2015 Tsinghua Management Global Forum: Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi Dialogue with Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk


On October 22, 2015, as part of the Advisory Board meeting of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (Tsinghua SEM), the 2015 Tsinghua Management Global Forum was held in the auditorium of Weilun Building. Elon Musk, Tsinghua SEM Advisory Board member, Co-Founder, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, Chairman of SolarCity had a two-hour dialogue with Professor QIAN Yingyi, Dean of Tsinghua SEM. The talk was also joined by Tsinghua professors: ZHU Bangfen, professor of physics and academician of the Chinese Academy of Science; OUYANG Minggao, professor of automotive engineering; and ZENG Rong, professor and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering. The Forum was hosted by Professor BAI Chong-en, Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Mansfield Freeman Chair Professor of Economics.

Professor BAI Chong-en, Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Mansfield Freeman Chair Professor of Economics, hosts the 2015 Tsinghua Management Global Forum

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)Technology Review’s recent release of “50 Smartest Companies 2015” included three of Musk’s companies - Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX, which took the 1st, 9th and 22nd places respectively. Moderated by Dean QIAN, the forum discussed the early days of Musk’s companies, his beliefs and vision. In the course of the dialogue, Musk responded to questions raised by Tsinghua professors and students, and shared his views on present day developments and what the future might be.

Tsinghua SEM Dean QIAN Yingyi in dialogue with Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk

On SpaceX, Dean QIAN asked Musk for his considerations when he decided to enter the space industry which imposes high hurdles in terms of technology, financial resources, and regulatory and institutional constraints. Musk responded that the objective was not just about creating a company, but addressing the escalating costs of space technology that had seen little improvement since the 1960s when man first landed on the moon.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk in 2015 Tsinghua Management Global Forum

Referring to the risks involved, Musk said, “I thought there was at most a 10% chance of success (but) it seemed like if something wasn’t done to improve rocket technology, we’ll never get there.” On the future of travel to Mars and when that will happen, Musk confidently responded that there was 50% chance that in 10 years, men will reach Mars. As to the high cost of manned space mission, Musk stated that the SpaceX aims to lower the cost of spaceflight by assessing what rockets cost historically, raw materials cost and improving reusability of the rockets.

While Musk founded SpaceX, people widely regard his name to be synonymous with Tesla. Tsinghua Professor of Automobile Engineering OUYANG Minggao pointed out that the market share for electric vehicles (EV) was less than 1%, and asked, “When will EVs replace gasoline cars?” In Musk’s point of view, “15 years from now, more than half of all cars produced will be electric.” Musk was optimistic about the EV market in China, and foresees that China will have the largest market, industrial manufacturing capacity and infrastructure support for EVs, thereby taking key position in the industry. On autonomous or driverless cars, “Technologically it is not a problem to see fully-automated driverless cars in three years, but it will be up to various communities to decide if it should or not be illegal.”

2015 Tsinghua Management Global Forum

In the discussion of SolarCity, Musk shared with the audience the technology and business model of SolarCity that made it successful. SolarCity is able to leverage on large computer systems and centrally manage millions of solar panels remotely across large areas. SolarCity is managing to achieve a significant reduction in price of fully installed cost of the solar power by reducing non-panel costs.

About the future of energy and its infrastructure , Musk responded to Professor ZENG Rong that his hope was for “SolarCity to accelerate the advent of solar power.” He added that, “The (U.S. government) subsidies on low carbon activities such as photovoltaic and electric vehicles, is an attempt to correct the pricing error of CO2 producing activities.”

Throughout the dialogue, Musk pointed to how the knowledge of physics provided him the best framework to explain new things. He stressed that the technology innovation required the first principles of physics in order to understand the fundamentals. On the topic of teaching physics in schools raised by Professor ZHU Bangfen, Musk stated that physics should not be taught to students by formulas or tools, but by focusing on establishing the “why” of things, as well as learning counter-intuitive quantum mechanics.

Musk encouraged the audience of Tsinghua students to study a broad range of subjects and consider how to integrate different disciplines to achieve something greater than the sum of the parts. “A lot of innovation comes through cross-fertilisation from one area to another. Increasingly as our knowledge base grew, we have become silo in our knowledge.”

During the dialogue, Dean QIAN asked if Musk saw himself more as an engineer or an entrepreneur. Musk replied, “I just want to try to be useful.” He added that if someone did something which helped another human being, that would be a good outcome.

In the Q&A session of the evening, Musk answered a broad range of questions from students, including his plans for travelling to Mars, artificial intelligence, sustainable development and his Hyperloop project.

As the forum concluded, Dean QIAN presented Musk with a 3D-printed model of planet Mars, on which has a miniature model of Dean Qian and Musk in dialogue, representing hopes for the Tsinghua Management Global Forum to take place on Mars in the future.

Dean QIAN presents Elon Musk with a model of Mars created with a 3D printer

From left: Professor BAI Chong-en, Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Mansfield Freeman Chair Professor of Economics; OUYANG Minggao, professor of automotive engineering; Professor QIAN Yingyi, Dean of Tsinghua SEM; Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla; ZHU Bangfen, Tsinghua professor of physics and academician of the Chinese Academy of Science; and ZENG Rong, professor and head of the Tsinghua Department of Electrical Engineering