Review: A deep new history of Tesla takes the shine off Elon Musk

On the Shelf

Energy Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Wager of the Century

By Tim Higgins
Doubleday: 400 pages, $30

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Apple Chief Govt Tim Cook and Tesla Chief Govt Elon Musk are speaking on the telephone. The 2016 unveiling of the make-it-or-break-it Mannequin 3 is coming quickly, however Tesla is in critical monetary bother. Cook dinner has an thought: Apple buys Tesla.

Musk is , however one situation: “I’m CEO.”

Positive, says Cook dinner. When Apple purchased Beats in 2014, it stored on the founders, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.

No, Musk says. Apple. Apple CEO.

“F— you” Cook dinner says, and hangs up.

So goes the juiciest allegation in “Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Wager of the Century” by Wall Road Journal reporter Tim Higgins. The secondhand anecdote is atypical in a means — Higgins doesn’t break a lot information or gossip — nevertheless it additionally properly encapsulates this sweeping historical past of the electric-car juggernaut, an organization that usually appears to innovate and thrive regardless of its founder slightly than because of his vaunted genius.

To the inevitable disappointment of some and the aid of others, it is a e book about Tesla, not about its founder. Elon Musk already does a advantageous job aiming the highlight on himself. As Higgins particulars, it took a village to construct Tesla. “Energy Play” at its core is concerning the many staff not named Elon Musk who made important contributions to no matter success the carmaker enjoys at this time.

Don’t fret: Musk is all the time a part of the story, contributing his personal model of drama to maintain issues transferring alongside. However on this e book, the self-anointed “TechnoKing” (his precise job title at Tesla) serves not as important character however dramatic foil to these doing their greatest beneath chaotic, dysfunctional situations.

One is J.B. Straubel, the Stanford engineer who teamed with Musk to take over the unique Tesla, founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Musk was the cash man, Straubel the brains behind the battery expertise. Straubel departed Tesla in 2019 after the board of administrators agreed to a pay plan that has made Musk one of many richest individuals on the planet.

One other key participant who will get his due right here is Sterling Anderson, the self-driving-car pioneer who headed Tesla’s Autopilot venture, solely to stop after Musk rejected his push for driver-monitoring expertise to maintain individuals protected. Musk mentioned he didn’t need to add expertise that may nag Tesla prospects. Anderson is now cofounder and chief product officer at Aurora Innovation, engineering true self-driving automobiles.

There may be additionally Peter Rawlinson, who got here to Tesla from Lotus as chief engineer for the Mannequin S. He and Musk acquired alongside advantageous till Rawlinson began criticizing a few of Musk’s concepts for the ill-fated Mannequin X. Musk then discovered him “irritating.” Rawlinson stop and now runs Lucid Motors, a luxurious EV maker quickly to introduce automobiles that may compete instantly with Tesla.

Dozens extra are famous, most of them witnesses to or victims of the fad and wrath of Musk, a hair set off of an govt who’s fast to fireplace individuals whether or not they deserve it or not.

“Energy Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Wager of the Century” by Tim Higgins


On the ground of Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory, a line employee advised Musk he’d invented a technique to repair a automotive window’s screeching sound by making an incision on the door seal. Musk turned on manufacturing govt John Ensign in a rage: “That is unacceptable that you just had an individual working in your manufacturing unit that is aware of the answer and also you don’t even know that!” Ensign was fired. The truth is, engineers had already tried that strategy and the repair proved non permanent. Ensign — now chief working officer at Los Angeles electrical bus maker Proterra — didn’t need to embarrass the employee by saying so in entrance of Musk.

Musk’s strategy to many manufacturing points was, and nonetheless seems to be, protecting the meeting line transferring whereas line issues are being fastened. He’s not a fan of the Toyota technique, the place a employee can cease the road till the issue is solved. He’s all concerning the quantity.

That could be one cause why the standard of Teslas is so variable — why shopping for one can really feel like a crapshoot. Some homeowners report their automotive is ideal; some say they had been offered a chunk of junk. (Including Kristen Wiig and Avi Rothman.)

The truth is, Toyota ended a partnership with Tesla over such points. “Musk was keen to let some high quality points slide if addressing them meant slowing down their schedule…,” Higgins experiences. “Tesla was constructing the airplane as Musk was heading down the runway for takeoff.”

Loads of readers would reply: Positive, however take a look at how profitable he’s made Tesla. Possibly you want that type of character to succeed.

Lately, perhaps so. No query: Tesla has earned a distinguished place in motorcar historical past beneath Musk. Whereas the remainder of the auto trade sought to guard its internal-combustion enterprise beneath the idea few individuals would purchase an alternate, Musk confirmed that trendy, quick and enjoyable electrical automobiles would show fashionable. The Mannequin S offered in enough numbers to immediate regulators to start ordering phaseouts of gasoline and diesel automobiles. The Volkswagen diesel-cheat scandal and the bankruptcies of Common Motors and Chrysler weakened auto trade clout. Now all people’s spending billions on an EV transition.

A black-and-white photo of a man with glasses in a button-down shirt and sport coat

“Energy Play” creator Tim Higgins.

(Okay. Fischer)

Nonetheless, the corporate has an extended technique to go. Tesla did ship simply shy of 500,000 automobiles final yr, however that’s nonetheless lower than 1% of the world market. Tesla income at this time come largely from gross sales of emissions credit to different automakers and $10,000-per-customer funds for “full self-driving” expertise — which, Musk admitted in a latest analyst name, doesn’t work. Movies posted throughout YouTube attest to the very fact. One exhibits Tesla’s “self-driving” system mistakenly identifying the moon as a yellow traffic light.

Some name Musk a genius. In relation to fundraising, he’s in a category by himself. Tesla’s skirted chapter a minimum of twice. The corporate wouldn’t be alive at this time with out continued infusions of debt and fairness. The longest-running bull market in U.S. historical past has helped. So has investor desire for storytelling over old school fundamentals as a technique to worth an organization’s inventory. However a showman can solely paper over critical long-term challenges for therefore lengthy.

Higgins quotes Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas at an early disaster level: “The largest query is that if Tesla can stay solvent lengthy sufficient to capitalize on the forthcoming expertise breakthroughs.” The phrase “forthcoming” is essential right here. Whereas Tesla now has 4 automobiles in the marketplace, solely future initiatives will justify the corporate’s jaw-dropping $625 billion market worth.

In 2016, Musk promised {that a} self-driving automotive, a Tesla semi truck and a brand new, probably jet-powered roadster had been imminent. None are remotely near manufacturing. .Musk’s aspect hustles are doing no higher: His underground tunnel venture is only a vacationer attraction in Las Vegas. He faked an revolutionary photo voltaic roof tile in 2016 earlier than Tesla bailed out SolarCity, an organization owned by Musk’s cousins. He promised one million robotaxis by the top of 2020. Thus far there are none.

After which there’s Musk’s fake “funding secured” buyout announcement in 2018 that earned him a wrist-slap advantageous from the Securities Trade Fee on expenses of fraud.

Musk apparently didn’t take part within the creation of “Energy Play.” In an creator’s word on the finish, Higgins writes that Musk “was given quite a few alternatives to touch upon the tales, info, and characterizations offered in these pages. With out pointing to any particular inaccuracies, he supplied merely this: ‘Most, however not all, of what you learn on this e book is nonsense.’”

I’ve covered Tesla as a reporter since 2016. When Higgins writes about info and conditions I’m acquainted with, I can attest he’s proper on the button, each time. If there’s any nonsense in “Energy Play,” Higgins isn’t the supply of it.

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