Plugged In

Can Elon Musk lead the way to an electric-car future?

  • Editors' Pick
  1. In a dressing room above the Late Show with David Letterman stage, the electric-car magnate Elon Musk sat on a sofa, eating cookies. Three of his employees hovered around him anxiously. Musk, thirty-eight, is the chairman, C.E.O., and product architect of Tesla Motors, and he was appearing on Letterman to show off the company's newest design: a sleek sedan called the Model S. Tesla plans to have the vehicle in production by 2011—at which point, if you believe Musk, gasoline-powered cars will suddenly look like oxcarts.

    On this April day, he was wearing black half-boots and a gray hacking jacket. The curious apparel, together with his Pee-wee haircut, glowing blue-green eyes, South African accent (he was born in Pretoria), and manifest determination to save the world—single-handedly, if necessary—conspires to make him seem somewhat alien. He's the mysterious visitor who skims down the ramp, eager to help.

    After co-founding the Internet startups Zip2 and PayPal, when he was in his twenties, in 2002 Musk launched the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), with the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars; the company recently won a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to resupply the Space Station. He is also the leading investor in and chairman of SolarCity, a solar-panel-installation company run by two of his cousins. And in 2004 he provided Tesla with its initial funding, in the belief that electric vehicles, or E.V.s, together with solar power, will help wean the world of...