News Garry Linnell: Australia needs Elon Musk now more than ever

Garry Linnell: Australia needs Elon Musk now more than ever

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The Grim Reaper assumes many forms.

Last week he tried to take my life by disguising himself as a short, stupid Australian woman.

I knew she was short because her head could barely be seen above the dashboard of the massive SUV she was driving.

I knew she was Australian because she refused to use her indicator.

I knew she was stupid because she hurtled toward the intersection I was approaching, went straight through a stop sign and then, without a glance or a thought, swerved straight toward me.

Instinct took over.

I pulled to the left and, by the barest of margins and an enormous amount of luck, her car thundered past mine with millimetres to spare.

Up yours, Grim Reaper. Not this time, fella.

I sat there, heart pounding, adrenaline screaming at me to chase her down, cut her off, grab her keys and hurl them away.

But instead I closed my eyes and calmed myself by summoning an image of my secret man-crush of the moment.

Elon Musk.

You know, that insanely rich, South African-born eccentric philanthropist who is always promising to colonise Mars, surround Earth with thousands of internet-beaming satellites and replace trains and buses with underground hyperloops that will transport people at fast speeds through air-cushioned tunnels.

Australians should embrace Elon Musk, writes Garry Linnell. Photo: Getty

And that’s just a small sample of what Musk would like to do.

The man is so consumed by the future he makes Bill Gates sound like Fred Flintstone.

It seems more and more people are developing a crush on Musk, who is emerging as one of the critical figures of this century.

Over the past month shares in Musk’s company Tesla have soared.

At one stage they had risen 100 per cent in value before diving last week when fears of the coronavirus forced the maker of electric cars to keep a key Chinese factory closed for longer than expected.

But many believe the recent share rally was simply a taste of things to come.

Market pundits, impressed by the company’s improved output of electric cars, are predicting Tesla could be worth trillions of dollars in the next few years if it gets one more thing right – self-driving cars.

Which is why I’m barracking for the guy – and why Australia should be opening its arms and doing everything to lure Musk to use this country as his ultimate testing ground.

Why here?

If you’ve ever driven in the United States or Europe then you are well aware Australians are the worst drivers in the developed world.

We allow more imbeciles on our roads than anywhere else.

We’re selfish and overly aggressive. We refuse to use indicators. We hog the fast lane, rarely drive more than a kilometre or two at a consistent speed, and like to brake without warning.

It’s the land of the rude and the crude and it’s a miracle our national road toll isn’t higher.

What better place to test the autonomous car than this country?

If a self-driving car can navigate the hostile, obstacle-filled roads of Australia, then Musk’s ambition of permanently removing our hands from our steering wheels will be instantly realised.

Mr Musk releases self-driving features in China. Photo: Getty

It would also be an opportunity for this country to lift its poor record in encouraging and developing technology.

We have a prime minister who once sneered at Musk’s Tesla battery development in South Australia, dismissing it as a “Hollywood solution”.

Look at it now. It has already saved SA consumers $40 million a year and will now be expanded thanks to additional financing from the SA and federal governments.

So given Musk’s willingness to launch projects here, why not try and lure him to use our long stretches of bitumen as a proving ground for his autonomous vehicles?

The sad answer is that our politicians lack the vision of their counterparts in places like California, where 65 separate companies have been issued permits to test self-driving cars on public roads with a human on board.

Two years ago California also began to allow trials of cars without people.

Like any technology in its infancy there have been problems, including cars failing to properly identify pedestrians, cyclists and lightly-coloured vehicles.

But improvements have been rapid, to the point where a US federal government panel was due to sit this week as part of a series of moves to regulate autonomous cars and speed up their introduction.

Musk has said the autonomous feature of his Tesla electric car will reach such an advanced stage by the middle of this year that drivers will not have to pay any attention to the road.

He has also forecast that his company would soon roll out the first of thousands of “robotaxis” and that his cars will be able to last more than a million miles on the road with only minimal maintenance.

The man is prone to making outrageous claims.

Many of his predictions are often wildly wrong.

But it’s hard to fault Musk’s willingness to put his $34 billion fortune where his mouth is and try to do some good in the world.

Maybe you’re like me. It wasn’t long ago long that I would have laughed at the prospect of surrendering my keys and allowing a computer to chauffeur me around town.

But these days I’d be happy to hand in my licence and allow a computer to do the work.

Given the appalling lack of brains and judgment on display on our roads, artificial intelligence would have to be a huge improvement.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine

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