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Elon Musk: The Jonas Salk of Climate Change?

“There is no patent. Can you patent the sun?”  –Jonas Salk, explaining to Edward R. Murrow in a 1955 interview why he didn’t patent his groundbreaking vaccine for polio.

Salk understood the importance of his incredibly effective polio vaccine for the future of the nation’s and the world’s public health. His vaccine was one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century, and he declined to patent it. Thus, over 100 million people were vaccinated in the first two years after clinical trials ended in 1955, all but eliminating a scourge that had plagued the country for generations.

Now we’re in a new century, with a new scourge: climate change. Many entrepreneurs have spent the past couple of decades trying to break our dependency on Big Oil and Big Coal. None has a higher profile than Elon Musk, the wunderkind behind SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. Could he be this generation’s Jonas Salk?

He’s already beat NASA at their own game:

Now he’s putting his money (and he’s got a lot) where his mouth is:

On June 12th he took to Tesla’s website and pledged to no longer enforce the patents on his Tesla electric car:  “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Overnight, engineering developments protected by over 500 patents became part of the open-source movement. Musk wrote that his primary reason is because “it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis.” Like Salk, he recognizes that climate change is an issue that requires a level of cooperation not common in capitalism. He wants some synergy, now.

First came the love, then came the cynics. “It’ll never stand up in court”; “What if Ford and GM build a Tesla knock-off?”;  “Caveat emptor”; It’s not “only an altruistic act of charity” they say. We are all cynics of American capitalism, but when NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center said that June 2014 was the hottest June in the recorded history of planet Earth, it was clear someone had to do something.

Musk says he did it because, according to Ashlee Vance writing in BusinessWeek, he “wants to promote a more dramatic shift toward electric cars, so he will do what he can to accelerate things.” Vance also noted that Sun Microsystems once did the same thing—open-source its products when the company’s stock price started going south. That’s not Tesla’s situation, though. Last August the stock was at $138, and now it’s at $223, having soared as high as $265 in the past year.

Musk’s point is to expedite important business partnerships that will lead to a faster and more widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which still comprise less than 1% of the market. The hope is to facilitate creating an infrastructure of recharging stations that make electric cars practical for the general public. “Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced,” Musk says, “but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

Thus, Tesla is fighting against GM, Ford, Toyota, and Honda, and what Tesla Motors has going for it is a superlative product. The Tesla Model S travels 265 miles in one charge, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds (comparable to the Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini); and has zero emissions. It’s the 2013 World Green Car of the Year, Motor Trend Car of the Year, and Consumer Reports’ “best car ever tested.”

Sometimes good PR, good business sense, and doing the right thing for the environment coincide. You’d have to be awfully cynical to think that Musk isn’t on the right side of history. But for some reason, even though the Tesla announcement made a big splash in the news, thoughtful analysis on the topic has been sparse. It is simply too soon to tell what will happen.

One of the big, largely ignored problems of electric cars is where the electricity comes from. Sure, the cars have no emissions, but those massive battery packs are often charged with electricity that comes from coal-burning power plants; as of 2013 39.1% of the country’s electricity is generated from coal.

Even that’s a problem that Musk is addressing through his SolarCity initiative, which liberates consumers from the monopolies of the electric utilities with free solar panel installation in their homes. Nevertheless, our heroes cannot be expected to solve all our problems. Salk eradicated a disease that killed and condemned thousands of others to life in an iron lung and didn’t even receive the Nobel Prize. Musk so far has been called an “Obama-backed loser” by Sarah Palin, and TV’s Jim Cramer bellowed about Tesla: “You don’t want to own this stock! You don’t want to own this car! Heck, you don’t even want to rent the thing!” With enemies like that, Musk’s future looks bright and I hope ours does as well.


Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: August 5, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. I’m very favorably impressed, despite the misfortune of your furthering the “has zero emissions” claim. The electricity is generated how?

  2. Bravo Elon Tesla. Amazing he made it through all the hurdles that face most successful entrepreneurs and fighting the temptation (offers) from organized “big money” who would only shelve his product and ideas……Elon Tesla is the epitome of progress for the people. I often wonder how much more advanced this world would be with more people like him around.

  3. “…not common in capitalism”
    Well patents wouldn’t exist in a purely free (capitalist) market. Patents are creations of the state (which inherently cannot exist in a [purely] capitalist society), you can’t own an idea otherwise.

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