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By Steve Kelman

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Elon Musk's next act -- it involves government again!

Elon Musk in a 2016 interview with Y Combinator

Elon Musk in a 2016 interview with Y Combinator.

A random fact about me is that I often don’t get around to reading magazines to which I subscribe when they arrive (yes, I have a bunch of hard-copy subscriptions). More often than not, they go into a pile to get to later.

I note this to explain why I am only now blogging about a story that originally appeared on the cover of the Feb. 20 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, called Elon Musk is really boring. The story describes how Musk conceived of a new business idea while being stuck in Los Angeles traffic in early December -- to build a machine that could do tunneling much faster and more cheaply, allowing construction of a labyrinth of as many as 30 levels of tunnels that could make a big difference for urban congestion, with room both for cars and trains.

“We have skyscrapers with all these levels,” the article quotes Musk as saying, “and we have a flat, two-dimensional road system. When everyone decides to go into these structures and then exit them at the same time, you’re going to get jammed.”

Musk happily confesses he knows next to nothing about tunneling technology, and that he will aim to figure out solutions as he goes along. But he states that the status quo –- as with expensive space launches built by defense contractors –- is dysfunctional, noting that a subway extension in Los Angeles using current technology will cost a billion dollars per mile.

“To make it a little better should be easy," Musk said. "To make it five times better is not crazy hard. To make it ten times better Is hard, but nobody will need to win a Nobel Prize.”

The article also quotes a British professor specializing in cost growth for infrastructure mega-projects who notes the construction industry is “the only sector of the economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years” and admires Musk’s record of disruption. Musk’s tunnel ideas also fit in with the current interest in infrastructure investments.

One thing that immediately caught my eye as I was reading this article is that most of Musk’s revolutionary ideas have involved improving the performance of government, since transport infrastructure such as tunnels is produced for delivery by government. I have blogged admiringly on the achievement of SpaceX in dramatically reducing the cost of space launches. The Tesla, while not quite in the same category because it is bought by consumers, nonetheless is designed to meet a public policy need. SolarCity is also about meeting a public need. And now tunnels. Together, these constitute a large part of what Musk has done has since his original hit with PayPal.

In this sense, Musk’s engagement represents a recognition that what government does is important enough to capture the attention of a guy who is obsessed with making the world a better place. His business ventures also remind us that the challenges government faces are hard enough to captivate one of the smartest and most creative people around today. 

There is also a less charitable interpretation, namely that government is unusually poorly performing and thus constitutes low-hanging fruit to benefit from Musk's creativity. If this is true, it suggests a lower bar for others less unique than Musk to make their creative mark, and should encourage us mere mortals in the effort.

In any event, Musk’s excitement represents a challenge to us in and around government to increase our enthusiasm about what government does and our determination, even if we can’t attain his level of creativity, to devote ourselves, in his spirit, to improving government’s performance of its vital missions.

We should be grateful to Elon Musk for his involvement. Thank you!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 24, 2017 at 4:01 PM


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Mon, Apr 24, 2017 Al

Procurement question: Does the low-bid nature of local government road building retard advancement in the construction industry?

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