If you haven’t heard of Elon Musk by now you’ve either been living under the world’s largest rock for the past few years or have chosen to live completely off the grid, which I suppose amounts to pretty much the same darn thing. But never fear- even if you are off the grid, Musk is your man. The founder of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, among other hi-tech, sustainable companies, wants to save you, me and the rest of humanity from ourselves. That’s right- this South African born and raised, Canadian and good ol’ U.S. of A educated inventor, engineer and all-around visionary is ready and waiting to deliver us all.
You see, Musk believes hardcore in sustainable, renewable energy, as evinced by his development of Tesla, the world’s premiere, and most expensive, electric car. He also has a big jones for avoiding the risk of a human extinction event, which is why he founded SpaceX to make our species “interplanetary.” In his spare time he runs SolarCity, the biggest provider of solar energy the US has ever known. Oh yeah, he’s also the guy responsible for the idea of the Hyperloop, which is some kind of magnetic tube-train that can shuttle people around at extremely high speeds (like a cruising 747’s top speed, for example). I’m pretty sure that Hyperloop is going to be just a touch more successful than say, Segway, when it comes to the future of mass transportation- just a hunch.
So with all those accomplishments behind him and $11.5 billion in the bank, you might think that Musk is the living embodiment of perfection. You might think that but if you did, you would be wrong. Musk has actually made quite a few mistakes on his road to near-global dominance, some of which he’s admitted to, some of which he hasn’t and some of which he might not even be aware of. But never fear- that’s why poor old writers like myself exist; to bring you the biggest mistakes the rich and powerful make. Here are Elon Musk’s top 15.
15. His Apple Car “Prophesy”
Musk may be a genius when it comes to engineering, start-ups (at least his own) and new product publicity, as well as an environmentally-oriented visionary, but he appears to be a false prophet when it comes to his predictions about the auto making industry’s future. A case in point would be his prediction last summer that Apple, of all companies, would have the “Apple Car” (code named “Titan”), in production and moving into dealerships by 2020. While Apple is indeed now theoretically in the car business alongside Google and Tesla itself, the idea that they would have an electric, self-driven (yup- that’s the plan) vehicle in mass production in less than five years seems insane to most industry experts. In fact, current wisdom is firmly in the “they will have a car ready by 2020” camp. As in one car, Elon. Could it be that Musk is seeing competition where none yet exists?
14. Tesla Model X Issues, Part One
Tesla is without a doubt the most exciting new carmaker to come along in ages and Musk deserves a ton of credit for putting his vision out on the streets as a reality. If you’ve seen a Tesla model motoring around then you know they are slick, sophisticated and ever-so sweet looking. They cost a pretty penny too, with some models well over $100,000 and none lower than $75,000. They also tend to take forever to be released and often have crazy kinks in them that weren’t completely worked out beforehand. A case in point is the Model X, about which Musk himself said: “This [Model X] program has been challenging. I particularly need to fault myself for a fair bit of hubris for putting too much technology all at once into a product.” Wow- way to own it! But the reality is, guys like Musk think they can succeed at anything, immediately, and sometimes you do need to have a bit of an ego-check to get back on the right track.
13. Tesla Model X Issues, Part Two
The actual problem with the Model X, apart from Musk’s monster ego, is that the company tried to jam entirely too much experimental (for a car) software into the very first production models. Musk himself has said that he wishes they had waited for the next model to add on more software and cool features, rather than try to cram everything possible into the first car of its kind. A case in point is, of all things, the software that operates the door sensors. Apparently, it doesn’t really operate them well at all. Which left Musk with a car whose doors didn’t work. Forget about locking your keys in the car- this car doesn’t even allow you to use the doors at all!
12. The Roadster, Part One
Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, came out quite some years ago now, in 2008. In fact, Tesla has actually been around for 13 years, even if it seems like most of us only heard about them a year or two ago. Musk has admitted that some of the early mistakes Tesla made were “staggeringly dumb.” One of those was believing that Tesla could use proprietary technology from a company called AC Propulsion. Unfortunately, Tesla was one of the first automakers to go digital and all of AC Propulsion’s systems were analog. Tesla’s engineers had to rewrite tons of code only to find out that these AC Propulsion systems couldn’t be commercialized after all. Whoops!
11. The Roadster, Part Two
Musk has admitted, most recently at the 2016 Tesla shareholders meeting, that the Roadster was a complete disaster; or debacle or failure or whatever you want to call it- Musk has certainly given it plenty of names! Another huge issue the company had with the car was also another AC Propulsion problem, namely, trying to use that company’s air cooled battery in an electric car. It turns out electric cars run really, really hot and need a liquid-cooled battery pack to be successful at all. Using the wrong existing technology set Musk and Tesla way back in their early days.
10. The Roadster, Part Three
And you thought I was done ripping on the roadster, didn’t you? Well, when you create a startup of “awesome” new technology and try to change the world through auto making, it might actually help if you started from scratch. Or at least that is perhaps what Tesla should have done. But after all of their failures using the existing AC Propulsion tech, Tesla then tried to slap that jury-rigged system into the existing car body of a Lotus. It turns out that trying to jam experimental, much-redesigned technology for an electric car into a gas-powered car body doesn’t really work- at all. Tesla had to redesign the Lotus body to make it longer to fit the already redesigned battery pack and even had to convert the air conditioning system of the Lotus to operate in an electric, non-gas environment. The Roadster ended up using only slightly over 5% of the AC Propulsion and Lotus technology it was supposedly built around. Musk has admitted the whole thing was a huge mistake. Yup.
Not every mistake Musk has made has been professional. And I’m not even sure if Musk considers this part of his personal life just part of the journey, a beautiful mistake or an ongoing nightmare but the truth of that matter is that Musk has divorced and remarried his 2nd wife…more than once. He met Talulah Riley in 2008, married her in 2010, divorced her in 2012, remarried her in 2013, withdrew a request for a 2nd divorce in 2014 and then watched Riley file for one final divorce (we think) in 2016. Wow- these two are like the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of the tech industry!
8. SolarCity Bid
The jury’s still out on this one, as Musk only announced that Tesla would purchase SolarCity in late August of this year. But, Tesla stocks did drop to a new low in the wake of that news and Tesla has sunk over $3 billion into a company worth $2 billion before the purchase. More importantly, Tesla sunk a lot of money into the purchase by buying up SolarCity stock at premium rates above market value- like 20-30% above that value. It’s a huge gamble for Musk and Tesla, as an upstart automaker trying to basically corner a segment of the energy business as well. So far so good for Musk as he expands his holdings but only time will tell if this becomes one of those high risk-high reward ventures that could cripple a mogul.
7. Tesla Expansion
As Tesla finally enjoys solid sales and profit-making, Musk is pushing his car company into almost certain ruin. Or at least that’s what industry analysts say. Basically what Musk has done is turn his start-up into a high-cost but profitable niche business that produced about 50,000 cars in 2015- by the skin of their teeth. However, Musk recently announced that he was pushing Tesla to produce 500,000 cars by 2018- that’s a pretty incredible production boost in a very short period of time and basically nobody thinks he can do it. So it might not be a mistake that’s on the books yet but Musk might just be driving downhill on ice with no brakes. Metaphorically, at least.
6. Reddit Controversy
Sometimes you don’t even know you’ve made a mistake until somebody tells you that you have. In this case, a frustrated Tesla owner (well “almost-owner”) took to Reddit to complain about the way Tesla was handling the sale of his car to him. The poster noted that his Tesla salesman had intimated his discount wouldn’t be in effect if he didn’t take the loaner car they were offering him while awaiting delivery of his new Tesla. People were understandably upset at this heavy-handed treatment of a customer. Unfortunately for Elon, Tesla has a strict no discounts, no price breaks policy, which apparently even he and his family subscribe to. So not only did he have to face the wrath of a Reddit-inspired social media sh*tstorm of bad publicity but he also had to take his own employees to task for undermining one of the founding principles of his company. I bet he’s had better days…
5. Blogpost & Twitter Silence
Remember how we were talking about all of the problems Musk and Tesla were having with their Model X car? Well, one of the promises Musk made was to announce via his blog on the Tesla website (and Twitter) when the new software update would be ready for the Model X; you know, the software update that would allow people to actually open and close the doors of their cars. Musk had promised details in his blogpost in early July, then Labor Day, then later in September, then… I wonder if a few minor things like acquiring SolarCity, watching his SpaceX rocket blow up, and seeing stock in all of his companies might have contributed to his radio silence
4. SpaceX Explosion
If you think of all of the mistakes and fails Musk has experienced starting up a car company were bad, how about the explosion of one of Space X’s rockets? That’s right, in September of this year a “Falcon 9” test rocket exploded upon launch at Cape Canaveral. Space X is Musk’s aerospace company that specializes in sending cargo (mostly satellites) to space. He has high hopes for the company, as Musk is also a firm believer in moving humanity into the stars to avoid extinction here on planet earth. The Falcon 9 explosion destroyed a $200 million satellite and set back the company’s launch program. But not by much- another Falcon 9 rocket is due to go up sometime in January 2017; this time with 10 satellites aboard.
3. Production In Asia
Tesla, like nearly every other US automaker, has dabbled in having its cars produced in Asia. From a corporate bottom line this decision always seems to make sense- labor is cheaper, parts are cheaper, and there are usually no pesky unions fighting the companies for workers’ rights, increased wages, etc. However, Musk has revealed that, at least for his high-tech, high-performance company, Asia was not the answer. Although he has said he thought this route would be “cheaper and better” the truth was that Tesla discovered quality control and safety control to be severely lacking and stopped outsourcing.
2. The Roadster, Part Four
So you thought I was done tearing the Roadster apart, didn’t you? Surprise! This Musk fail was just too funny to pass up. Musk himself has told the story of trying to get Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to invest in Tesla. To get them interested, Musk took them for a test drive in an early Roadster. There was only one problem- the car wouldn’t go over 10 mph. 10 mph? Amazingly, some would say unbelievably, the Google duo seemed to enjoy their slow as molasses drive with Musk as they did eventually invest in the company. That’s pretty amazing in retrospect- not every car manufacturer can say they had a successful test drive in a car that never went faster than the average person can bike…
1. Chris Anderson Interview
Musk is a bold, brash, confident sort of guy- he would have to be, right, after everything he’s accomplished? But sometimes even the biggest winners find themselves in a situation where they make us feel for them as if they were the biggest losers. During a live interview session at the SXSW convention in 2013, hosted by Chris Anderson, Musk was asked by a member of the audience during the Q & A portion what his biggest mistake was. His answer? Well, you could hear the crickets sing, as the old saying goes. This silence was followed by an extremely long, very awkward additional pause full of stutters, stammers and hemming and hawing until Musk finally came up with an answer; which, by the way, was perfect but very belated. It was a weird moment for a guy used to the spotlight and full of self-confidence- his biggest fail of them all just might have been failing to answer a softball question from an adoring fan.
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