunt” and said the submarine had no chance of working in this scenario. In response, Musk called the diver a “pedo guy” in a tweet, which has since been deleted.
Still, a Thai military official said Musk’s submarine could be useful for future missions, and engineers from SpaceX met with members of the Thai Navy to train them on using it. Musk tweeted that the engineers also received feedback from British divers about improving the technology.
The verdict: Not helping – at least for this specific mission.
The crisis: Flint’s lead-contaminated water
- Jim Young/Reuters
The fix: Replacing pipes and adding water filters.
Flint, Michigan, continues to grapple with the effects of a water crisis in which dangerous levels of lead were detected after the state switched the city’s water supply (from Lake Huron to the Flint River) in 2014.
Residents who got sick reported experiencing skin lesions, depression, and memory loss.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says any water with lead levels above 15 parts per billion requires action to minimize exposure. In Flint, lead levels in some homes surpassed 4,000 ppb.
Musk promised in July 2018 to fix the pipes in homes with water contamination “above FDA levels.” He also tweeted that he would organize a weekend to add filters to houses in Flint and to “hopefully fix perception of those that are actually good.”
In 2018, the Musk Foundation donated $424,000 for laptops for Flint middle schoolers, as well as more than $480,000 to install new filtration systems for water fountains in all Flint schools. In August 2019, Flint schools approved testing of the new filtration systems provided by Musk.
The Verdict: He’s helping, though it’s an ongoing process.
The crisis: Traffic, and the negative health effects of gridlock
- Robyn Beck/Pool via REUTERS
The fix: An underground network of tunnels.
Like many of us, Musk hates sitting in traffic. His solution to the notoriously traffic-clogged freeways in Los Angeles: digging a network of tunnels beneath the city.
Traffic is more than just an annoyance. According to a 2014 study, the air pollution generated by traffic can lead to an increase in heart disease and stroke risk for those living near congested areas. Other studies have shown that people living near major roadways in congested cities have an increase in emergency room visits and mortality, among other health effects.
Through the Boring Company, Musk is seeking to connect LA’s densest neighborhoods with an underground “Loop” system that could carry passengers – and even cars – up to 155 miles-per-hour, cutting travel times across the city, and reducing traffic-caused pollution in the process.
While this sounds amazing in theory, the reality is a bit murkier, as Business Insider’s Matt DeBord wrote.
The system is set to benefit well-off Angelenos and avoids some poorer neighborhoods (where commute times are often longest) altogether. It’s another billion-dollar solution to a problem that could be more easily solved by telecommuting or shifting work hours, DeBord wrote.
The verdict: It’s too soon to tell.
The crisis: Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico
- Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
The Fix: Powerwall batteries
After Hurricane Maria knocked out power for Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents in September 2017 and left them without basic resources like running water, Tesla pledged to help install battery packs and repair solar panels on the island.
While the official death toll was 64, a study released in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 claimed that over 4,000 more people died in the three months after the hurricane, largely due to problems getting medical care or medicines. That total death toll is likely closer to 3,000, according to researchers at George Washington University.
Shortly after the hurricane, San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz said that it could take up to six months to restore the electric grid, and Tesla sent hundreds of its Powerwall batteries to help residents in the interim.
During an island-wide blackout in April 2018, Musk tweeted that Tesla batteries were delivering power to 662 locations in Puerto Rico, and that employees were working to install hundreds more. Two months later, Musk tweeted that Tesla has “about 11,000 projects underway in Puerto Rico.” But since then, much of the equipment delivered to Puerto Rico has fallen into disrepair, according to a May 2019 HuffPost report, which found home and businesses with solar panels using diesel generators instead.
Musk has successfully provided power to areas affected by natural disasters before. In 2010, Musk and what was then SolarCity donated a solar power system to a hurricane response center in the Gulf Coast village of Coden, Alabama. The project, built by SolarCity and funded by the Musk Foundation, provided residents with an alternate source of power in case of an outage.
The following year, the Musk Foundation donated $250,000 to build a solar power system in Soma, a city in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture that was devastated by a tsunami.
The verdict: He’s helping, but with mixed results.
The crisis: Affordable housing
The fix: Lego-style bricks for building houses cheaply
Construction crews from Musk’s Boring Company, which launched in 2016, excavate through rock and soil to bore tunnels.
Musk reiterated this plan that May, saying the bricks will help create low-income housing. He wrote that “two people could build the outer walls of a small house in a day or so,” but did not specify how much the bricks would cost. In July 2018, the Boring Company uploaded a video to Twitter showing the bricks being produced.
Musk and the Boring Company haven’t provided an update on this idea in well over a year. Musk has filed permits to open the Brick Store where these bricks could be sold, and has said he plans to build a 50-foot watchtower out of the bricks at the company’s headquarters. The company’s website currently says the bricks could be used as pavers and are “great for patios!” but there’s no mention of affordable housing.
The verdict: It’s unclear whether this will work, or if it’s still happening.
The crisis: Climate change and weaning humanity off fossil fuels
The fix: Electric cars and solar energy.
If there’s a grand vision that unites Musk’s seemingly disparate ambitions, it’s solving the existential problem of climate change.
Central to that problem is weaning humans off fossil fuels and moving the world to renewable forms of energy.
His electric car company, Tesla, produced the most profitable electric car ever sold in the Model 3. But the company’s stock price – owing partly to its eccentric CEO’s erratic behavior – is historically volatile (though that era appears to be coming to an end), as Musk continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons.
Musk has also struggled with meeting the demands of both his consumers and investors at Tesla. He called building and delivering the Model 3 “production hell” as Tesla raced to produce enough to meet Musk’s promises.
Still, Musk has done more than perhaps any other recent entrepreneur to make electric cars mainstream in our collective imagination.
The verdict: He’s helping, but it’s an ongoing struggle.
The crisis: A mass-extinction event wiping out all life from Earth
The fix: Colonizing Mars and becoming a multi-planetary species.
Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, has lofty goals. One of its chief ambitions, Musk said, is the colonization of Mars, ultimately pushing humanity to become a “multi-planetary” species.
In 2013, Musk expanded on his thinking around this. “Either we spread to other planets, or we risk going extinct,” Musk said, per Futurism. “An extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in.”
Musk has said he’s planning to build 1,000 387-foot rocket ship called Starship for deep-space travel, with the goal of launching three of them every day. SpaceX’s current goal is to send a cargo mission to Mars in 2022, and to send 1 million people to the planet by 2050.
That said, we’re still a long way from colonizing Mars. The technology to transform the dry, dusty Red Planet into a thriving Martian metropolis just doesn’t exist yet.
The verdict: He’s helping – if you really think this is a problem worth solving.
The crisis: California wildfires
- Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The fix: Using Tesla products to help people in areas affected by fires.
Northern California’s Camp Fire is considered the deadliest in the state’s history. More than 153,000 acres were burned in the fire and 85 people died.
In the midst of the fire in 2018, Musk tweeted that Tesla cars have “hospital grade HEPA filters” and could help transport people in affected areas. Some Tesla owners praised Tesla’s filters for helping them breathe more easily, but Musk was also criticized for inserting himself into another crisis, the Mercury News reported at the time.
When the fires raged again in 2019, causing power failures throughout California, Musk once again plugged Tesla’s products.
“Order Tesla Solar + Powerwall battery for 24/7 clean power & no blackouts!” Musk tweeted in October. He included a link to Tesla’s website. However, as the Washington Post noted at the time, Tesla’s solar setup can keep a home running for only about a day or two during a blackout and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The verdict: Not helping.
The crisis: Medical supply shortages related to the coronavirus
The fix: Using Tesla factories to produce ventilators and shipping medical devices to hospitals in need.
Musk has been outspoken about the coronavirus on Twitter over the last several weeks, positing medical advice and making unverified claims, such as the belief that children are ‘essentially immune’ from COVID-19.
But he’s also said that Tesla would work on solving the issue of ventilator shortages – the machines are critical for patients enduring the most extreme respiratory effects of the virus – by both building parts for new ventilators using SpaceX and Tesla’s expertise, and procuring medical devices to distribute to hospitals.
But Musk’s ventilator efforts have been repeatedly called into question – first, whether he was delivering invasive ventilators, the machines most-needed to help COVID-19 patients. The majority of the devices Musk is procuring appear to be bilevel non-invasive ventilators, known as BiPAP machines, which are typically used to treat conditions like sleep apnea. Hospitals have found ways to use the machines to treat COVID-19 patients, but they’re not the same as invasive ventilators.
Now, critics are wondering whether he’s been delivering devices at all after CNN and the Sacramento Bee reported California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said no California hospitals had received ventilators yet. Musk disputed this report, posting a “partial list” of hospitals that had received shipments from Tesla, including 10 California hospitals.
Additionally, while Tesla and SpaceX engineers are currently working on invasive ventilator parts, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said those efforts won’t be ready in time for the apex of the virus outbreak in New York state.
The verdict: he’s helping, but it’s impossible to know how much.