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Crazy Like a Visionary

books and culture

Crazy Like a Visionary

Elon Musk’s remarkable career reminds us that individuals matter. August 23, 2015
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance (Ecco, 400 pp., $28.99)

I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.

For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.

No, when it comes to energy, I often quote, sometimes with attribution, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion. My motto is: frack early, frack often. Do you want to help the poor/clean up the environment/save the spotted wildebeest? Then you need economic growth, and to achieve that you need energy, which at the moment means you need fracking. Q.E.D.

When it comes to interplanetary travel, I suspect that Musk’s passion for transforming us into “space-faring” creatures was heavily influenced by his youthful reading of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (one of his favorites) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that those adolescent chestnuts necessarily argue against the plausibility of his ambitions. Behind Musk’s enthusiasm for space colonization is a worry that a future “extinction event” might delete human consciousness from the emporium of the universe. For myself, I believe that Robert Frost got it about right at the end of his poem “Birches”:

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

That said, I have to admit that I think Elon Musk is (to use NASA-speak) a “steely-eyed missile man,” i.e., a powerfully impressive chap. William Blake (the last poet, I promise, whom I’ll quote) once observed that “energy is eternal delight.” Musk exudes energy. Data point: the average American flies about four times a year. In 2013, Musk flew 185 times. Yes, I know: Hillary Clinton flies a lot, too. Musk is different: he actually accomplishes something as he shuttles between Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and the rest of the world. In interviews, Musk is sometimes asked to account for his stunning success in so many different ventures: After a bit of throat-clearing, he generally says, “I work really hard.” You can see just how hard by paging through Ashlee Vance’s lively and sympathetic new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

Vance, a veteran of the New York Times and Bloomberg News, began as an Elon Musk skeptic. So did I. But the more you know about Musk, the more impressive he seems. Born in South Africa in 1971, he grew up in Pretoria, the eldest of three children. An affluent start in life—Musk’s father was a successful engineer, his mother a local beauty—gave way to darker times when his parents separated and then divorced. Elon and his brother Kimbal—another impressive chap even if he insists on misspelling his name—went to live with their father, Errol, whom Vance paints as a domineering, unpleasant fellow. Elon always had his nose in a book. Kimbal recalls him reading for upward of ten hours a day. When he exhausted the usual fare, he started in on the Encyclopedia Britannica, which he read from cover to cover and, like one of the offenders in Koko’s “little list,” was up on dates and other data and would “floor you with them flat.” At twelve—twelve!—he published a computer game called Blastar in 167 lines of code, for which he was paid $500.

My edition of The American Heritage Dictionary has only one definition of “nerd”: “A socially inept, foolish, ineffectual person.” Ept or non ept, there is nothing foolish or ineffectual about the co-creator of PayPal (yes, he was in on that, too), the man who helped create and then successfully commercialized the Falcon 9 rocket, Tesla’s Model S sedan, or SolarCity, which since its inception in 2006 has become the second-largest provider of solar-energy systems in the U.S. I think this definition of the word, provided by the dictionary on my computer, comes closer to the truth: “A single-minded expert in a particular technical field: a computer nerd.”

Alas, for Elon Musk the South African schoolboy, the problem was that nerds of any description, especially smart-alecky ones in the habit of correcting others, tend to fall afoul of the hearties who populate the school. Musk was mercilessly bullied. Vance recounts the time he was shoved down a stairwell at school and kicked and beaten so badly he wound up in the hospital for several days.

So it’s not surprising that Musk early on plotted his escape. At 17, he left the University of Pretoria and went to Canada, where his mother had family ties. He enrolled in Queens University in Ontario in preference to other local institutions for the sound reason that there were more good-looking women there. But Canada was only a stepping stone. Since childhood, Musk had had his eye on America. He became a citizen in 2002. In 2007, he recalled that he had always been “nauseatingly pro-American.” Unlike our masters in Washington, Musk is a self-described “American exceptionalist.” “The United States,” he said, is inarguably “the greatest country that has ever existed,” not least because its victories in the two world wars and the Cold War are the reason democracy has survived in the world.

His journey in the United States began at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied business as well as physics. “What really stood out,” Vance writes, “was Musk’s ability to master difficult physics concepts in the midst of actual business plans. Even then, he showed an unusual knack for being able to perceive a path from a scientific advance to a for-profit enterprise.”

In part, the story Vance tells is the familiar litany of the lucky Silicon Valley entrepreneur who, still in his twenties, comes up with some clever Internet wheeze that he parlays into a zillion dollars and early retirement. Musk certainly managed the first bit. He enrolled in Stanford but left after a few days. In 1995, he and Kimbal started the business that would become Zip2, which Vance describes as a sort of “primitive Google maps meets Yelp.” They lived in their tiny office, sleeping, like pets, on beanbags beside their desks and showering at the YMCA. It was still the early days of the Web and at first their efforts to sell their product were met mostly with puzzlement. Within a few years, however, business was booming. In 1999, the Musk brothers and their investors sold the company to Compaq Computer for $307 million. Elon’s share amounted to $22 million. He bought a small prop plane and learned to fly. He also spent $1 million on a McLaren F1 sports car that Ralph Lauren had his eye on. Soon afterward, he was driving with a friend down Sand Hill Road, that Mecca of venture capitalists in Menlo Park, to see an investor. “Watch this,” Musk said. He floored the car, which spun out, hit an embankment, and gyrated in midair. It was not the maneuver he intended. The windows and wheels, Vance reports, were blown to smithereens, and the body of the car damaged. “The funny part is,” Musk said to his friend, “it wasn’t insured.” They then thumbed a ride to the venture capitalist’s office.

But unlike some other whiz kids, Musk wasn’t ready for retirement. Having interned at a bank in Nova Scotia, he saw at once that banking was a hidebound business just pining to be transformed by the miracle of communications that is the Internet. He plowed the majority of his proceeds from Zip2 into a new online-banking venture, In 2000, he joined forces with another start-up, Confinity, cofounded by the entrepreneurial legend Peter Thiel, whose major product was called PayPal. It was a rocky relationship. Musk, who married early in 2000, took his bride Justine to Australia for a belated honeymoon in September. As soon as they touched down in Sydney, Musk got the news that his board had ousted him as CEO and replaced him with Thiel. It was, says Vance, “one of the nastiest coups in Silicon Valley’s long, illustrious history of nasty coups.” Musk boarded the next flight home, but it was too late to retrieve his position. He kept investing in PayPal, however, and when the company was bought by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, his share came to a cool $250 million ($180 million after Uncle Sam confiscated his share).

It was about this time that Musk’s activities began to include serious attention to the extraterrestrial. He joined and began making financial contributions to the Mars Society, a group of scientists and enthusiasts dedicated to exploring and settling the Red Planet. (Musk himself has said he would like to die on Mars, “just not on impact.”) He began holding a series of salons with people from the space industry and in 2002 founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX for short. Given America’s achievements in space—the moon landings, the space shuttle, the very acronym NASA—many people assume that the United States has maintained a leadership position. In fact, since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the United States has been essentially retired from the business of space exploration. Repeat the name “Vladimir Putin” to yourself a couple of times. Then think about this: We have lately had to rely on the Russians to get men and matériel to the International Space Station.

Enter SpaceX. It’s an adventure story that Vance tells: Musk journeys to Moscow to try to buy refurbished ICBMs, only to find that Russian for “negotiation” means repeated vodka toasts and extortionist prices; he returns to California and resolves to do what Americans always used to do: make what he needs himself. He does it, too: the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets (the name is a bow to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars) and the futuristic Dragon V2 space capsule for manned flight were made from the ground up by SpaceX. Along the way, there have been many “rapid unscheduled disassemblies”—i.e., explosions— as well as many near bankruptcies. But in 2008, SpaceX became the first private company to put a rocket into orbit. In 2014, it became the first private company to dock with the ISS.

Hitherto, spacefaring rockets were the exclusive province of nation states and bloated government contractors. Musk showed that hard work by a small group of talented people could achieve better results for less money—much less. SpaceX makes almost all its components from scratch. When it came time to devise a communications computer system, Musk insisted that it could be done for about $10,000. As one employee noted, “In traditional aerospace, it would cost you more than ten thousand dollars just for the food at a meeting to discuss the cost of the avionics.” SpaceX produced the system in record time— and it was the first of its kind to pass NASA’s protocols test on the first try. SpaceX called the system “CUCU” and delighted that at meetings “NASA officials were forced to say ‘cuckoo’ over and over again,” a small act of defiance, Vance reports, that SpaceX had planned all along to torture NASA.

These days, SpaceX sends up a rocket about once a month, launching satellites for private companies, NASA, and the U.S. government. At about $60 million per trip, it undercuts its competition—in Japan, Europe, Russia, and China, as well as in America—by a wide margin. In little more than a decade, the company has gone from being a joke to being one of the most active space companies in the world. Together with Boeing, it recently won a multibillion-dollar contract to carry people to the ISS by 2017. “The companies would,” Vance observes, essentially be “be replacing the space shuttle and restoring the United States’ ability to conduct manned flights.”

One of Musk’s goals is to develop reusable boosters, though many observers doubt that this is feasible, and they may be right. But then many skeptics scoffed at the idea that a private company started by a 30-something computer geek could get anything into space. Musk hasn’t yet managed to retrieve a booster rocket intact, but he has come close. If he succeeds, he will revolutionize the $200 billion space industry and catapult the United States back to a position of dominance.

I didn’t really become aware of Musk until a friend mentioned the Tesla Model S a few years ago. “It looks really nice,” he said. I’d never seen one, but I couldn’t take electric cars seriously. Joke: why do people driving Priuses have so many accidents? Because it’s so difficult to drive and pat yourself on the back at the same time. Until Tesla came along, the chief recommendation of “Green” cars was the opportunity they afforded for self-congratulation. They were ugly; they didn’t handle particularly well; Nancy Pelosi seemed to like them. And they weren’t even friendly to the environment, given the way their batteries were manufactured and disposed of, to say nothing of the fact that most continued to rely on a gas-powered engine to supplement their meager battery power. (Those that were all electric could travel only 50-70 miles on a charge.)

But the Model S, I discovered, was different. First, it was svelte and sinewy. In 2008, Musk hired Franz von Holzhausen, who had worked at VW and Mazda, to design the car. Holzhausen produced something that looks like a cross between an Aston Martin and a Porsche, with a bit of classic Jaguar back somewhere in the gene pool. Inside, it’s a study in elegant minimalism. Musk said that he didn’t just want to build the best electric car in the world; he want to build the best car, period. Many people think he has succeeded. In November 2012, just a few months after it started shipping, the Model S won Motor Trends’ Car of the Year award. Consumer Reports gave the Model S its highest rating in history, 99 out of 100. It’s probably the safest car on the road. Because of its low center of gravity—its chassis is a 1,300-pound lithium-ion battery pack—testers were unable to flip the car. When it came time for the crush test, the car broke the machine that was supposed to crush it. The Model S can seat five adults and (with an optional rear-facing back seat) two additional children. Yet it is probably the fastest-accelerating production car in the world. Musk’s original goal was to match the McLaren F1’s speed of 3.2 seconds from 0 to 60. He did that with an all-wheel drive version in 2014. Innovation has brought the figure down to 2.8 seconds, which is supercar territory.

What really impresses one about the Model S is the sheer amount of thought that has gone into it. It is often described as a computer on wheels. Of course, most cars rely heavily on computers these days, but the Model S stands out. All of its systems—from media and cabin climate to navigation and driving mode—are controlled by a remarkable 17-inch touch screen tilted toward the driver. The only two buttons in the car are those mandated by federal law: one for the glove compartment, the other for emergency flashers. There are no model years, and the look of the car hasn’t changed since it started shipping in 2012. But it’s constantly being improved. Tesla says that it makes about a dozen small hardware changes every week. The car regularly receives over-the-air software updates that improve such things as torque vectoring and road handling as well as adding new features like blind-spot warning, traffic-aware cruise control, and other enhancements, including security patches against hackers. A much-publicized forthcoming software update will allow the car to park itself and enable “autopilot,” which means that the car will be able to drive itself on highways with almost no driver intervention. In other words, the car actually improves over time. There is a smart phone app that allows one to check on and control various features of the car. Is it horribly hot and humid as you’re returning to the parking lot from work? No problem, you can remotely start the AC before you get there. (You can also schedule the car’s climate controls for certain times of day). The all-electric Nissan Leaf gets about 75 miles on a single charge. The Model S can now get up to nearly 300 miles per charge, and that number will only go up as battery technology improves.

Musk’s innovation goes beyond the car itself. There is, for example, the way it is sold. You don’t buy Teslas through dealers but online or through “galleries” that, like Apple Stores, are in high-end malls and other such venues. This eliminates the middleman, which is why the car-dealership lobby in many states has endeavored—in a classic ploy of a soon-to-be extinct enterprise—to block Tesla from selling its wares directly. The op-eds decrying Tesla, written by state legislators who just happen to be members of the local Automobile Dealers Association, make for comic reading.

Then there is Tesla’s growing worldwide network of superchargers, which allow you to get about 150 miles of charge in 20 minutes. These chargers (mostly solar- powered) are free to Tesla users, forever. So you can go from Miami to Seattle or Boston to San Diego absolutely free. In November 2012, there were five superchargers in the U.S. Today there are 211, with many more on the way.

America hasn’t launched a successful car company since Chrysler emerged in 1925. Tesla has a good shot at beating the odds. Like SpaceX, it has several times flirted with bankruptcy, most recently in 2013, when Musk approached his friend Larry Page at Google about buying the company. But the company just had its best quarter and is poised to introduce its much-anticipated Model X, a crossover SUV.

Tesla was started in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, talented engineers and entrepreneurs. Musk, who joined the following year with an initial investment of $6.5 million, eventually tangled with them and ousted Eberhard as CEO. Named for Nikola Tesla, the man who brought the world AC current and the electric motor, the company pursues a mission “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” Tesla’s decision in 2014 to open its patents to any company that wanted to use its technology demonstrates its commitment to that goal. But how “sustainable” are Tesla’s cars? As I noted above, most so-called green cars are not all that environmentally friendly. They simply push back the environmental costs to those producing and disposing of their batteries. Musk plans to address that criticism partly with his “gigafactory,” a huge, solar- and geo-thermal-powered factory for the production of lithium-ion batteries that he is building in Nevada, and partly with Tesla’s collaboration with SolarCity to bring battery storage of energy produced by solar panels into the home and, in large, industrial configurations, to supplement the power grid as a whole. The inability to store and later distribute the energy collected from solar panels efficiently has been an Achilles heel of that mode of producing energy. The sun does not always shine. But Tesla’s new Powerwall and larger Powerpack storage systems go a long way to boosting the potential of solar power for businesses, homes, and even utilities.

Tesla critics also point out that, thus far, the firm’s offerings aren’t exactly what most people would consider “affordable.” Tesla’s first car was the limited-run Roadster, some 2,500 of which were built on a chassis licensed by Lotus. The car started rolling off the production line in 2006, and though Time featured the car in its “best inventions of the year” round-up, it carried a price tag well in excess of $100,000. The Model S was supposed to be about half that, but pick a few options and you are once again looking at a price in excess of $100,000. Tesla’s Holy Grail, if it wishes to break out of its niche market and come anywhere close to justifying its current stock price of $240, is the Model 3, scheduled for delivery in 2017 with a promised price of about $35,000.

A related criticism revolves around the government and state subsidies Musk has received. A recent Los Angeles Times article, for example, claims that Musk’s businesses have received some $4.9 billion in government subsidies. “Musk and his companies’ investors,” the article concluded, “enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.” Musk shot back a blistering rebuttal, pointing out, for example, that the $1.3 billion that Nevada has promised for the gigafactory is in the form of future credits to be applied over the course of 20 years. Meanwhile, Tesla is adding 6,000 jobs directly, and 16,000 indirectly, to the Nevada economy. As a result of the construction, Moody’s has raised Nevada’s credit rating, which has made it cheaper for the state to borrow. The state will actually make money on the deal. Again, though the Department of Energy struck a $465 million loan agreement with Tesla in 2010, the company has paid it back nine years early and with interest. Currently, the federal government offers a $7,500 tax break on hybrids and electric cars, including Teslas, in order to encourage “sustainable transport.” You might think that a silly policy, just as you might think that the mortgage tax break is a silly policy. But the policy is hardly Tesla’s fault. It’s easy to be aghast at the government’s support of such boondoggles as Solyndra, which cost the taxpayer some $600 million and yielded nothing. But here, as elsewhere in life, an old Jesuit motto is apt: “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” Musk, Inc. has delivered on promises other companies have been content merely to make.

Vance makes it clear that Elon Musk is not an easygoing man. His speech is peppered with expletives, especially the participial form of that oft-heard transitive verb of Germanic origin denoting sexual congress. Like Steve Jobs, with whom he is often compared, Musk is an impatient perfectionist, “hands-on to a degree,” Vance quips, “that would make Hugh Hefner feel inadequate.” A typo in an email is a firing offense, as is any sign of inadequacy. One employee recalled that Musk would often say “The longer you wait to fire someone the longer it has been since you should have fired them.” Though apparently witty and warm among close friends and family—by all reports, he is a doting father—Musk can be detached to the point of callousness. Vance tells the story of Mary Beth Brown, who was Pepper Potts to Musk’s Tony Stark. For more than a dozen years, she did everything for him: kept his schedule, accompanied him on trips, ran interference with employees and the outside world—everything. In 2014, she asked for a raise. Musk told her to take a couple of weeks off and he would take on her duties to see how hard they were. When she returned, he said he didn’t need her anymore. He did, it should be noted, give her a year’s severance, and yet . . .

Musk’s personal life also betrays the strains of his obsessions. In 2008, he divorced Justine, the mother of his five children (a sixth died of SIDS when 10 weeks old), and he has since married, divorced, remarried and redivorced the actress Talulah Riley. As of this writing, he is said to have once again reconciled with her. Musk once asked himself how much time he needed to give the woman in his life and came up with the figure of ten hours a week. Perhaps he needs to send that calculation through the computer again.

For all his belief in the world-changing power of technology, Musk is no naïve technocrat. He is, for example, deeply concerned about the destructive possibilities of artificial intelligence—we might just create robots capable of destroying their creators, he worries—and has so far donated $10 million to a foundation whose goal is to assure that AI technology remains benign. Musk also resembles Jobs in his showmanship and geeky charisma. His presentations have a studied but charming gormlessness. Jobs promised to change the world with his computers and gadgets. There is no doubt that the iPhone is an amazing device. But there is something to Ashlee Vance’s observation that “Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.” You can’t colonize Mars or wean mankind from its reliance on fossil fuels with an iPhone and Facebook.

One moral we can derive from Elon Musk’s career thus far is this: individuals matter. That may seem like a trite observation, but in age of incremental corporatism, where more and more of life is subject to the plodding guidance of rule- and regulation-bound committees, Musk has demonstrated the power of individual initiative. This is something that Musk’s friend Larry Page memorialized when, in 2014, he said that, should he die, he would rather give his billions to Elon Musk—someone with “really big ideas”— than to some philanthropy. Still only in his mid-forties, Musk has helped revolutionize online banking, brought us closer to transforming the way that electricity is produced and distributed, and has upended the automotive industry. To top it off, he has injected new life and ambition into the aerospace industry. A decade ago, it would have been easy to dismiss Musk as a dreamy utopian crusader out of touch with the business world’s hard realities. Now that he is at the helm of several multibillion-dollar enterprises and commands a personal fortune in excess of $13 billion, that criticism seems misplaced. No one knows what the future will bring. Maybe the Model 3 will fail to materialize or fail to catch on if it does. Maybe a manned SpaceX capsule will suffer one of those “rapid unscheduled disassemblies,” disassembling the entire company in the process. But as Musk’s old rival Peter Thiel observed recently, “We had a blanket rule against investing in clean-tech companies for about a decade. On the macro level, we were right because clean-tech as a sector was quite bad. But on a micro level, it looks like Elon has the two most successful clean-tech companies in the U.S. . . . . [Y]ou have to ask whether his success is an indictment of the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.”

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