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Is Elon Musk the Jonas Salk of Our Time?

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Energy Consultant Energy Curtailment Specialists

Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in...

  • Member since 2013
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  • Jun 22, 2014

tesla patent release

As you’ve probably heard by now, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors has just done something incomprehensible in today’s world driven by corporate profit margins and stock values.  Musk has released Tesla’s patents for free.

Yes, now any company wishing to make electric cars can simply grab one of Tesla’s patents and get to work.

On Thursday June 12 Musk wrote in a blog post playfully titled “All Our Patents Are Belong To You” that,


You read that right. The CEO of a ground-breaking, highly valued company just offered the company’s technology up for free.  To make the world a better place.

This does not happen in 2014; companies and individuals sue each other for all kinds of intellectual property disputes.  I thought it was fashionable.  (Which reminds me; to the band Spirit: you can’t copyright a chord progression, so stop trying to sue Led Zeppelin over Stairway).

I can’t help but think of Doctor Jonas Salk in comparison to Elon Musk in light of this news.  Salk invented the polio vaccine, which became available in 1957. He never patented the medication, but instead offered it to the world.  As a result, polio was virtually eradicated wherever his vaccine was put to use.  He did not benefit financially at all from his discovery, and he continued to conduct research for cures of other viral diseases such as AIDS until his death in 1995.

Now, Elon Musk has already reaped a healthy profit from Tesla, so he is not exactly Dr. Salk’s humanitarian twin, but it certainly is refreshing that Tesla is offering its groundbreaking technology to the world.  Musk clearly wants to see electric cars become mainstream.  His patent release will allow other manufacturers to produce them, and perhaps make them even more affordable.  Tesla stocks have gone up since the patent release, so perhaps there is positive monetary gain for Tesla in it after all?

Regardless of the company’s motives and Musk’s true humanitarian commitments, it looks like we’ll all be driving Teslas soon, regardless of the brand name stamped on the steering wheel.  Musk might eradicate the gasoline engine like it’s a disease needing a cure.

Photo Credit: Tesla Patent Release/shutterstock

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 23, 2014

Jessica, Elon Musk has never failed to amaze with both his insight and his ability to maintain personal values while making a lot of money. On this CNBC interview he’s labeled a “disruptor”, which I suppose is GenX-speak for “innovator”.

My son is starting an internship at SpaceX in August, and he’s on top of the world.

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on Jun 23, 2014

Thats a very good point! 

I agree that the two technologies couldn’t be more different.  I would like to think that your description of electric vehicles so far is one of Musk’s motivations for releasing his patents.  Currently, electric vehicles are completely out of the question for most people due to the high costs, and the people who are able to own them most certianly make a show of it (I won’t name names).  Elon Musk is already worth billions of dollars – so he’s not sacrificing as much as Dr. Salk, who simply decided his vaccine was worth more to the world than a patent that would make him millions.

But, with Musk’s technology now freely available to all manufacturers – it’s a good bet that the cost of ownership will drop and more people will have the option to choose electric cars instead of gasoline models. 

The materials required to make them are definitely not ideally sustainable, but then neither are many metals and materials that make up gasoline cars – so that might be a wash.  

I’m an optimist on this issue – the billionaire club for electric cars is hopefully waning, and we’ll see more affordable models coming off the lots soon.  

They’re not perfect, but people won’t give up their cars – so it’s a step forward in my opinion.  Plus, air pollution is a huge cause of death and disease around the world.  Fewer emissions from vehicles could save some lives – although indirectly (and there would be no way to prove it’s due to electric cars – but i’m sure they won’t hurt).  We’ll have to wait and see.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 23, 2014

N Nadir, what unsustainably mined metals are you referring to? The Model S uses no rare earths; though cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium can be mined unsustainably, so can uranium. Like uranium, the challenge of cleaning up mining practices is a minor one compared to cleaning up the exhaust of 200 million internal combustion vehicles or thousands of coal plants.

In the quantities required to make an electric car, none of these elements are rare. For the near future, there’s even discussion of an oversupply of lithium.

I don’t think any of this justifies idolatry of Musk nor would he suggest it does. And if millionaires finance the first round of EVs leading to an affordable, long-range EV for the rest of us I think that’s just dandy, whatever their motive for buying the car.


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 24, 2014

Had it not been for oil, we would have already perfected the electric, since it came before the gas car. By 50 years ago, it might have been powered by nuclear. In an age where people want to go green, electrics are finally a step in the right direction, even though most don’t understand the “vastness” of truly going green. I see the materials end of it as very trivial compared to the consequences of excess CO2 because there’s got to be at least a few different ways to prevent the batteries from ending up in landfills.

Now is the opportunity to demand that these new cars be powered by clean energy (as in develop and standardnize advanced nuclear).

The lack of clean mobility, is like being rationed, like having to live in a world without  clean abundant energy, as in now. Electrics are a better option than smog producers because we can try to make the electricity clean.

I can’t wait for them and the advanced reactors (not the same ole water reactors with a top heavy pool) to come down in price!

Kristopher Settle's picture
Kristopher Settle on Jul 6, 2014

Great point, and great article Jessica.

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