AUSTIN, Texas -- Even before Elon Musk hit the stage for a live Q&A with the audience at SXSW on Sunday, it was clear this was not going to be a hard-hitting grilling of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO.
When conference organizers began handing out tickets Sunday morning, cheers went up from the crowd. People began lining up two hours before the event began, and the queue to get into the Austin City Limits wrapped all the way around a city block.
But while much of the event was upbeat and optimistic, Musk got serious when discussing artificial intelligence, likening the development of AI to the development of nuclear warheads.
"This is a case where you have a very serious danger to the public, and so there therefore needs to be a public body that has insight and oversight that everyone is developing AI safely," he said. "This is extremely important."
AI development is happening much faster than anyone realizes, Musk said. He predicted that AI will speed the development of self-driving cars, and expects to see fully autonomous cars on the roads in 18 months.
Musk's Q&A was a surprise appearance at the technology and arts festival, announced via email late Saturday night. He also crashed a panel on HBO's "Westworld" TV series, using that time to show off a new video on the Falcon Heavy rocket launch.
Two days from bankruptcy
Musk was candid in front of the friendly audience: Tesla was two days from going bankrupt in 2008, he said. The company closed on a round of financing on Christmas Eve 2008. If that financing had not come through, the company would have gone bankrupt two days later.
Musk said he used $90 million of $180 million that he earned from Paypal to launch SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City. He thought that would be enough, but eventually invested the remaining $90 million into all three companies, otherwise they would have died.
"So I ended up putting all of the money in, and borrowing money from friends for rent," he said.
With production problems plaguing the Model 3, Tesla's first venture into a mass-market electric car, Musk has been seeing more success in his SpaceX venture, which recently launched a heavy reusable rocket into the asteroid belt. And he's been talking about his other projects more often. On Friday, he announced on Twitter that he was refining the focus for the Boring Co., his subway-like tunnel transportation idea which he admits started as a joke, to focus on pedestrians and bikes and not on ferrying cars from place to place.
Musk's fan base was happy to talk about anything else besides the Model 3. Conference organizers didn't approve any questions about the Model 3, instead focusing on questions about what kinds of government system Musk envisions on Mars, and softballs such as "Everybody in this room is inspired by you. Who are you inspired by?"
Answer: "Kanye West. Fred Astair."
Life on Mars
Musk is optimistic that travel to Mars, and human life on Mars, will really happen. And he expects to do test launches on the BFR, the code name for the rocket SpaceX is building to bring people to Mars, in early 2019.
But he admitted that forecast might be a tad optimistic: "People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic," he said. "So I'm trying to recalibrate to some degree."
Production of the Model 3 has missed its targets. The automaker is slowing ramping up production. Musk had set a goal of making 5,000 Model 3 sedans a week by January, but has pushed off that goal to the second quarter of 2018. Tesla posted a $675.4 million net loss for the fourth quarter of 2017.
Musk admitted that Model 3 production is on his mind a lot.
"We're making good progress, but it's hugely hard work," Musk said, when asked what his biggest stressors are. AI is another thing that's on his mind. "Those are the two most stressful things in my life right now."