I sing a lot of praises for Elon Musk because he seems to be that mythical ethical capitalist. I really respect the way he runs his companies and I truly believe his companies SpaceX and Tesla are going to catalyze some tremendous changes.
I realized, though, that I only know the awesome things that the Musk PR team tells me about. Surely his companies, as big corporations, must be just as corrupt as those other corporations. While they do good works and really draw attention to their ethical behavior, Musk’s companies must also be exploiting overseas labor and resources. That’s just how corporate entities operate as they poach money, right?
What isn’t Musk telling us about the less ethical practices of his businesses Tesla and SpaceX?
I truly don’t know. So, I thought this was the perfect topic for my inaugural Research Notes format blog post. What follows are summaries of the resources I find to help me answer my question. I’ll wrap up with any conclusion I can draw.
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The same criticism of electric vehicles in general: 40% of our energy still comes from coal. So that electricity running a Tesla Roadster is still dirty. According to Slate, an all-electric vehicle is more efficient at converting its stored electrical energy into motion. So a Roadster can go 265 miles on the equivalent energy of 3 gallons of gasoline. If that electricity comes from coal it is still not clean, but it is far better than gasoline.
That same Slate article goes into some depth, and cites another article, about the carbon emissions from burning coal as compared to a car burning gasoline. Of course, producing gasoline is pretty dirty too and that has to be taken into consideration.
Right now, according to the Financial Post, Tesla sources most of the graphite it requires for its batteries from China. Graphite mining is a huge contributor to pollution in China. Bloomberg reports that Tesla plans to use only raw materials sourced from North America to produce its batteries. This will take cut down on pollution from both the mining process and from transporting the materials.
The Tesla Roadsters are produced in Fremont, California [Wikipedia].
Mercury News reported that an incident at the Fremont production facility in 2013 resulted in three workers being severely burned by splattering molten metal. An investigation resulted in Tesla being fined $89000 for seven safety violations. I could find no other labor issues directly related to Tesla.
June 12th, 2014 Tesla Motors announced that they “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” They removed their patents from the lobby of their Palo Alto headquarters. Musk’s intention is to remove obstacles to others creating clean energy vehicles.
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After numerous searches, I cannot find any information about where SpaceX gets their raw materials. It is clear though, that they produce their craft, rockets, and software in-house at their Hawthorne, California facility. That said, according to the Wikipedia article, SpaceX has 3000 suppliers and receives deliveries from 1100 of them weekly. So there is intensive transportation of materials, though the ethical procurement of those resources is unclear.
There is a group that opposes SpaceX’s effort to build a launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas over environmental concerns.
SpaceX recently unveiled it’s next generation of rockets and space capsules, though, and those will cut down significantly on the waste and environmental impacts of space launches. Both their rocket and the cargo/crew capsule are capable of landing on dry land. Both are completely recovered and reused after launch. There is a middle stage that is still left to burn up in the atmosphere. So, the hardware isn’t 100% waste-free yet.
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Electic vehicles are cleaner than gasoline at the car stage. Obviously, if our electricity production is dirty, that’s going to lessen the benefit of an electric vehicle. That has little to do with Tesla, though.
Tesla is in the process of transitioning to sourcing materials more responsibly. Their production is based locally in the US and there have been no labor violations reported other than one accident. Tesla is also refusing to defend its own patents in order to encourage others to get into the market and create competition.
Information on SpaceX was harder to obtain. Their raw materials are still a complete question mark and I can only assume that some of those resources are linked to the exploitation of earth and people. SpaceX is focused on reducing it’s impact, though, by producing their hardware and software in house in America and by creating reusable craft.
CONCLUSION: While Tesla Motors and SpaceX are not perfect companies, there is evidence that they are continuously becoming better. I now feel validated in celebrating both of these companies and their founder. Elon Musk, it is clear to me, is a net positive for earth and for people.