OnInnovation Interview: Elon Musk

Elon Musk has a plan for the future of transport, but not everyone is on board. The tech entrepreneur was at the heart of a Twitter dispute on Friday over comments he made about mass transit systems. Musk came under fire for describing existing public transit as “a pain in the ass,” comments that were lambasted by one commentator as “a luxury that only the rich can afford.”

The dispute started on Thursday, when Wired reported on comments that Musk made last week at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in Long Beach, California:

I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. […] It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.

The Boring Company, Musk’s tunnel-digging venture that aims to build intricate networks of transportation systems deep underground, clarified his comments to the publication. The company said that Musk was simply criticizing current public transit systems.

Musk criticized the publication for what he called a “depressingly misleading” article:

The exchange.
The exchange.

Musk’s point here appears to be that the Wired article extrapolated too much from what he called “a very brief digression,” even if he doesn’t appear to dispute he was quoted accurately.

In any event, the comments started a debate around Musk’s attitudes towards public transport. Yonah Freemark, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies, criticized the entrepreneur for his dismissive attitude:

“In cities, Elon Musk’s hatred of sharing space with strangers is a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford,” said public transit policy consultant Jarrett Walker on his Twitter page. “Letting him design cities is the essence of elite projection.”

This led to an outraged response from Musk.

The exchange.
The exchange.

The debate comes at a time when Musk is seeking to drum up funding for his new venture. The Boring Company, which launched last year, has been selling $20 hats as a form of crowdfunding.

If it reaches its $1 million goal of funding, it could lead to a transformation in mass transit technology. The company plans to build a hyperloop-like transport system connecting Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to downtown. Musk has also demonstrated a skate-like system that can move cars at speeds of 125 miles per hour.

Not everyone, it seems, is totally on board with Musk’s ideas though.