"Jeremy Clarkson is a massive dick,"
says Elon Musk, unprompted, as he sits down, “and you can quote me on that.”
First published in the April 2013 edition of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
Elon Musk is not, as you might have guessed, your typical car boss.
Few speak their mind so freely that they write the first line of your story for you with almost the first thing they say in an hour-long interview.
And none sues the world’s most influential car show when they feel they’ve been stitched up: any other carmaker would have taken it on the chin, but when Top Gear implied that the electric Tesla Roadster might have run out of juice by filming it being pushed, Elon took them to the British High Court, and ultimately lost. It obviously still rankles, and in February he got into another blog and Twitter fight with the New York Times, which claimed that its Model S test car had also sputtered out.
If all this suggests that Elon Musk is a fighty, litigious, sweary douchebag, reconsider.
In fact, he is so modest and charming in person that you could almost forget about the two multi-million- dollar dot-com fortunes he made by the time he was 31, including selling PayPal to Ebay in 2002 in a $1.5bn deal, the Bel Air mansion, the Dassault Falcon 900 intercontinental private jet and the skinny English actress girlfriend. Almost. But you shouldn’t be jealous, and for three good reasons.
In 2010, SpaceX became the first-ever commercial company to send a spacecraft to orbit and return safely to earth.
The first is that Elon is doing you a favour. He founded Tesla and Solar City, which develops high-efficiency solar panels, primarily to break our dependence on fossil fuels. Should our pillaging of the environment prove terminal, Musk plans, in all seriousness, to establish a human colony on Mars, and he founded SpaceX to develop the reusable rockets that will make interplanetary travel affordable. He’s like a benign Bond villain; Elon simply thinks on a bigger scale than mere mortals.
The second reason you shouldn’t be jealous is that you don’t cash out of the dot-com bubble twice and start three new businesses in wildly disparate fields without incandescent intelligence and the ability to fit more into a day than a time-lord. He’s not just a walking wallet; he is actively involved in the engineering of both his cars and his rockets. Stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like you and me because we’re simply not as smart as Elon. You prepare well for an interview with him but you’re still aware that if you wired him to a brain activity monitor, even your best questions would barely cause a flicker on the trace.
And lastly, doing all this isn’t easy. In October, his Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, the first mission in his $1.6b resupply contract with NASA. Solar City went public in December at a value of nearly $500m, and its value has since more than doubled. Tesla made its IPO in 2010 and is now trading at around twice its initial offer price, with a value of over $4bn. Tesla’s factory in San Francisco – closed by Toyota in the financial crisis – is now producing its target of 400 cars each week and will make 20,000 in a full year.
The Model S won the Time magazine’s Invention of the Year, and Car of the Year awards from both Automobile and Motor Trend magazines in the US. Musk also launched the Supercharger network of free fast-charge stations on interstates, which allow Model S owners to get three hours driving time in a half-hour stop, and which he plans to roll out worldwide.
But these past few months are not typical of the 12 years since Musk cashed out of PayPal. I first met him in 2007, when Tesla had yet to build a car and Space X had endured two abortive test launches. Both businesses would later almost die: Tesla suffered cost overruns and design reboots that delayed production, and Space X a third launch flame-out that left everything hanging on the final attempt. And the economy tanked. Just how bad was it?
“It was like being in the stockade while people hurl shit at you,” Musk says (this, and the Clarkson quote, not reflecting his more typical gentlemanliness.) “We struggled very badly for many years just to keep the company alive. I had nothing left. I had to borrow money for rent. I sold everything I could, including my McLaren F1, and I would have sold the plane, too, except that in 2008 you literally could not sell a plane.”
Musk rightly points out that he is ‘a volunteer in all this’, and that if he had wanted bigger and safer returns on his capital he’d have invested in real estate, or oil. “Profit is important in that if you don’t make more money than you spend, eventually people will stop giving you money and you will die. But it’s not something that’s of personal interest to me. I just want to have the resources to get the things done that I think matter.”
For Musk, this is a simple statement of fact and not an invitation to be grateful for his selflessness. In America, not everyone is: Musk and his businesses are far from universally popular. It’s not so much Elon himself, although he has had some very public spats with former associates. It’s more to do with the nature of the businesses and the circumstances in which they operate.
In Tesla’s case, Republicans objected to the $468m low-cost Federal loan it received from a fund designed to reanimate the US car industry after the financial crisis. Mitt Romney referred to Tesla as a ‘loser’ company in the Presidential election debates – “it was hurtful, he just didn’t know what he was talking about,” says Musk – and there is an antipathy towards electric cars from a noisy minority who question their price, practicality and true environmental benefit.
After switching the world to electric cars, Musk plans to colonise Mars. Any bets on which will be harder?
Difficult times will come again, and soon. Musk will have to put people on his rockets – ‘that will be a very nervous day’ – and two new models for Tesla will increase its volumes tenfold. He says that he plans to ‘take it down a tiny bit’ this year, spending more time with his five sons - triplets and twins, with typical efficiency – “doing more fun stuff in the interests of maintaining sanity. But when I’m with them I can also do email as they only sporadically require my attention.”
Sorry, kids. Your Dad’s time is better spent working on his next ideas than throwing a ball for you in the backyard. Those ideas include an electric, supersonic, vertical take-off and landing private jet, and a supersonic underground transport system that could link LA and San Francisco – where Elon lives and where his factory is – in half an hour.
It’s called the Hyperloop, and he’s not giving much away about how it might work. He was going to publish a paper on it late last year, “but I just didn’t have a spare neuron. All existing neurons were redlined.” So we’ll just have to wait for the details. It might sound unfeasible.
But when you look at what Elon Musk has made work so far, would you really bet against him making this work too?
In Musk's garage
The bloke who finally seems to be making electric cars work is – or was – a proper petrolhead.
“I’ve had a McLaren F1, a Porsche 911 Turbo and a Series 1 E-Type. They all got some degree of negative reaction, except maybe the E-Type. If you drive a sports car now some people think you’re a jerk or you’re doing something bad for the environment, or both, but everybody likes a Tesla.
They realise it’s better for the environment than a Prius or a diesel Golf but that it’s also a cool, fast car. The McLaren is a great car. It’s a work of art, a really beautiful piece of engineering, but I didn’t want people always writing that I have a high-performance gasoline sports car so I decided to sell it.
I made a profit on it, even though I crashed it. I do have a jet, and my justification for having it is that I am so incredibly time-constrained that if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of things done at Tesla and Solar City, two companies which are really doing things on carbon.”