An Open Letter To Elon Musk


Dear Mr. Musk,

This letter is both a salute to your continued success and a challenge to consider (if you haven’t already) some ideas that your master plan doesn’t seem to address.

First, let me say that I unreservedly admire the work you have done and accomplished in your various companies to address the issue of environmental sustainability by fostering the conversion of our planet’s energy production and consumption away from fossil fuels and towards solar energy.

Your first master plan which culminates in the production of a mass market automobile powered by electricity was a master stroke. Against so many odds and naysayers you have prevailed so far in executing your plans. The Model 3 in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people will be the tipping point where electric transport becomes real for the masses.

In your new master plan, I note that you are consolidating Tesla as an energy company. In my mind, this is brilliant. While the success of the model S and X has spurred the old line automobile companies to come up with competitive designs, none of them appear to have addressed the fast charging solutions that Tesla has with its SuperCharger network. Such solutions are necessary for mass adoption to occur. By becoming an energy company, you will maintain a competitive advantage well into this new phase.

I would like to make the following observations for your consideration.

  1. Moving the planet’s energy production away from Fossil fuels may make a big dent in the things humans need to do to ameliorate Climate Change, but is is not the complete picture. Sustainability also means looking at how humans live, what kinds of housing, how we grow food. Each of these have been heretofore tightly bound to fossil fuels for materials, fertilizers, pesticides etc.
  2. Suburban sprawl is not a sustainable housing model. It destroys natural habitat which impacts wildlife and ecosystems which have impacts on our climate. It very often removes arable land which should be used for food production considering we are expecting an additional 2 billion humans in the world within 30-40 years.
  3. Tied with suburban sprawl is the massive amount of land devoted to cars and transportation. Humans tend to work in cities. Our largest generation (the Millennials) are moving to cities in droves in a desire to experience Urban benefits. Indeed, living in more dense cities is a major key to reducing human impact on the climate. But, Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOV’s) are not an efficient element in a dense city. It is a geometry problem. Streets can only handle so many vehicles (even autonomous vehicles) in an hour. Gridlock ensues. Storing vehicles requires land space.  
  4. In my opinion and that of many urbanists, the best mode of transport in and between urban areas is mass transit. The advent of autonomous vehicles does not eliminate the need for public mass transit in cities or even intercity travel. In our current built environment, where houses have been built where it requires a vehicle to reach services (shopping, entertainment etc.) your plan for shared autonomous vehicles is exciting. But I hope you could also acknowledge that it doesn’t not remove the need for mass transit. Here is a reference article that might shed more light on the subject: “The Supply And Demand Of Street Space“. 
  5. How we live, in large houses with large yards requiring significant maintenance and heating and cooling contribute to global warming. The following article talks about carbon footprint by zip-codes and gives various examples around the Seattle area. Some note that there is a correlation between wealth and carbon footprint as the maps of the affluent suburbs of Seattle show.
  6. For the least impact on carbon footprint, it would be desirable that new development follow urban design patterns rather than suburban sprawl patterns. Urban design patterns are dense, walkable neighborhoods with access to Urban benefits (shopping, entertainment, health services, etc.) in walkable range.
  7. It is my opinion (shared by some urbanists) that the value of shared autonomous vehicles is transporting people from low density housing to places nearby and to mass transit lines for cross city or intercity travel. It would provide the spontaneity of current car ownership and operation but reduce individual cars in commute patterns that are not efficient. This frees public transit agencies from being required to provide inefficient transit lines in areas where there would be low ridership and long wait times.
  8. I would urge you to approach cities and localities with an offer to augment their transit systems with autonomous vehicles. I would also urge you to approach cities to develop grid scale generation capacity by utilizing rooftop solar with battery storage–the very things your combined company will be capable of doing. A city the size of Seattle could very well provide a very large percentage (if not its entire) of electricity requirements from rooftop solar with storage and other renewables (such as wind and existing hydroelectric) even though it is often cloudy and rainy here.

Some urbanists can’t accept the idea that cars should even exist. I don’t hold that extreme view, but given our existing built infrastructure, and the choices that some people might choose given resources at their disposal, the pragmatic approach is to decarbonize to the extent possible, our existing infrastructure while encouraging dense urban growth in the future. It would appear to me that you have singlehandedly put us on the path of decarbonization with your ventures. It is my hope that you can see your way towards incorporating the ideas about sustainability discussed above in your plans.

Charles Cooper

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Charles grew up in the Seattle/Tacoma area and after a 15-year stint in Chicago and the Midwest is happy to again make his home in the Seattle area. After experiencing large scale integrated transit systems such as Chicago's CTA, he developed an interest in improving people's lives in cities. Charles is an occasional contributor to blogs such as Seattle Transit Blog and The Urbanist. He serves on the board of the Seattle Subway Foundation.

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Great article.

For point #3 & 4: Elon Musk is working on an autonomous bus for public transportation:

#3,7: Electric autonomous vehicles + ride sharing will drastically reduce the number of vehicles needed, along with the amount of storage needed for vehicles. The average car is idle 95% of the time hence the reason there are currently two parking spots built for every vehicle. However with electric + autonomous, the marginal cost of any given trip drops dramatically relative to internal combustion. Ride sharing costs will drop 10x and could even be free (ad supported or supported by public transport funds). Algorithms to pick up multiple riders (similar to uber pool) will reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles. If rides are extremely cheap then more people will use it. The more people use it, the better the matching for ride pooling. The better the matching, the more people use it. This will create a network effect whereby the ride sharing network becomes more useful and valuable the more people who use it.


While autonomous vehicles might not eliminate the need for mass transit, they could eliminate a lot of cars and infrastructure required for cars. In one study, using existing transport data, they found that 90% of cars could be eliminated in an average European city and eliminate the need for public transport (although they did not eliminate mass transit). In Lisbon, 210 football fields of space would open up due to a result of much less parking, fewer roads, etc.

While it is a math/geometry problem as you state, it’s not necessarily an apples to apples comparison. 1.6 passengers per vehicle would not likely stay constant with automous + ride share due to batching.

Autonomous vehicles would require much less parking, and it’s not clear if they would ever really need to park. Batteries could be swapped really quickly. If they did park, proximity would be less important.

However, fully autonomous vehicles are not here yet. The prospects of them arriving some day should not stop us from making the investments in mass transit today.

It is however an interesting space to keep an eye on and could mitigate the impact of many of the problems you mention.

Thanks again for the well written article.


Great thoughts. I hope they spur a good discussion between you and Elon Musk.

While I admit, I do not know much about what Mr. Musk is trying to accomplish, I do appreciate his turn into the right direction. It does seem that he is taking too small a step in the right direction and enabling the continuation of suburban growth. What we have to recognize is there is still a very large portion of our society that believes in the suburban ideology. IMO they need small steps because too large leaps might over shock their beliefs.

You are very right. We need to recognize that there are actually other questions to be asked and better problems to solve. Our real efforts must focus on Urban strategies bringing people, homes and jobs closer together. We also need to reshape our economy. I agree with Van Jones’ assessment to change our current form of capitalism that is based on (object) consumption to one producing services that reward workers and narrow the economic gap (very simplified).

We must do this together. Elon is working on one problem and you are working on another. What would be hopeful is that there is mutual respect for each other’s work and that a conversation can happen which multiple ideas leading to similar places can occur without any side feeling their way is the best and only way. I appreciate your recognition of Elon Musk’s contribution. It is mindful of its importance but also asks the right questions.