Review: A deep new history of Tesla takes the shine off Elon Musk
Fri, July 30, 2021, 3:00 PM·
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during the unveiling of the new Tesla Model Y in Hawthorne, California on March 14, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Elon Musk unveiling of the Tesla Model Y in Hawthorne in 2019. A new book doles out the credit and blame for the electric car's ups and downs. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk are talking on the phone. The 2016 unveiling of the make-it-or-break-it Model 3 is coming soon, but Tesla is in serious financial trouble. Cook has an idea: Apple buys Tesla.
Musk is interested, but one condition: "I’m CEO."
Sure, says Cook. When Apple bought Beats in 2014, it kept on the founders, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.
No, Musk says. Apple. Apple CEO.
“F— you” Cook says, and hangs up.
So goes the juiciest allegation in “Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century" by Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins. The secondhand anecdote is atypical in a way — Higgins doesn't break much news or gossip — but it also nicely encapsulates this sweeping history of the electric-car juggernaut, a company that often seems to innovate and thrive in spite of its founder rather than as a result of his vaunted genius.
To the inevitable disappointment of some and the relief of others, this is a book about Tesla, not about its founder. Elon Musk already does a fine job aiming the spotlight on himself. As Higgins details, it took a village to build Tesla. “Power Play” at its core is about the many employees not named Elon Musk who made essential contributions to whatever success the carmaker enjoys today.
Don't fret: Musk is always part of the story, contributing his own brand of drama to keep things moving along. But in this book, the self-anointed "TechnoKing" (his actual job title at Tesla) serves not as main character but dramatic foil to those doing their best under chaotic, dysfunctional conditions.
One is J.B. Straubel, the Stanford engineer who teamed with Musk to take over the original Tesla, founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Musk was the money man, Straubel the brains behind the battery technology. Straubel departed Tesla in 2019 after the board of directors agreed to a pay plan that has made Musk one of the richest people on the planet.
Another key player who gets his due here is Sterling Anderson, the self-driving-car pioneer who headed Tesla’s Autopilot project, only to quit after Musk rejected his push for driver-monitoring technology to keep people safe. Musk said he didn’t want to add technology that might nag Tesla customers. Anderson is now cofounder and chief product officer at Aurora Innovation, engineering true self-driving vehicles.
There is also Peter Rawlinson, who came to Tesla from Lotus as chief engineer for the Model S. He and Musk got along fine until Rawlinson started criticizing some of Musk’s ideas for the ill-fated Model X. Musk then found him “irritating.” Rawlinson quit and now runs Lucid Motors, a luxury EV maker soon to introduce vehicles that will compete directly with Tesla.
Dozens more are noted, most of them witnesses to or victims of the rage and wrath of Musk, a hair trigger of an executive who’s quick to fire people whether they deserve it or not.
On the floor of Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory, a line worker told Musk he’d invented a way to fix a car window’s screeching sound by making an incision on the door seal. Musk turned on manufacturing executive John Ensign in a rage: “This is unacceptable that you had a person working in your factory that knows the solution and you don’t even know that!” Ensign was fired. In fact, engineers had already tried that approach and the fix proved temporary. Ensign — now chief operating officer at Los Angeles electric bus maker Proterra — didn’t want to embarrass the worker by saying so in front of Musk.
Musk’s approach to many manufacturing issues was, and still appears to be, keeping the assembly line moving while line problems are being fixed. He’s not a fan of the Toyota method, where a worker can stop the line until the problem is solved. He’s all about the volume.
That may be one reason why the quality of Teslas is so variable — why buying one can feel like a crapshoot. Some owners report their car is perfect; some say they were sold a piece of junk. (Including Kristen Wiig and Avi Rothman.)
In fact, Toyota ended a partnership with Tesla over such issues. “Musk was willing to let some quality issues slide if addressing them meant slowing down their schedule…,” Higgins reports. “Tesla was building the airplane as Musk was heading down the runway for takeoff.”
Plenty of readers would respond: Sure, but look at how successful he’s made Tesla. Maybe you need that kind of personality to succeed.
These days, maybe so. No question: Tesla has earned a prominent place in motor vehicle history under Musk. While the rest of the auto industry sought to protect its internal-combustion business under the assumption few people would buy an alternative, Musk showed that stylish, fast and fun electric cars would prove popular. The Model S sold in sufficient numbers to prompt regulators to begin ordering phaseouts of gasoline and diesel cars. The Volkswagen diesel-cheat scandal and the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler weakened auto industry clout. Now everybody’s spending billions on an EV transition.
Still, the company has a long way to go. Tesla did deliver just shy of 500,000 cars last year, but that’s still less than 1% of the world market. Tesla profits today come mostly from sales of emissions credits to other automakers and $10,000-per-customer payments for "full self-driving" technology — which, Musk admitted in a recent analyst call, doesn’t work. Videos posted all over YouTube attest to the fact. One shows Tesla's "self-driving" system mistakenly identifying the moon as a yellow traffic light.
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