Of all the challenges Elon Musk faces, living up to his own hype is surely the biggest.
So far, incredibly, he has delivered. Most notably in creating a globally embraced electric vehicle brand, and a reusable rocket company that genuinely looks like it will one day land humans on Mars.
Check, and check. Both are in line with Musk’s frequently stated goal of saving the planet and making life more liveable for humans on and off it.
The profits can come later, and they’ll have to if Musk wants to get paid. As a measure of his ambition, Tesla and Musk last week agreed to a $US2.6 billion payday in stock options as he hits milestones over the next 10 years.
Those milestones would take Tesla’s market cap to $US650 billion from roughly $US55 billion today.
It’s yet another target in a 10-year diary stuffed with deadlines that serve as much fodder for Musk’s detractors as they do impetus for his manic production lines across the several far-reaching companies he runs.
Yes, despite creating the most significant US car company since the first one and showing NASA how it should have been building rockets all this time, Musk has critics.
Or, as Musk referred to people who bet on Tesla’s stocks depreciating, “jerks who want us to die”.
So from the anti-elite projectionists to the Flat Earth truthers, to the space protectionists, here’s a round-up of all the people who refuse to celebrate Musk’s achievements, and why.
Musk the elite projectionist
Arguably his most public detractor is Jarrett Walker, who got under Musk’s skin by saying:
Walker is a public transit policy consultant, an author on the subject, and owns the blog Human Transit.
His comment came after Musk revealed how much he disliked mass transit at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in California in December last year.
Speaking at a Tesla event on the sidelines, he said:
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
“And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
Walker said Musk’s hatred of sharing space with strangers “is a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford”.
And when rich people get to formulate policy that affects non-rich people, there’s a danger that elite projection – “what those rich people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole” – becomes a barrier to creating truly liberating cities.
A good example given here is a Unitary Plan policy in Auckland which call for minimum balcony requirements in tower developments.
Balconies can add up to 20% of the cost to an apartment. Should the 30% of households in Auckland earning under $20,000 be forced to pay extra for a compulsory balcony because people who drew up the policy – very likely earning more than $20,000 a year – believe apartments are better with balconies?
If Musk really wants to help the most people get around large cities easily, Walker’s argument is that Musk, calling for “individualized transit”, is unable to find the best solution as his elite biases cloud his judgment.
Maybe Walker hit a nerve. Musk tweeted this change of plan just a few days ago:
Adjusting The Boring Company plan: all tunnels & Hyperloop will prioritize pedestrians & cyclists over cars
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2018
“It’s a matter of courtesy and fairness,” he went on. “If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”
His detractors enjoyed the moment:
Easy to deploy 1000's of them ✅
Size of single parking space ✅
Very close to your destination ✅
Congratulations Elon, you've invented the Dolmuş pic.twitter.com/JqtfcGoHE4
— Özgür ÖZTÜRK (@ozgurozturknet) March 12, 2018
Musk the snake oil salesman
Despite his extraordinary successes, there are still may who believe Musk’s promises fall well short of the reality his companies deliver.
Civilisations on Mars, all US cars to be autonomous by 2027, 30 levels of subterranean tunnels, 250,000 Model 3s a year.
He announced the Model X in February 2012, saying it will be ready the following year, but buyers were left hanging until September 2015.
There were supposed to be 100,000 Model 3s on the road by the second half of 2017, and would be delivering 5000 a week by the end of 2017.
Bloomberg estimates Tesla has manufactured just over 10,000 Model 3s in March 2018, and is rolling out 721 a week.
In fact, Bloomberg has a fantastic interactive project dedicated to tracking all of Musk’s projects:
Of 93 stated goals across Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Company and Neuralink, 34 have been completed, and 22 have been late.
The most notable delay was the first — a two-year wait for the original Roadster after 127 orders were taken at its debutante’s ball at the Barkar Hangar in Santa Monica.
Then there was a wait four years longer than anticipated for the launch of Falcon Heavy — but that was all forgotten seconds after the spectacle arrived.
And there are plenty of instances where Musk has delivered ahead of schedule. Notably, in Australia, where he provided a megabattery to prevent blackout in South Australia within 100 days.
Not only was it delivered on time, it’s so good at it’s job, the energy provider can’t track it performance well enough to properly pay for it.
Musk himself admits there is some strategy behind his wildly ambitious deadlines. But is meeting deadlines such a big deal?
Trent Eady, on Seeking Alpha, noted:
“If Musk promises you the moon in six months and delivers it in three years, keep things in perspective: you’ve got the moon.”
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak actually does think it’s a big deal, and recently announced himself as one of Musk’s most public detractors.
“I don’t believe anything Elon Musk or Tesla says”, Wozniak told the Nordic Business Forum in Stockholm in January.
He loves his Teslas, but Wozniak kept buying into Musk’s promises of how it would soon drive itself across the US. And is burned by how far away that still is from reality.
“When a Tesla runs in any condition on a highway that is a little unusual — a cone in the middle of a lane — you have to move over,” he said. “A dumb human or a smart human can easily do it, but the Tesla can’t.”
“Everything I’ve read told me that every other car manufacturer in the world — Audi and BMW — are actually ahead of Tesla for self-driving cars.”
And then, ouch:
“We always drive the Chevy Bolt EV instead of the Tesla, every day.”
Musk the space murderer
Just about everybody watched in awe as SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy towards Mars. And just as many nodded in Boba Fett-like approval at Musk giving up his 2006 Telsa Roadstar so Starman could cruise the solar system in style.
The real issue for environmentalists is actually just how successful SpaceX is. It has reduced the cost of payloads into space from around $US60,000 on the space shuttle down to $US1300 on the Falcon Heavy.
Within a decade, owning a satellite will be as ho-hum for a company as owning a website.
And with rocket launches comes burning masses of fuel, and according to Nottingham Trent University lecturer Ian Whittaker, if SpaceX reaches its goal of a launch every two weeks, it will add 4000 tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere each year.
Then there’s the problem of all the potential space debris. And not to mention what kind of germs Starman and the Roadster are carrying that could contaminate any planet or moon it crashes into.
“The result of any impact or degradation of the car near Mars could start creating debris at the red planet, meaning that the pollution of another planet has already begun,” Whittaker says.
The most ill-considered line from that article has to be:
“You might be tempted to dismiss this as an expensive publicity stunt by a billionaire playboy with too much time on his hands.”
If Elon Musk, famed for shunning hotels in favour of grabbing a couple of hour’s sleep on a friend’s couch while in Silicon Valley, has too much time on his hands, the rest of the humans are wasting their lives in comparative comas.
Others reckon the Roadster stunt just makes Musk look like a wanker:
I think we as a species have a new definition of "Money To Burn". Send your really expensive car to orbit mars to prove a point… https://t.co/gyGt7YgMxA
— Erik S. Bailey (@esba1ley) December 3, 2017
Musk vs the truthers
Look through the comments on this footage of SpaceX sticking its first landing at sea:
You don’t have to scroll far to find discussions of how “fake” it is.
Yes, there are truthers out there who think Musk’s space race achievements are fake. Even when he tweets actual pics from actual space:
People who believe that the Earth is a globe because "they saw a car in space on the Internet" must be the new incarnation of "It's true, I saw it on TV!" It's a poor argument.
Why would we believe any privately-held company to report the truth?
— Flat Earth Society (@FlatEarthOrg) February 7, 2018
We won’t spend too much time on them.
Although admittedly, Musk has history with wonky presentations of the truth. If anyone had actually looked closer or pried at the Model S reveal in March 2009, they might have noticed several of the panels were held on by magnets.
Musk the control freak
Here’s a pitch to investors from 2003:
The difference between Tesla then and Tesla now was Elon Musk. He didn’t join the company until April 23, 2004.
But up until one fateful day in the company’s history on July 20, 2006, the growing excitement of US media over Tesla’s Roadster reveal had been completely missing mentions of Musk.
Instead, it focused on chief executive Martin Eberhard and marketing VP Mike Harrigan. For two years, Musk and Eberhard had a great relationship when it came to the technical aspects of developing the Roadster. But here’s the email Musk sent to Harrigan on July 18, 2006:
Another year and a half passed and pressure grew on the company to deliver the Roadster. A lot of the delays were due to Musk’s insistence — rightly, as history proved — on making the car actually deliver on the style a $US100,000 price tag deserved.
But there were a host of the other kind of administrative and workflow issues piling up that generally pile up when a company scales up rapidly in the way Tesla did.
The short story is Musk had a discussion with Eberhard about whether Eberhard could do more for the company if he wasn’t CEO. Eberhard eventually agreed, but no suitable candidates to replace him presented themselves.
A couple of months later, Musk ran Eberhard to tell him a CEO replacement had been found during a Tesla board meeting without Eberhard present — Michael Marks, the former CEO of the manufacturer Flextronics and early Tesla investor.
But the meeting had been held in violation of the company’s bylaws, and Eberhard had resign in front of the board for it to be legitimate. So he did, and on Marks took over as “interim CEO” a couple of months later. Crucially, he never took any pay, was never elected officer, and never signed any paperwork for the job.
He was replaced by Ze’ev Drori, the former CEO of car-alarm maker Clifford Electronics, on Nov. 27, 2007. And Musk took over as CEO in October 2008.
But given he had by that time invested $US55 million into the company, and changed the Roadster radically from its original design, he arguably had every right by then to tout ownership of Tesla.
In 2009, Eberhard sued Tesla and Musk for failing to honor its severance obligations, inaccurately portraying Musk as the founder of the company and for defaming Eberhard publicly. He dropped the case within three months.
Eberhard holds stock in Tesla, but no longer speaks to Musk. He got an invite to the unveiling of the dual-motor Model D, but didn’t go. He said he thinks he read about the launch online with his coffee the following morning.
“[Musk] is the kind of boss where day to day you don’t know if you have a job or not,” Harrigan said. “Once he’s convinced that you can’t do the job, there’s no way you can convince him back again.”
The hits keep coming
His numbers are too rubbery. He burns through staff remorsely. He curses “in mixed company”.
Musk owns some of those criticisms unapologetically. But he’s also quick to set the record straight, personally, as he did to Business Insider when refuting a claim in Ashlee Vance’s biography about him that he sacked his long-time assistant after she asked for a pay rise, and he allegedly proved he could work without her.
His most famous public battle was with British automotive show Top Gear and then-host Jeremy Clarkson’s claim about the Roadster after it was depicted failing a road test on several levels.
Tesla lost its appeal against the BBC, but still maintains a website highlighting its concerns with Top Gear’s “staged” breakdowns.
But as a visionary with critics, Musk is in elite company. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Henry Ford and even his motor company’s eccentric, brilliant namesake, Nikolai Tesla; rarely does anyone usher in meaningful change without controversy.
In Australia, it’s known as the “tall poppy syndrome”. The message, sadly, is don’t be trying so hard, kids.
I was asked recently what three people would I most like to have dinner with and I blurted Musk’s name out without even thinking. Not too long before that, I was asked who I thought my kids’ heroes were and it was Musk again, without thought.
They’re all young boys, with wildly different personalities and hobbies. But all three will sit still together, without arguing, for a full 30 minutes of the latest SpaceX launch on YouTube.
They begged me to take them on a recent Tesla junket.
Giving my kids a hero who aims for both saving the planet he lives on, while at the same time gunning to establish life on a whole other planet, is to me the most impressive thing Musk has ever achieved.
And it doesn’t matter whether he makes it or he fails. The fact that he doesn’t let anyone on Earth talk him out of giving it everything he’s got is the ultimate lesson you can teach any child.
Because not all ROIs have to be cash:
Lori, this is ridiculous. Creating a rocket company has to be one of the dumbest and hardest ways to “make money”. If it was about money, I’d just do another Internet company.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 21, 2018
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