Elon Musk's smart bets continue to reveal themselves with measurable results: Earlier in May, SpaceX landed a reusable rocket on a floating barge for the second time;  Tesla's Model 3, set to be released next year, has been pre-ordered 400,000 times and counting. 

The driving force behind these accomplishments, beyond the cunning of their leader and the teams Musk has assembled, seems obvious. Just look at Tesla's beautiful, tech-savvy vehicles or the sleek, brilliant Falcon 9 rocket: These companies produce great hardware. But according to GE Digital CEO Bill Ruh, a fan of Musk's ventures, their success has much more to do with the ambitious software behind them.

"I'd contend they're more analytics and software companies than hardware companies," Ruh said. "They've taken cars and spacecrafts and used technology to make them much more productive."

Speaking at the Techonomy Conference in New York on Thursday, Ruh, whose company is a leg of General Electric and creates industrial Internet-of-Things software, talked about his admiration for SpaceX and Tesla. 

"They're beating companies that have been in the business a very long time, who haven't themselves been software- and analytics-led," Ruh said.

Tesla sales soared after the Model 3 was unveiled in April, even exceeding Musk's own expectations. The company's most affordable electric car to date has self-driving capabilities and can go 215 miles on a single charge.

"Some of the data I've seen says people don't always buy those cars because they're electric," Ruh says. "They buy [them] because of the fact that the software is upgradable system-wide." When Tesla rolled out its self-driving features last fall, for example, it didn't mean people with previous models suddenly owned antiquated vehicles--all they had to do was update their software and the features became available.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is making huge advances in the space industry: Landing an orbital rocket that can be reused--a feat that had never been accomplished till the Falcon 9 did so in December--could slash the cost of space travel by an estimated 30 percent. But as Ruh points out, building such an impressive piece of hardware is impossible without some amazing software. Velocity, angle, thrust, temperature--all must be precisely controlled to create a product capable of launching 60 miles into the atmosphere, coming back down, and landing in a 150-foot-wide space. Like Tesla, SpaceX has found the recipe for creating goods packed with incredible smarts.

"Analytics," Ruh says, "are everything."

Published on: May 26, 2016