Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Realization

When Elon Musk first became a household name, the reaction, at least among people who were concerned about climate change and in favor of scientific research, broke down into two camps. All agreed he was a nice guy doing worthwhile work. Electric cars, solar power, rockets, what's not to like? 

There was, however, always a sharp divided over the question of Elon musk's technical expertise. The general public and far too many journalists were willing to take him at his word that he was the primary engineer and inventor behind companies like Tesla and SpaceX (not to mention PayPal).

Most engineers and researchers in relevant areas were dismissive of Elon Musk's real-life Tony Stark shtick from the beginning. One Rand researcher I spoke with at the time characterized Musk as a flake while a number of engineers pointed out that the technology SpaceX was using to land its rockets was the direct descendant of what we had used to land on the Moon fifty years ago.

Still, it was all in the service of a good cause.

Pretty much everyone started out somewhere between one of these two views and those who did not follow the story very closely tended to stay roughly where they started. But for responsible journalists working on the front lines, almost without exception, the consensus has moved steadily to a more negative opinion.

Recently, given Musk's meltdowns, various journalists and researchers have started coming forward and talking about their journey from cautiously optimistic to openly critical.

Ed Niedermeyer, who wrote the best book on Musk and Tesla, Ludicrous, started the ball rolling with a Twitter thread and an article in Slate. Both are excellent and, though there is some overlap, both are worth reading in their entirety.


On a beautiful day in May 2015, I drove the 13 hours from my home in Portland, Oregon, to Harris Ranch, California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. At the time, Tesla was touting a battery swap station that could send Tesla drivers on their way in a fully powered vehicle in less than the time it takes to fill up a car with gas. Overtaken by curiosity, I had decided to spend a long Memorial Day weekend in California’s Central Valley to see if Elon Musk’s latest bit of dream weaving could stand up to reality.

There, amid the pervasive stench of cow droppings from a nearby feedlot, I discovered that Tesla’s battery swap station was not in fact being made available to owners who regularly drove between California’s two largest cities. Instead, the company was running diesel generators to power additional Superchargers (the kind that take 30 to 60 minutes to recharge a battery) to handle the holiday rush, their exhaust mingling with the unmistakable smell of bullshit.

That one decision to go and find the truth underlying Elon Musk’s promises, rather than just take his word for it, changed my life in ways I never could have anticipated. Now, seven long and often lonely years later, the world seems to be understanding what I learned from the experience: Once you stop taking Musk at his word, his heroic popular image evaporates and a far darker reality begins to reveal itself.


Russ Mitchell is the head Automotive writer for the Los Angeles Times and he is one of the most respected journalist in his field.
His thread is less sweeping than Niedermeyer's but it fills in an interesting part of the story, and it raises troubling questions about how many other companies are using similar methods.




The Transportation editor of TechCrunch also talks about the company punishing reporters by withholding access. 

Fred Lambert was one of Tesla's most loyal and vocal supporters.

Another common refrain is the Elon Realization, where Musk goes off script on a topic you know something about.


There's often a "learned phonetically" quality when Musk talks about technical concepts.

David Zipper Visiting Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School

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