Elon Musk's Wild Ride

Biographer Ashlee Vance examines the troubles at Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity.

Elon Musk recently took the stage in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the performance he's waited a lifetime to give. Sporting a new, oddly manicured mustache, Musk did his best shy Tony Stark impersonation, informing a crowd of space enthusiasts that, yes, he does plan to colonize Mars. Musk's aerospace company, SpaceX, will send thousands of rockets and people to the Red Planet—perhaps within the decade and perhaps at a cost of just $10 billion. Some of the astronauts will die as part of the experiment. Others will live out their days in … well, Musk was not very specific on that.

Musk continues to befuddle planet earth. He's part techno messiah—a being sent here from the future to save mankind from itself—and part charlatan—a slick businessman dragging foolish inventors along on ever grander, cash-burning bets. Every time one of his companies stumbles, Musk seems to have another spectacular thing to announce—a new mode of transportation, the space internet, or a Martian colony—to thrill and confuse. Is Musk trying to distract us from the troubling aspects of his companies, or are the doubters just the shortsighted, risk-averse people holding us all back from a fantastic future?

By any measure, his companies are in trouble. In the spring, a driver of a Tesla Motors car engaged in autopilot mode crashed and died, prompting a forensic examination of the technology by both regulators and consumers. At a more basic level, the automaker quite often struggles to manufacture cars at expected rates, and Tesla's proposed acquisition of SolarCity, Musk's solar panel company, has been bedeviled by shareholder lawsuits. Key engineers at Tesla, along with two top public-relations people, have left. SpaceX just suffered another rocket explosion that puts the company's future in a precarious position. Instead of hunkering down, Musk has (almost impossibly) become more vocal, taking to Twitter and Tesla's blog, going after critics with fingers of fury.

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In Silicon Valley, Musk is admired, beloved, and idolized, but people are starting to wonder whether he's finally taken on too much. If that's the case, there's a disaster scenario coming: Musk has never had more to lose.

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Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity are no longer experiments. Tesla and SolarCity are public companies. SpaceX, meanwhile, has become crucial not just to the U.S. space program but also to countries and companies around the world hoping to put up satellites for communications, entertainment, and national security. If his companies were to crater, it wouldn't merely be an internet playboy blowing his millions on a whim. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost, billions in capital would be wiped out, and technological progress would be stunted.

There's precedent for how Musk deals with the possibility of self-inflicted apocalypse. In 2008, both Tesla and SpaceX were days away from collapsing simultaneously. Trying to get Tesla's first car, the Roadster, up and running, and launch SpaceX's rockets safely into space, Musk had plowed through most of the $200 million he'd earned from EBay's acquisition of PayPal. Musk was forced to borrow money from his friends, while the parents of his then-girlfriend and future wife, Talulah Riley, offered to remortgage their house to help keep his companies alive. (He didn't take them up on it.) At the time, Musk was going through a very public divorce from his first wife, Justine, and he took a beating from the media that had once celebrated him.

"He looked like death itself," Riley recounted in my biography on Musk. "I remember thinking this guy would have a heart attack and die. He seemed like a man on the brink." During this period, Musk suffered from what might be thought of as industrialist night terrors. "He was in physical pain," Riley said. "He would climb up me and start screaming while still asleep."

Musk escaped from this dark time like Houdini in a burning straitjacket. As proper automakers filed for bankruptcy amid a global economic crisis, he convinced investors to put more money in Tesla. Next up, he persuaded NASA to give SpaceX and its wobbly rockets a try. After four more years of clever engineering, good luck, and sheer force of will, Tesla and SpaceX reached somewhat stable footing. In 2012, Tesla produced the Model S sedan, which even skeptics in Detroit hailed as possibly the best car ever built. SpaceX docked a rocket with the International Space Station, and SolarCity went public. Musk had stared into the abyss and then pulled off perhaps the greatest entrepreneurial run in history.

It's through Tesla that we get the most direct insight into the state of Musk Land today. For too many years, the company has struggled to fine-tune its manufacturing operations. Time and again, Tesla is late to market with its new products. It regularly misses sales and delivery forecasts because of manufacturing delays, and its $100,000 cars continue to have glitches. As these issues persist, Tesla has moved forward with its expensive battery factory in Nevada, while struggling to find a way to post a profit. The short sellers that were burned during Tesla's great run following the launch of the Model S have returned in full force; some have declared with certainty that the company is hurtling toward a grisly demise.

Is Musk trying to distract us from the troubling aspects of his companies, or are the doubters just the shortsighted, risk-averse people holding us all back from a fantastic future?

Musk knows the issues all too well and has at least flirted with the idea that he's unable to take on the challenges alone. Years ago, Musk was close to bringing on Tony Fadell, the father of the iPod and former Nest CEO, as CEO of Tesla. "Elon and I had multiple discussions about me joining as Tesla's CEO," Fadell told me in 2014, which I reported in my book. Musk also approached Tony Bates, the former Skype CEO, for a possible leadership role. (Bates did not reply to a request for comment.) Musk, though, has always been reluctant to cede control of the company and continues to deal with day-to-day operations. When in doubt, Musk bets on himself.

On top of the financial and manufacturing issues, Tesla faces its most severe PR crisis since the Roadster days. It has been the prime promoter of autopilot technology and receives a huge wave of negative press every time one of its cars is involved in an accident. Musk has responded to the accidents with loads of statistics that justify the technology rather than hearty helpings of empathy. This is off-putting to the many, many people who do not appreciate Silicon Valley's algorithmic worldview.

The situation has been better at SpaceX, although only slightly. Over the past year, the company hit its stride, launching rockets at a spectacular rate, while also landing the rockets back on earth with such regularity that this incredible feat started to become mundane. Then, at the start of September, a SpaceX rocket exploded on the launchpad—the company's second explosion in about 15 months. No one died, but the blasts have provided SpaceX's critics—those who see the company as too cavalier—with plenty of fodder while also testing even its most loyal customers. (Fear not. We're off to Mars!)

That people would take all this in and come away with plenty of doubts about Musk is understandable. Perhaps the man really has lost the plot and Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX will end up as case studies in hubris.

As someone who has spent years studying Musk, though, I find such a future unlikely and also find the cynicism that surrounds Musk somewhere between depressing and ignorant.

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Musk's empire is on much stronger footing than during the grim days of 2008. Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity are all very real companies with real factories and tens of thousands of employees. Musk has built up enough credibility and has enough star power to raise money with relative ease or to be bailed out by one of his many ultrarich friends, who share Musk's aspirations. His companies have also developed world-class technology, and there would certainly be a line of acquirers at the ready for any of Musk's enterprises.

Just on technological merits, Musk's companies have already impacted the world in lasting fashion. To the extent that the electric car is a reality, it's largely thanks to Tesla selling tens of thousands of high-priced vehicles, pressuring BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and others into a response. Tesla's software has also made the automotive industry interesting again. All automakers have been forced to modernize the software inside their vehicles and accelerate their self-driving programs.

While it receives less attention, SpaceX may be Musk's greatest achievement. You would be hard-pressed to find a more patriotic tale than a South African immigrant using his own money to revitalize the U.S. aerospace industry.

Before SpaceX, it was considered daft for an individual to try and compete against nation-states with decades of experience and billion-dollar budgets. Now a handful of rocket companies have cropped up, seeking to undercut SpaceX on price. As the price of getting to space has dropped, dozens of other startups have come running with new kinds of satellites that promise to change technology ranging from imaging to medicine.

With advances in cars, energy, and space exploration, Musk has ushered in a new industrial age. The world of machines and infrastructure suddenly looks poised to advance at a rapid clip. It does not seem hyperbolic to suggest that Musk has played a major role in changing the world.

That we forget all this is a curse of Musk's own making. At every point where his companies seem to be on stable footing, Musk takes on more and promises more, erasing the memory of past gains. He might now be addicted to one-upping himself.

Wall Street and casual onlookers often find Musk's approach abhorrent, and this makes perfect sense. They want consistent earnings-per-share figures and straight talk, while he's in an inventive fugue state more concerned with trying to save mankind from oblivion. Musk lives in a way that few of us would choose and has a tolerance for risk that would drive most of us nuts. It's precisely because Musk has operated his companies on the edge of what's possible that he has achieved so much.