The Future is Electric

Sliding doors, tunnels, and powering all of China with solar: Elon Musk speaks in Hong Kong

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Self-driving cars are no longer a futuristic idea. They will be powered by sustainable energy, and have vertical retractable doors like a falcon spreading its wings. And sooner than you think, they will freely roam our roads – and tunnels, said technology magnate Elon Musk on a whirlwind tour to the SAR last week.

The entrepreneur behind Tesla Motors and SolarCity weighed in on the future of the automotive and sustainable energy industries at the StartmeupHK Venture Forum and a company press conference.

Musk called the SAR “a beacon city for electric vehicles,” paving the way for the integration of green vehicles in major cities globally.

He said his automotive company will “expand quite substantially” in Asia in the next two years.

“Hong Kong will have, over time, the highest percentage of electric vehicles of any city in the world,” Musk said. “[It] can therefore serve as a model for how other high-density cities around the world can transform to a sustainable transport future.”

Tesla Motors, established in 2003, designs and builds premium customizable, all-electric vehicles. It recently achieved a milestone of having 100,000 cars delivered globally, and produces roughly 50,000 cars a year. The California-based firm, which opened an office in the SAR in 2010, has the lion’s share of the local electric vehicle market, with Hong Kong boasting the most number of Teslas per capita, Musk said.

According to government figures, there were 4,198 electric vehicles registered in the past 12 months as of December – up from fewer than 100 at the end of 2010. Tesla Motors Hong Kong said about 80 percent of those new vehicles are its cars.

On new models, Musk said that local customers will be able to order the Model X within this year. The seven- seater SUV will come with vertical retractable “falcon wing” doors and three self-driving features: Summon, Autopilot and Autopark.

The falcon wing doors are designed to improve access to the third-row seats of an SUV.

“We have a much bigger opening that allows you to directly step to the third row quite conveniently even if there are baby seats in the second row,” Musk said. “Parents will really enjoy the Model X.”

A partial open function of the falcon wing doors is also in the works so the new model can provide a good shield from the rain. Owners can also summon their vehicles to come to them automatically with their car keys or mobile phones.

The Model 3 will be released locally at the end of next year, Musk said. Resembling a smaller version of the Model S, it will be Tesla’s first mass-market model, priced at an estimated US$35,000 (HK$273,000).

“It won’t have quite as many bells and whistles but it will be at a much lower price point,” Musk said.

“We intend to cut the price roughly in half and I think that probably it is the most profound car we have ever made. It will be a very compelling vehicle at an affordable price.”

Tesla will open a new service center, along with the existing one in Tsuen Wan. The company will also substantially expand its charging network to address the challenges of powering its vehicles.

There are 42 public supercharging stations locally, where customers can recharge half of their car battery in 20 minutes for free. Another 75 raw connections are set up in private areas, such as clubhouses, housing estates and hotels.

“The ideal place to charge the car is at your home or office – essentially the same place you charge your phone, but this is challenging because most buildings didn’t anticipate having that level of power in the garage,” Musk said.

“And sometimes the parking spots flow around and are not consistent so it’s going to be quite important to get the power to the buildings that need it and then figure out a way for people to charge at home.”

Predicting the future of transportation, Musk said all new cars produced in the next 10 to 15 years will be autonomous and the steering wheel will probably become obsolete.

To hasten the transition, Tesla Motors opened up all of its patents to the public for free last year so everyone can create their own electric vehicles, Musk said. However, it will take time for all the old diesel engines now running on the road to be phased out.

And Hong Kong should build more tunnels. “The fundamental problem of cities is that we build them in 3D. You’ve got these tall buildings with lots of people on each floor but then you’ve got roads which are 2D. So obviously, that just doesn’t work,” he said.

“But you can go 3D if you have tunnels. You can have many tunnels crisscrossing each other with maybe a few meters vertical distance between them and completely get rid of traffic problems.”

On the future of energy, Musk said that solar can, and will, power all parts of China. Hong Kong could tap into the existing power lines that are coming in to share the electricity produced there.

“It’s true that in dense cities, rooftop solar is not going to solve the energy need. but what you can do is have ground mounted solar power,” he said.

“China actually has a massive land area, much of which is hardly occupied at all. Given that the Chinese population is so concentrated along the coast, once you go inland, the population in some cases, is remarkably tiny. So you can easily power all of China with solar.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 1, 2016.

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