By NUNYO DEMASIO
As the brains behind Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk is perhaps the most influential innovator of the 21st century. The entrepreneur extraordinaire, 47, has left an indelible mark on multiple industries, particularly e-commerce, aerospace and the automative field. “The best thing we’ve had since Thomas Edison,” declared Neil deGrasse Tyson, the star astrophysicist. Musk’s overarching goals seem to be: accelerate Earth’s transition to sustainable energy, using his products; and make humans a multi-planetary species, reducing the risk of our extinction.
A visionary genius who creates a wide range of futuristic stuff, Musk prompts comparisons to a fictional character: Tony Stark, the billionaire magnate, playboy and brilliant scientist known as Iron Man in Marvel Comics and film adaptations. Nonetheless, a Hollywood ending is far from guaranteed amid enormous challenges surrounding Musk’s famous car company. The super scientist inexplicably found himself entangled in a soap opera involving a controversial female rapper and his gossipy, pop-singer girlfriend. So although shareholder value has skyrocketed under Musk, his self-inflicted wounds in recent months — especially on Twitter — have prompted questions about his leadership.
The scrutiny seemed to reach a fever pitch on Friday, September 7, following Musk’s appearance on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast: During a captivating, live-streamed interview, Musk took one puff of marijuana after pointing out its legality in California. Tesla’s stock dropped as much as 10% as its chief accountant, Dave Morton, also announced his resignation following just a month on the job. He cited unusual scrutiny of the company.
Musk maintains his defiance (and sense of humor) while describing 2018 as being the most difficult year in his iconic — and iconoclastic — life. During the past few months, he’s exhibited questionable, if not, strange behavior: Musk insulted Wall Street analysts during an earnings call; tweeted an April Fool’s joke about his billion-dollar car company going bankrupt; disparaged the media via Twitter, in Trumpian fashion, because of negative coverage; and accused a British man of being a pedophile after the poor lad mocked Musk’s submarine idea. Alas, even the world’s greatest mind can’t find a solution for thin skin.
Musk apologized for a couple of the bizarre episodes, including the salacious tweet surrounding the rescue of 12 teenagers and their soccer coach from an underwater cave in Thailand. Nonetheless, the brilliant scientist proved incorrigible on the topic. Almost six weeks later — in an August 28 tweet — Musk deemed it “strange” that the man, Vernon Unsworth, considered a hero for his efforts, hadn’t sued. Musk deleted the gratuitous insult on a day Tesla’s stock dropped — repeating a familiar pattern, and renewing concerns about his behavior. Then within days, Musk’s email response to a Buzzfeed reporter — meant to be off the record — was published. It showed him declaring Unsworth a “child rapist.” On September 17, Unsworth filed a defamation lawsuit against Musk in California’s United States District Court.
Flying the First Moon Tourists
Capturing the genius’s complexities, on the very same day of the embarrassing development, SpaceX unveiled its first paying customer for a trip around the moon: Yusaku Maezawa, a billionaire as the founder of Japan’s largest internet clothing retailer. Maezawa, 42, plans to invite up to eight artists to join him gratis for the week-long, 240,000-mile ride. The mission, planned for 2023, would be the first lunar journey since 1972 when the famous Apollo missions concluded — and the first ever by regular citizens. Maezawa intends to bring along an architect, dancer, fashion designer, filmmaker, musician, novelist, painter, photographer and sculptor. The group would create artwork reflecting its time in space. Musk described Maezawa — an art collector and former punk drummer— as being brave for his willingness to take the dangerous voyage, an important step in commercializing space travel. Maezawa will fly on the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), being built by SpaceX to be the biggest and most powerful spaceship ever. He’s funding an undisclosed percentage of the $5 billion development cost. The moon tourist trip is scheduled to occur just one year before Musk’s plans for sending the first humans to Mars. Why distract from such unprecedented greatness with occasional smalltime behavior???
Musk has cited his insane schedule as contributing to the head-scratching moments. Given 120-hour work weeks to overcome missed deadlines, Musk — whose Bel Air compound is worth more than $70 million — sleeps on the floor of a Tesla factory in Fremont, CA. To jumpstart his ZZZs, Musk takes Ambien, the sleep aid with notorious side effects ranging from hallucination to sleep driving. At least, Musk’s daily diet no longer includes eight cans of Diet Coke to go with several cups of coffee. (He’s down to a couple of caffeinated sodas during his 17-hour work days.) The billionaire innovator who once tweeted that “vacation would kill you” apparently hasn’t taken a real one in years. Musk divides his time mostly between Tesla’s main office in Northern California and SpaceX’s headquarters in Southern California (Hawthorne).
Musk’s favorite mode of public communication remains Twitter. His account boasts 22.4 million followers, including a hard-core contingent of “Muskateers.” But to the chagrin of Tesla’s board members, he employs it for far more than product updates: Back in 2012, Musk announced a split from his second wife, British actress Talulah Riley; and Tesla’s stock subsequently dropped 2%. Informative, funny, snarky, educational, petty and touching (e.g. on the John McCain’s passing), Musk’s tweets frequently generate headlines — occasionally of the wrong kind. Tesla’s directors, among others, have reportedly urged him to take a Twitter sabbatical — to no avail. Musk, who has five boys — twins and triplets with his first wife, Justine — counters that the amount of time he spends on the platform is “like almost nothing.” But the damage caused by some of his relatively frequent tweets is nothing to sleep on.
Tesla’s board reportedly believes that Musk’s use of Ambien has factored into his social-media kerfuffles. Perhaps the first clue came, naturally via Twitter, on November 4, 2016 when Musk acknowledged “learning some lessons” about the foolishness of so-called Ambien tweeting. However, he failed to provide further details, leaving any specific come-to-Jesus moment a mystery.
In May 2017, when Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment, prompting the cancellation of her ABC sitcom, she blamed Ambien. Barr retracted her explanation after its drug maker, Sanofi zinged back that “racism is not a known side effect.” Indeed, Barr had a history of tweeting racial stupidity and nut-job conspiracies theories. The sleeping aid, used correctly, helps millions of insomniacs each year. Still, Ambien’s links to occasionally strange behavior is well-documented, and often spotlighted when involving a celebrity: A few months after Barr’s imbroglio, Ambien was among several prescription drugs in Tiger Woods’s body when police in Jupiter, FL discovered him asleep in a parked car — with the engine running, and on the side of the road. Arrested for DUI, Woods explained that the Ambien was for a sleeping disorder.
It’s fair to wonder whether Musk was on the sleep aid — or anything mind-altering — when he unleashed his most problematic tweet: On August 7, Musk revealed that he was contemplating taking Tesla private at $420 per share (a roughly 20% premium) adding to the bombshell: “Funding secured.” With no further information, the cryptic tweet roiled the markets while boosting Tesla’s stock price from the $340-ish range to almost $380. Such a reckless statement, surprising even board members, immediately drew scrutiny from the Security and Exchange Commission, which launched an investigation into its accuracy. Investors filed lawsuits as TSLA, after rocketing 11%, soon dropped to a three-month low: It’s a securities violations for a chief executive officer to spread false information, manipulating a stock. Some observers interpreted Musk’s proposed price as the code for marijuana (420).
Partly to affirm his claim of sufficient funding to privatize Telsa, Musk cited genuine interest from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Even so, an American electric-car company relying on foreign big oil seemed contradictory. And two-and-a-half weeks later, August 24, Musk made a sharp U-turn, announcing a decision to keep the company public after consulting with shareholders — you know, pesky protocol typically completed before tweeting big news. Abandoning the $72-billion privatization plans largely because major investors cautioned against it likely won’t end Tesla’s headaches. The SEC issued subpoenas, indicating the matter’s seriousness. And Tesla’s European rivals recently unveiled new luxury models, intensifying competition where Musk’s company thrives.
Critics note that Tesla has repeatedly missed targets for the mass-market production of its least expensive car: the Model 3 sedan. Such delays have tested the patience of customers who placed $1,000 deposits after the vehicle was revealed in March 2016. Taking on enormous debt without turning an annual profit in its 15-year history, TSLA is the most shorted stock on Wall Street — investors are betting more than $10 billion against the company. Its hard-charging CEO, who has seen the departure of several executives this year — conceded that the unrelenting pressure from those short sellers (or “haters”) got to him. In a New York Times article, published August 16 and widely referenced, Musk expressed mental and physical exhaustion. According to the paper, Telsa’s CEO alternated “between laughter and tears” during an hourlong interview. The report amplified concerns about his role as the boss, dropping TSLA’s stock price for the day. But in an August 28 tweet, Musk denied shedding tears, perhaps asserting for future biographers, that his voiced cracked just once. Regardless, Tesla’s board has contemplated finding a lieutenant to assume some of Musk’s day-to-day responsibilities, and ease the smothering load. At SpaceX, its president Gwynne Shotwell, plays the crucial role splendidly. Musk revealed that a couple years ago, the carmaker approached Sheryl Sandberg — Facebook’s well-regarded chief operating officer — about the gig.
The 'Magic' — and Dangers — of Red Wine with Ambien
Musk uses Ambien, he said, because it’s often the only way for him to fall asleep. Scary. Then at a minimum, he should take the preemptive step of no longer mixing Ambien and alcohol. His not-so-secret habit has received little attention during this year’s tumultuous stretch. But on June 6, 2017, Musk tweeted: “A little red wine, vintage record, some Ambien — and magic!” Ignoring the 23,000 retweets, Sam Altman — an entrepreneur who’d partnered with Musk on artificial intelligence — pointed out the serious danger of such “Ambien tweeting.” However, Musk downplayed the risks, tweeting back that “it’s all good” once he plays classic music by, say, Miles Davis. According to the American Addiction Centers, mixing Ambien and alcohol is far from a good idea: The combination dramatically enhances the sleep aid’s dangerous side effects such as impaired judgment — and bizarre behavior. It also increases the odds of an overdose, and even death. Making matters worse, the drug maker recommends against taking Ambien without getting a full night’s sleep — or at least seven hours — to relieve its potency. Musk has long been known to sleep no more than six hours.
Inexplicable gaffes by the overworked savant have amplified the silly notion that Musk is more of a marketer than an innovator. His harshest critics deem him a high-tech snake oil man. Certainly, some of Musk’s ambitious ideas — or time lines — have failed to pan out. Musk anticipates that later this year — the third quarter on Wall Street — Tesla will become “sustainably profitable for the first time in our history.” He also predicts that the company — which also sells battery products and solar roofs — will be worth a trillion dollars within a decade. Regardless of how things play out, Musk’s innovations have irrefutably shaped the world: Teslas’s popularity has compelled iconic car makers like Ford and General Motors to focus on electric models, turning vehicles that slow global warming into a commercial reality. In April 2017, Tesla surpassed GM as America’s most valuable car maker, currently worth more than $50 billion.
BFR a.k.a. Big Freaking Rocket
SpaceX has achieved remarkable technological and financial success while revolutionizing the aerospace industry. Its BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) launch system has shown evidence of interplanetary travel while being fully reusable (an unusual, cost-saving capability allowing recovery of virtually all of the spacecraft for subsequent use). The super duper spaceship is also known by Musk as the r-rated version of Big Freaking Rocket. Ha! Taller at 387 feet than the Statue of Liberty, it’s being designed to contain enough room for dozens of people and tons of cargo. With such technological wizardry, Space X — the world’s biggest private rocket company, worth an estimated $28 billion — has become almost as famous as Tesla.
The 'Catfight': Rapper vs. Electric-Music Singer
Perhaps the best sign that the ingenious engineer was headed off the rails involved the presence of the gifted yet volatile rapper Azealia Banks at his Los Angeles estate over a summer weekend: Despite her fearless nature, acting talents and musical gifts, Banks is known as much for scathing posts on social media. The rapper, who endured an abusive household as a child, has a history of celebrity beefs: Beyonce, Cardi B, Iggy Azalea, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Nick Cannon, Nicki Minaj, Pharrell, Rihanna, Rita Ora, Sarah Palin, T.I., Wendy Williams and Zayn Malik. That’s not even the entire list! Whenever Banks feels slighted, she has no hesitation to lash out in provocative, racist, homophobic, violent — and, yes, sometimes humorous — language. Twitter banned her in June; one month later, Banks parted with her latest record label. Oh, she once released a cuckoo Instagram video, boasting about practicing witchcraft while apparently cleaning the bloodied remnants of slaughtered chickens in a closet.
Albert Einstein ostensibly once described the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over — and expecting a different result. So It wouldn’t take a genius to notice Banks’s pattern of vitriolic drama — and keep at a safe distance. But Musk left such discretion to his indiscreet girlfriend. An electric-music singer and producer, Grimes gained fame in 2013 with her third studio album “Visions,” then a couple years later released the critically acclaimed “Art Angels.” The couple first met via Twitter after communicating about an esoteric joke combining art and artificial intelligence. The relationship became public May 7, 2018, when Grimes and Musk — or Grusk, as Internet users nicknamed the pair — attended the Met Gala together.
Grimes, 30, invited Banks, 27, over to collaborate on music for the rapper’s anticipated second studio album. The Harlem native arrived at Musk’s Bel Air compound to start the August 10th weekend. But apparently because of a mixup, Grimes, whose real name is Claire Elise Boucher, was unavailable. The idiosyncratic couple had made arrangements to attend DEF CON, the annual hacker’s convention in Las Vegas. Feeling stood up while awaiting Grimes, Banks — who had suggested renting a music studio — responded in characteristic fashion: She whined on Instagram before hurling several biting insults at Musk (“male pig”) and Grimes (“methhead junkie”) — from the mogul’s guest home! Among her outlandish remarks, Banks declared that Musk had been on acid while releasing his infamous tweet a few days earlier; and claimed that she had overheard him making phone calls to belatedly secure funding. Banks, who would explain her vindictiveness as part of a “catfight,” also insinuated that the couple tried to lure her into a menage a trois. Yikes! Musk publicly dismissed the wild allegations — karma? — claiming that he had never communicated with Banks, before eventually conceding that the two were briefly in the same area of his 20,248-square-foot mansion.
The eccentric entrepreneur’s amended story only boosted the high-strung rapper’s credibility. And a few days later, Banks posted screen grabs of her apparent text conversation with Grimes discussing her boyfriend’s private parts (“giant”) and claiming that “the russians want Musk dead.” Musk subsequently unfollowed his blabber-mouth lover on social media. There’s been no official word on the status of the relationship.
After a pause from the insanity, Banks — taking a page out of Omarosa’s book — returned to Instagram on August 21, with more intel from her ill-fated trip: She shared a screenshot of an ostensible text exchange with Grimes tattling that her boyfriend “just got into weed cuz of me.” Assuming the image’s authenticity, Grimes revealed that after Musk had assessed Tesla’s share price as being worth $419 as a private company, “he rounded it up to $420 for a laugh.” The tantalizing information, which almost certainly attracted the SEC’s attention, contradicted Musk’s public denials about a marijuana link. By the way, TSLA’s all-time high is $389.61 (a stratospheric level compared to its IPO price of only $17 in 2010). Finally, Banks — who might as well name her next album “TMI” — claimed that Musk was tapping her phone. She added that his attorney had commandeered it to erase evidence involving her visit. Despite denying the zany allegations — most of which Banks soon deleted from her social media activity — Musk conspicuously removed his Instagram account, disappointing his 8 million or so followers. He explained in a tweet: “Didn’t ‘like’ it.”
'Consensual' Telepathy to Prevent an AI Takeover
The clever engineer — who doubles as Tesla’s product architect — can’t possibly like expending energy on such juvenile episodes. Tesla and SpaceX may not even be his most ambitious endeavor: In March 2017, Musk revealed his latest venture based on science fiction: Neuralink, a company he co-founded to create electronic devices implanted in the human brain, allowing people to merge with software while keeping pace with artificial intelligence. Musk contends that it is in humanity’s best interests to develop a symbiotic relationship with machines. He wants to make it practical for people to communicate with computers minus a physical intermediary.
“Neural lace” technology intertwines computers and the human brain via brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). The concept of using a brain chip implant to pull off such an integration has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. Scottish novelist, Iain M. Banks, introduced “neural lace” devices in his 2000 book “Look to Windward” — part of his “Culture” series.
The fantasy has turned into a possibility with neural lace, a mesh microchip implanted into the brain. Animal testing, particularly in mice, confirms the general science. Perfecting the technology, in theory, will one day allow humans to upload/download information directly from a computer — not much different from the film character Neo’s surreal method in “The Matrix.” Users would speedily process new skills and greatly bolster their memory, turning almost super human.
In the short run, Neuralink — based in San Francisco — will treat brain injuries and disorders such as Parkinson’s. Government research arms like the military-oriented DARPA are already developing BCIs with objectives that include treating mental illness and neurological disorders. Nonetheless, Musk aims to transform the technology, as he’s done in other industries, and enable “consensual” telepathy within a decade.
His fantastical endeavor faces competition from a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, notably Bryan Johnson, who set aside $100 million to launch the neurotechnology company, Kernel, in August 2016. Johnson — after deciding against focusing on brain implants — aims to develop general-purpose technology to augment human cognition. Musk has been uncharacteristically tightlipped about his company’s details regarding the otherworldly idea. He’s tweeted about it only a couple times.
Musk’s other grand plans include solving gridlock, radically reducing the time for long-distance trips and protecting humanity from an AI takeover. Earlier this year, he stepped down from the board of OpenAI, a research company that aims to develop “friendly” AI. Musk — who co-founded the non-profit company in 2015 — cited conflicts of interest given Tesla’s foray into self-driving cars. Nonetheless, he remains a proactive donor and self-styled AI guru with strong opinions: Musk agrees with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin’s contention that whichever nation leads the way in AI — currently it’s the US and China — will be “rulers of the world.” (Is that why Russia allegedly wants Musk dead? Ha!) But Musk adds an ominous scenario: AI will transform military technology and likely cause World War III. His alarmist views echo those of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, who before dying on March 14 at age 76, repeatedly warned that AI, despite its benefits, might lead to human extinction. Musk has called for the regulation of AI, specifically in the development of weaponry. In July, he was among thousands of experts who signed a pledge against essentially creating killer robots. Facebook chief, Mark Zuckerberg, who aims to integrate the technology into his platform to help resolve certain issues while creating new sensory and emotional experiences, deemed Elon Musk’s doomsday theories “pretty irresponsible.” (Zuckerberg finds himself in the anti-hysteria camp of robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks.) But Musk — contending that AI carries more risks than nukes — responded by ridiculing Zuckerberg’s knowledge of the subject. In March, Musk deleted the Facebook pages representing SpaceX and Tesla while mocking the company — on Twitter.
Despite flaws such as irascibility, self-aggrandizement, impulsiveness and impudence, Musk seems to be an overall good guy who wants the best for humanity. Worth more than $20 billion as one of Earth’s richest men, Musk has pledged to donate most of his wealth to charity, following the lead of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Legions around the globe laud Musk not just because of his cool, futuristic inventions but for his passion, inspiration and big dreams (including a supersonic jet, featuring vertical take-off and landing).
Musk’s uncanny ability as an inventor started at age 12, when he created — and sold — a space-themed video game. At age 28, in 1999, Musk co-founded X.com, an online bank, which eventually turned into PayPal, revolutionizing online payments. eBay purchased the company in 2002 for $1.5 billion, earning Musk roughly $165 million as its largest shareholder. The suddenly ultra rich scientist used much of his fortune on an ambitious endeavor to build spacecrafts for commercial travel — and ultimately allow humans to live on Mars. (This sci-fi scenario was also advocated by Stephen Hawking as necessary for human survival amid global warming and the risks of AI.) In 2002, Musk founded his third company, Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX. Musk took dual roles as CEO and lead designer. As if lacking in things to fill his time, he also co-founded the revolutionary car company in 2003. Then a few years later, Musk inspired the creation of Solar City, an alternative energy company, which eventually turned into a subsidiary of Tesla. Co-founded by Musk’s cousins, its of the world’s largest producers of solar panels — designed to absorb sun rays as an energy source.
In this digital era, though, Musk couldn’t quite create anything to help him avoid hearing again from his loquacious house guest. On August 25, Azealia Banks added a plot twist to the rigamarole: an open letter, posted on Instagram, that she had sent to Elon Musk several days earlier expressing contrition: “What started out as a catfight led to some seriously unexpected consequences and I seriously apologize.” Banks requested to meet with Musk for essentially a do-over — hahahahaha — and confirmed that that the two had indeed never been formally introduced. Near the end of the seven-paragraph letter, the rapper wrote cryptically: “After all, we are now the co-stars of pop culture’s latest fan fiction.” Before sending the letter, the part-time witchcraft practitioner had announced a writing contest with a $1,000 cash prize for the best fan fiction involving Tesla — with a Halloween deadline. And in a different Instagram post intended for Musk, Banks indicated that the catfight wasn’t over with “your druggie art school girlfriend.” Within days, Banks’s stunned fans by deactivating her Instagram account. But less than 24 hours after that zig, came the zag: the account resurfaced, announcing the rapper’s tour dates. Musk responded with silence, signaling that he has no more time for the Twilight Zone nonsense, especially with so much going on.
Sending Humans to Mars in 2024
SpaceX plans to launch its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022; and then two years later, send a historic manned crew — the precursor to humanity’s home-away-from-home. (Adding to the stakes, Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, has declared that his company will upend SpaceX by beating it to Mars.) Musk warns that the first humans living on Mars will be forced to reside within a giant glass dome while facing a high risk of death. He intends to avoid being among that inaugural group of naturalized Martians. The shrewd scientist’s long-term vision is to relocate one million earthlings to a hospitable Mars as a contingency against nuclear war. However, a NASA-funded study, released on July 30, 2018, conveyed skepticism about the essential step in Musk’s vision: terraforming Mars. The process, introduced in science fiction, would transform the red planet’s atmosphere, making it as livable as Earth’s. NASA contends that the technology doesn’t currently exist for terraforming (largely because Mars lacks enough carbon dioxide). Unsurprisingly, Musk disagreed with the conclusion. The scientist who once said , “I would like to die on Mars — just not on impact,” has spent much of his life refuting skeptics.
Since its inception, SpaceX has repeatedly made headlines — and history: In May 2012, it became the first private company to send a rocket (the Falcon 9) to the International Space Station (the research satellite where multinational astronauts conduct experiments). The Falcon 9 rocket carried the unmanned Dragon capsule into space. Musk compared the milestone — which prompted billion-dollar investments from NASA, Google and Fidelity Investments — to winning the Super Bowl.
SpaceX achieved its latest landmark on February 6, 2018, when its super rocket (Falcon Heavy) reached beyond Mars’s orbit, and around the sun. The immense payload of the most powerful rocket in recent memory contained Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, with a spacesuit-clad mannequin, “Starman,” behind the wheel. Cameras on the cherry-red sports car offered sublime views of Earth, live-streamed by SpaceX.
Even Musk’s miscellaneous ventures have been transformative: SpaceX plans to blanket Earth with satellites, providing high-speed internet service to unserved/underserved areas in the US and elsewhere. In March, 2018, the US government granted SpaceX permission to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit — more than tripling the number around the Earth. SpaceX aims to end up with a swarming constellation of almost 12,000 satellites (dubbed Starlink), offering superior broadband service at lower rates than that of the established providers.
A Candy-Filled Moat to Challenge Warren Buffett
Musk’s achievements come with a healthy — or outsized — ego. In May, 2018, he had the audacity to dis an economic principle of the great Warren Buffett: possessing “moats” to keep potential competitors at bay. Musk described moats — essentially competitive advantages — as being “lame.” The Oracle of Omaha, nudged by a reporter, responded: While acknowledging Musk’s reputation for disrupting multiple industries, Buffett questioned the entrepreneur’s abilities in, say, the candy business. Since 1972, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has been the parent company of See’s Candy, a maker of sweets with a popular brand that exemplifies a moat. Instead of deferring to the iconic businessman, whose net worth of roughly $84 billion dwarfs the bank accounts of mere multibillionaires, Musk announced on Twitter that he would launch an “amazing” candy company. Ambien-and-red-wine tweeting? Musk added that he would “build a moat & fill it w candy. Warren B will not be able to resist investing! Berkshire Hathaway kryptonite…” Ha! The amusing back and forth between two legendary billionaires generated headlines partly because Musk has tweeted about — and pursued — zanier ideas.
Hyperloop: 760-miles-per-hour pods
In 2013, he introduced Hyperloop, a solar-powered, underground system of pods to radically reduce travel time between major cities. At speeds of up to 700 miles per hour, Musk’s “fifth mode of transportation” would allow commuters to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in roughly a half-hour — substantially faster than a commercial flight at a fraction of the cost. Musk also teased the idea of a tube, or hyperloop, from New York City to DC, providing a similarly short duration. The endeavor seemed like make-believe; and some prominent engineers expressed skepticism. Nonetheless, in October 2017, Maryland granted Musk conditional approval for construction of the route’s first leg: Musk’s company will begin digging under a 10.3-mile stretch of a state-owned highway: the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Take that, skeptics!
Never 'Boring' Ideas: Tunnels, Flame Throwers and a Cyborg Dragon
Musk’s frustrations with LA’s notorious traffic prompted him to create The Boring Company, in late 2016. The infrastructure and tunneling company, which complements Hyperloop, aims to circumvent “soul-destroying” traffic by exploiting the unused earth. Musk tweeted his idea while stuck in traffic.The company’s most notable achievement is a 2.7-mile tunnel under LA. But on August 16, 2018, the city and the Boring Company revealed plans to build a 3.6-mile tunnel near an LA Metro station to Dodger Stadium: The “Dugout Loop,” expected to take 14 months, aims to reduce travel time from more than an hour to mere minutes.
Earlier this year, Musk announced that the company will sell “LEGO-like” bricks, out of leftover rocks, for constructing buildings and sculptures. Its first product is a kit with an ancient Egypt theme, to replicate iconic structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx and the Temple of Horus. Musk also revealed a plan to repurpose dirt into inexpensive building material for low-cost housing. The startup’s most significant development, though, came in June 2018: Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a multibillion-dollar agreement with The Boring Company to build and operate a high-speed rail line between O’Hare Airport and downtown Chicago. (Despite featuring electrical vehicles that zoom through tunnels, the concept is different from the Hyperloop.)
“Oh btw, I’m building a cyborg dragon,” Musk tweeted on April 25, 2018. It seemed like a joke — except that a couple months earlier, he’d put flamethrowers up for sale via The Boring Company. Musk’s brainchild, at $500 per unit, was initially assumed to be Twitter silliness. Nonetheless, in just a few days, his tunneling startup sold all of its 20,000 flamethrowers, raising $10 million. The device, which acts like a squirt gun that shoots fire instead of water, prompted criticism regarding safety. Musk circumvented a customs regulations that restricts the transport of any “flamethrower” by renaming the device “Not-a-Flamethrower.” It’s no wonder that Musk’s mischievous idea for a mythical creature generated roughly 471,000 Twitter likes, 110,000 retweets and plenty of speculative headlines.
A Media Darling Attacks Journalists
Over the years, journalists have been instrumental in trumpeting Musk’s exploits — and ambitions — cementing his status as a real-life super hero. Nonetheless, a string of negative press coverage about Tesla, including a legal entanglement with a whistleblower, triggered the media darling’s ire — and yet another idea: a website, allowing the public to rate journalists and publications with a credibility score. On this media-oriented “Yelp,” users would assess the truthfulness of articles. Musk suggested naming the site, “Pravda,” which means “truth” in Russian. (As the official newspaper of the Soviet Union, Pravda became a mouthpiece for Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.) Musk registered the domain, pravduh.com — “pravda” had long been in use. During his tweetstorm in May, Musk partly blamed Tesla’s negative press — ranging from car accidents to work conditions — on oil-and-gas companies paying substantial advertising charges. He declared that the media had long lost its credibility, leading to Donald Trump’s election. Responding to the familiar rant, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted, “So True!!!”
Musk makes some valid points about the existence of dishonest and hypocritical journalists. No industry is perfect. And CNN’s expansive coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign early on indeed boosted his improbable candidacy. The irony! Nonetheless, the media also helped make Tesla/SpaceX’s CEO larger than life. So everything from Musk’s media conspiracy theories to the celebrity-musician “catfight” at his estate pointed to a super scientist unraveling.
When Musk cited Kanye West as one of his biggest inspirations in March, the choice surprised Muskateers. However, Kanye is a fellow genius, at least musically, with an indomitable will that Musk admires — and perhaps identifies with. Still, as the world’s greatest nerd, Musk needs to stay in his lane, and avoid the gratuitous drama typically embraced by Kanye (‘Bush-hates-black-people-but-I-love-Trump-and-slavery-was-a-choice’) West.
The World’s Greatest Innovator Faces More Challenges
Short sellers will only increase the pressure — they don’t give a rat’s behind about the brash billionaire’s insomnia or other troubles. The media will continue to imperfectly scrutinize Musk’s companies. Germany’s top carmakers, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen’s Audi, recently unveiled electric sports-utility vehicles targeting Tesla’s Model X (which it markets as “the safest, quickest, most capable SUV ever.”) BMW, Jaguar and Porsche also hope their new electric-car models cut into Tesla’s formidable market share (perhaps even a moat?).
So Musk, who once tweeted that he might be bipolar, needs to focus on his awe-inspiring endeavors while staying out of the weird news cycle. If he won’t quit his Twitter habit, then at least abstaining from the dangerous combination of Ambien and red wine would serve him and his companies well.
Elon Musk is not humanity’s savior — even if he occasionally acts like it. Despite possessing perhaps the greatest mind of our generation, he’s still only human. Regardless, we’re all blessed that the Nikola Tesla, or more fittingly, the Thomas Edison, of the 21st century, is living among us — on Earth and perhaps one day on Mars.