What’s missing from Elon Musk’s Master Plan? Payments!

Elon Musk is notorious for many things: being a serial entrepreneur, disrupting many entrenched industries, pioneering digital payments -- oh, yeah, and changing the world through his master plans.

And much like Apple in its early days, Musk shuns market research (ouch!), preferring to invent things so indisputably better than what we have today, that consumers will eventually catch on to his future-forward ideas.

Being a Payments Geek, I have been an Elon Musk fan for years due to his involvement and subsequent ousting at PayPal. I rushed to buy Ashley Vance’s biography of Musk when it came out, trying to better understand what happened at PayPal and why. That’s when I was turned on to Musk’s larger vision for the Human Race: interplanetary species!

Using the money he earned from selling PayPal to eBay in October of 2002, Musk created and published his Master Plan Part 1 on Tesla.com in 2006 for the world to read. The key elements of Musk’s first plan were

  1. Create a low-volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  2. Use that money to develop a medium-volume car at a lower price
  3. Use that money to create an affordable high-volume car
  4. Provide solar power

Many dismissed Musk’s plan as another crazy Silicon Valley millionaire wasting his earned fortune. But despite the risks and the doubters, Musk delivered in 10 years.

Last week, Musk’s Master Plan Part 2 was revealed; and again, it looks simple, but the implications are enormous. And despite the potential outcomes, the plan garnered little fanfare in the press and absolutely zero from my circle of friends. In a nutshell, Musk’s new plan would:

  1. Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
  2. Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
  3. Develop a self-driving capability that is ten times safer than manual via massive fleet learning
  4. Enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it

All of Tesla’s vehicles would be electric, powered through solar energy and autonomous -- thus indisputably reducing carbon emissions, traffic congestion, and dependence upon fossil fuels. Oh, and Tesla would also improve vehicle safety-- 10x safer equals a lot of saved lives.

In addition, Musk wants you, the average consumer, to be able to share your Tesla much like Airbnb allows you to rent out the extra room above your garage -- seamlessly and easily -- allowing you to make money off your Tesla when you’re not using it. The Master Plan sounds incredible; and despite its being an ambitiously tall order, my rub doesn’t involve whether or not Musk can pull this off. (IMO the guy is an unstoppable genius of the best kind.)

No, my rub is that Musk doesn’t mention anything about payments in his Master Plan Part Deaux!

If the future of the automobile is to be connected, then why is there no mention of payments from the guy who co-founded PayPal? The use cases for making your car a payments platform are stacking up and quickly becoming convincing:

- How will people pay for Tesla’s planned bus/ passenger-dense urban transport vehicle?

- How will consumers pay and be paid for sharing their Tesla vehicle?

- How will these futuristic solar electric vehicles communicate with their electric charging stations, assuming we have to pay to charge our cars?

- What about the drive through, the parking meter, the toll booth?

Perhaps Musk is punting the responsibility of creating an in-vehicle payments platform to the currently leading payments innovators: Visa, PayPal, Apple, Google, and Samsung. But it seems unlikely that Musk would allow another payment provider’s app/wallet to be installed on the Tesla, given the vehicle’s relatively closed operating system.

Maybe Musk feels that phones will trump cars as the platform for payments in the future? Again, unlikely, since research shows that consumers use more options/channels to pay when they have them. In other words, a segment of the population would use their cars to pay for the above use cases, and another portion would use an app on their phone -- making both channels important to consumers.

Perhaps Musk still feels burned over his ousting from PayPal by its founders and doesn’t want to delve into the payments world again. Completely understandable -- grudges are built to last. And as we all know, digital payments are hard; not as hard as putting humans on Mars, but hard nonetheless.

Or maybe digital payments are just not important to Musk anymore; he is frying some pretty big fish, after all -- Interplanetary species! For me, this is the most likely reason.

By excluding Payments from his Master Plan Part 2, Musk has missed an opportunity to enhance the very core of Telsa’s vision -- a seamless experience. And, as everyone knows, when you’re driving your car, the opportunity to make purchases is everywhere. In addition, if Apple really is intending to compete with Tesla by creating a self-driving car, you can be sure that their operating system would include the ability to pay. Given all the evidence, it surprises me that Musk would overlook this detail.

As a certified payments geek and full time Tesla fan, I hope to see the payments industry receive an endorsement from the pioneer in digital payments. Having Musk publicly recognize the importance of an established payments platform within the connected car, bringing Musk’s payments experience and expertise full circle, would do a lot to accelerate the adoption and usage of digital payments.

Tim Spenny is Senior Vice President and a Cards and Payments Expert within GfK’s Financial Services team.


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