There’s no denying it now:
Elon Musk is not the Messiah.
But how much does it really matter?
Remember, Elon Musk’s defenders keep telling me, “he’s only human.” The reminder has become a common refrain these past nine months among more ardent devotees of the Tesla CEO. His fans and followers have had to accept, amid growing reports of the eco-savior’s erratic behavior and destructive business practices, that there’s a chance he’s not the Messiah. Indeed, throughout a significant chunk of 2018, Tesla’s share price appeared to fluctuate right along with flawed human Elon Musk’s many moods.
Which makes sense: His public persona and perpetual dream vision are what define the brand. And he was, at least until now, the primary (if not singular) source of its success.
Musk may not be the world-saving eco-messiah certain obsessives make him out to be – but with Tesla he did carry off something akin to a miracle: He made the electric car sexy. The first Tesla, the Roadster, was an entirely different species from the boxy white Ed Begley, Jr.-mobile which, per a Simpsons spoof, ran on the driver’s “sense of self-satisfaction.” The red sports car that Musk debuted a decade ago was conceived as a converted Lotus Elise. It was sin on wheels, adapted for environmental sainthood.
Portentously perhaps, his initial plan to retrofit an Elise as an electric vehicle (“EV”) failed utterly: “It was a super dumb strategy,” Musk admitted of the mutant Lotus scheme while stoned on a video-streamed podcast last fall. Its new Tesla innards made the Elise significantly heavier and required them to rebuild almost every other feature to compensate. But what Tesla actually accomplished with the Roadster and everything after was the attitude we know – and/or blame – them for today: That so very Silicon Valley cocktail of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous self-righteousness.
‘Gluttonous and Virtuous at the Same Time’
“The Tesla was the first product that let you ever be both gluttonous and virtuous at the same time,” said MIT business professor David Keith. “You could have the looks and the speed, and also be doing something good for the world.” Consumers’ commitment to the ethos – to the fact that owning a Tesla tells your neighbors something about you, something you really want them to know – has meant they’ve been willing to put up with bumps in the road: “The field quality is not what you would expect of a car that costs $100,000 – say, a Mercedes,” said Keith, invoking the Model S with its famous battery fires and so-called bug fixes. “Yet the people who bought the early Tesla are engaged in the mission to the point that every ‘bug fix’ is a badge of honor.”
Much like that first car he made, Musk is a total mess imperfectly concealed within a rockstar(ish) exterior. In 2018, public outbursts of irrational exuberance – including a feud with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and another with the man who saved the Thai kids from that flooded cave last summer – have permanently altered the company’s public image… as have accounts of the dreaded demands Musk makes of his employees behind the scenes: layoffs, debt, and repeated production delays.
The middle-range Tesla Model 3 Musk promised three years ago, an everyman’s sedan, would cost $35,000. It was intended to lure a mass audience away from conventional cars – thereby, saving the world. And yet, despite amassing nearly 400,000 preorders, the Model 3 may never make it to scale at the promised price: Fewer than half the pre-orders have been manufactured so far. Indeed, Tesla may never be able to afford to sell a Model 3 for $35,000 – it’s now closer to $50,000 – leaving room for long-term competition from Audi’s and BMW’s luxury electric vehicles on one end, and eventually Ford’s on the other. Plus, demand isn’t what it used to be: Model 3 sales were down late last year.
Its profits, some say, may have already peaked. “Tesla underestimated the cost curves and manufacturing side of the equation,” analyst Joseph Spak with the Royal Bank of Canada told clients in a late January letter, explaining Musk’s unrealistic projections for the $35,000 Model 3 – which, close to three years later, “still does not exist,” Spak wrote.
Analyst Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley, the leading Tesla whisperer on Wall Street, wrote in a recent analysis that Tesla’s market dominance could be approaching a peak: After this year, key competitors could begin to gain on the company, and not a moment too soon.
Jonas witnessed the enigmatic founder’s oncoming crisis on an earnings call last spring. Musk deflected questions about production delays and the company’s mounting debt – which is currently hurtling toward $1 billion, about a third of its cash on hand. He called analysts’ questions “dry” and “boring.” Instead, Musk talked for 20 minutes to a fan who’d piped in via YouTube. It was, Jonas said, “the most unusual call” of his career.
‘$100,000 Battery Cars That Catch on Fire’
And by way of an explanation, “Elon Musk is a total crazy pants,” said one former employee, who used to manage communications for the company and requested anonymity to speak candidly about his time at Tesla. The pace and procedure of Tesla’s manufacturing plans were a problem long before market analysts and the media caught on, this ex-employee explained.
‘Elon Musk is a total crazy pants.’
“There’s a striking amount of ends-justify-the-means people at Tesla. They really believed that they were going to save the world somehow, with their $100,000 battery cars that catch on fire.” At one point, he was asked to redirect blame for the Tesla Model S’s repeated, and virtually inextinguishable, battery fires away from the cars themselves – and heap scrutiny on the firefighters who’d rush to the scene of a flaming Tesla.
“They’re like, ‘You need to make sure you pivot as much attention as possible to the first responders. Elon prefers not keep the focus on the vehicle itself,’” this employee recalls: “I said, ‘So my task is to blame the first responders for the Tesla vehicle fires?’ They’re like, ‘Well, you’re not blaming them per se, but he only believes that it’s a better use of our time. And you know how Elon is about time management.’” He refused, on moral grounds, to say what he was told Musk wanted him to. A colleague made the statement instead, thinking nothing of it.
“In general, people were willing to lie to keep Elon happy – or else they’d avoid him,” he explained. “People protecting him from any reality that might disappoint him and get them fired were actually endangering customers,” the ex-employee said.
2018’s Model S battery fires eventually led to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation, finally a recall, and a hardware fix from Tesla. Far less fixable, 2018 also saw a fatal autopilot accident. Rather than admit the tech may be flawed, Musk blamed the driver for misusing it. Multiple drivers who survived autopilot accidents are currently suing Tesla.
Tesla may be slowly approaching the cusp of declining dominance. But as a soul-searching self-saboteur struggling under the weight of his reputed genius, blinded by self-regard and coddled by an admiring inner circle, Musk will always be the archetypal Silicon Valley founder-CEO. (And to complete the picture, he’s convinced he’s not your typical tech titan turned cult-leader.) Musk’s chief of staff Sam Teller is even a consultant on the satirical sitcom Silicon Valley: He advises the show’s writers, feeding them details from life at Tesla, to make their send-up of eccentric CEO-centric startup culture even more accurate.
The Weirdest Year on Record
Teller’s insights may have been worth more before last year, when Tesla’s public reputation caught up with what insiders knew about Musk’s mindset and manner of doing business. His erratic behavior over the summer woke the world up to what sort of weirdness had long been afoot behind the scenes.
‘He can stick his submarine where it hurts.’
First, the rashly exuberant CEO personally delivered a submarine equipped with SpaceX technology to the mouth of the flooded cave where 12 Thai teenagers were trapped with their soccer coach. The British caver Vernon Unsworth who had discerned the boys’ location and enlisted expert divers to lead them to safety called Musk’s conspicuous donation a “stunt” which had “absolutely no chance of working” its way through the cave’s narrow, winding passages. According to Unsworth, who tried in vain to shake off the hero’s mantle himself, Musk’s contribution was a self-serving distraction at a time of crisis. Or, as he put it, “He can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Musk sprang to his own defense, ranting to his Twitter followers that his submarine engineers had done their research and would do a demo anywhere, anytime – to which Unsworth replied that when Musk arrived at the rescue scene, he “was asked to leave very quickly.” At that, Musk took to Twitter once more, this time calling Unsworth a pedophile. Come August he vented yet again, now to a Buzzfeed reporter, that Unsworth must be a “child rapist.” Why else, Musk reasoned, would a grown man move from Britain to Thailand? Unsworth, and the Thai girlfriend he’d relocated to live with, sued for defamation later that month. Their hearing is set for April.
When he wasn’t slandering a heroic expat, Musk answered a Twitter follower’s query about taking Tesla private with a mock announcement that he’d been considering it at “$420” a share and had “funding secured.” In the ensuing chaos, Tesla stocks soared. (Ironically, in a letter Musk sent employees to explain away the tweet, he invoked Tesla’s topsy-turvy value fluctuations to justify his stated preference for privatizing.) Many shareholders didn’t get the pot joke – 420 is a popular code for weed – but the Securities and Exchange Commission did.
The Wall Street watchdog called his reckless announcement another stunt, perhaps to impress his Canadian popstar girlfriend Grimes – who told the rapper Azealia Banks that the referential number amuses him – and hit him with a fine for securities fraud. They subpoenaed both Grimes and Banks concerning the motivation for the tweet, which was, by all accounts, the product of a hazy, lost weekend last August. Musk agreed to pay a $20 million penalty and let the board choose a new chairman to keep an eye on him and restore a semblance of stability. What actually happened that weekend is anyone’s guess.
Musk’s destructive tweeting tends to fall short of the president’s easy bravado. But, per one ex-employee’s theory anyway, he models his social media manners after Trump’s. “He became sort of hyper-powered once he saw the president’s ability to tweet with impunity,” I’m told. His jokes confuse people in public settings almost as profoundly as they do online. In person, he pauses awkwardly between sentences and his attempts at humor typically fail. Musk even bombed at the Paris climate talks with a crowd predisposed to worship him. (He compared greenhouse gases to a turd in the punchbowl: Crickets.)
He breaks unnervingly into a “Merlin’s laugh” – bent over in a fit of giggles for no clear reason – and tends to get up and walk out of meetings without warning. Maybe he was following a scent. Musk is said to be so distracted by odors that no one in his orbit wears perfume or cologne. The same ex-employee described being advised by the top recruiter for Tesla and SpaceX to make sure his hair was neat, normal, not at all “funky.” A world-class engineer, the recruiter explained, had once been made to come in for a second interview with his hairdo altered: Musk had initially found the engineer’s dreadlocks so distracting that he could barely remember the man’s name.
There are fewer protective layers on the inside these days to cater to his eccentricities. Several senior leaders have left: Tesla lost 13 executives to summer layoffs. And in December, Musk’s closest adviser and most stalwart defender, his general counsel and reputed best friend Todd Maron, left the company. Before joining Tesla, Maron was thrice-divorced Musk’s divorce attorney. (Two of those divorces were from the same woman.) And, as such, he defended Musk with passionate personal conviction – even in internal meetings which might have benefited from dispassionate insight.
The Future Belongs to Musk
But as Tesla’s fluctuations this year reveal, its brand identity and its success have been emotionally driven from the start. Musk’s personal power and Tesla’s influence were always more cultural than practical. And, perversely, that’s why they might hold their dominance next year and beyond. Because even if the Model 3 had been ready for buyers on schedule – or if every vehicle Musk projected were on the road within three years, say – they’d still comprise a very slim fraction of the country’s automobiles, let alone the world’s. And saving the world… that was the plan along.
But every promise Musk has ever made required a leap of faith. None of his save-the-world moonshot ideas has been ever much more than a dream. And yet there’s no shortage of otherwise rationally-minded men and women desperate to believe in him, even now.
Today, the smart bet is against him. Still, he has plenty of powerful friends on his side: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison joined the board at the end of 2018, while old allies like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel have remained loyal as ever. And, more importantly for businesses that build on mystique, Musk is still cool.
To the wider world of up-and-coming tech titans for instance, he remains a hero of mythic importance. Of one thing, MIT’s David Keith – a Musk skeptic, for the most part – is abundantly certain. “If Tesla came walking in today, hiring MBA students,” he says, “we would have a queue out the door, no doubt.” For better (or probably worse) in the collective imagination of the generation whose faith his dream visions depend on, the future belongs to Musk.
Alice Lloyd is a writer in Washington, D.C. and a Weekly Standard widow.