Elon Musk Unmasked: Building An Empire (Part 3)
Elon Musk has built himself a corporate empire, but how did he do it? He’s styled himself at as the cofounder of Tesla, but the real innovations came from its actual founders before he took the credit and spun a ton of deceptive tales he couldn’t follow through on to boost its share price. Ultimately, his interventions have had some serious consequences. This is episode 3 of Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us.
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LINETTE LOPEZ: Someone in the company reached out to me and said, “Oh, you think he doesn’t care about all those people? He also doesn’t care about the environment.” And that was Martin Tripp.
That’s Linette Lopez, a senior correspondent at Insider who you’ve heard from a few times during this series. In 2018, she was contacted by a Tesla employee named Martin Tripp who was concerned about what he was seeing at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada. He’d tried to bring his concerns to management and even emailed CEO Elon Musk directly. “I kept bringing this up to management, supervisors, anyone who would listen,” he told The Guardian. But nothing was being done. The figures he’d seen showed 40 percent of raw materials were being scrapped or reworked, with big scrap piles throughout the disorderly factory. Wanting something to be done about it, he finally went to Lopez.
LINETTE LOPEZ: Apparently, it was just so sloppily done. Because Elon always likes to do things fast. He likes to do things software fast in a manufacturing sense, which is terrifying. There was just so much waste, and so much money being lost, and so much, just mess and debris around the factory.
Lopez published her story on June 4, 2018 and nothing much happened. But Elon Musk was livid and determined to find the source. It didn’t take long for the company to identify Tripp, but instead of firing him and moving on or actually addressing his concerns, Musk had spiralled into full conspiracy mode and convinced himself Tripp was collaborating with one of Tesla’s so-called “enemies” — short sellers, oil companies, or other automakers. He went scorched earth and personally hired two former Uber investigators who’d been accused of unethical behavior like secretly recording employees. They interrogated Tripp for six hours before he was fired and the security manager of the Gigafactory later filed a whistleblower report saying they’d hacked Tripp’s phone and had him followed. But that wasn’t the end of it.
LINETTE LOPEZ: At one point Tesla allegedly received a random call — we don’t know where it came from — saying that Martin Tripp was going to the factory with a gun and the police found Tripp and swatted him. He was not headed to the factory with a gun. He was at the Golden Nugget casino scared with his family. Tesla also sent a worker to reach out to me and tell me that he had information that would discredit Tripp. But this poor man was such a horrible liar. There’s a recording of the call in all the discovery of this trial. And multiple times in the call I’m like, are you okay? Like you sound ill? Are you good? And this is somebody who had just lost their job, wanted it back, and reached out to Elon and said, “I think I can help you in this Tripp/Lopez/whatever situation. And he tried, you know, to his credit. I don’t know if Elon ever rewarded the guy or helped him out in any way. But these workers who just suddenly got laid off in Reno, they when they were in desperate situations.
The tip to the police came just a few hours after Tripp had an email exchange with Musk where he called him a “horrible human being” for “putting cars on the road with safety issues.” We don’t know who made the anonymous tip about Tripp, but he figured it was at Musk’s direction. The sheriff who went to find Tripp after Tesla reported he was planning to shoot up the Gigafactory found him outside the casino in a state. He was shaking and crying, and sat down with the officer to explain what was happening.
At the same time, Musk was trying to whip up a media frenzy. He was texting a Guardian reporter saying Tripp was going to “come back and shoot people” and a Tesla spokesperson kept shopping around the story the following day. The sheriff told Bloomberg Businessweek that when he told the company the threat was false, they asked him to release a press release hyping it up anyway. “It’s one of them head-scratchers,” the sheriff says. “The only way the press knew anything about it was from them.” Them, of course, referring to Tesla.
The Martin Tripp event showed just how paranoid Musk can be when he feels slighted, and where that paranoia can lead him. The “pedo guy” incident was one thing, but trying to get a former employee swatted simply because he cared about the company and wanted it to fix a major problem is quite another. After all the years of praise for Musk’s companies, there’s often little room in the narrative for realities like what happened to Tripp. But if we’re to get a fuller understanding of his legacy, that needs to change.
This is Elon Musk Unmasked, a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, assembled by me, Paris Marx. I’ve been hosting this show for three-and-a half years and writing about Musk for many more. I’ve even been called the left’s leading Muskologist, for all that’s worth.
Over the past two episodes, we dug into Musk’s childhood under apartheid, his various influences — from science fiction to an anti-Semitic grandfather — and his tendency to change his story to suit himself. We also explored the effort he put into building his profile, and how integral the media was in boosting a character he was creating to present himself as the genius innovator the public came to know him to be. But to what degree did those narratives reflect reality?
In the third episode, it’s time to get to the companies he’s best known for and the more out-there projects their success has allowed him to pursue. Today when people criticize Musk, they’ll often still fall back on all the supposedly great things he’s done for electric cars and rockets to give themselves cover for supporting him before his open embrace of white nationalists and right-wing extremists and his shambolic takeover of Twitter. But as the previous episodes have showed us, there were ample problems with Musk long before that and they continued into Tesla, SpaceX, and the empire he built.
Musk’s companies often have a grand vision built around them, but it’s important not to get distracted by the public relations and actually understand the foundations of those businesses, the real impacts they’re having, and how Musk is actually using them. When you look past the rhetoric that Musk tells the public — and surely himself too — you often see quite a different picture than the marketing language suggests. He downplays the support of the government and hypes up the societal benefits while severely exploiting the workers below him who are responsible for the companies’ success. It’s only by challenging the stories he tells that we can start to see Musk and his capitalist empire for what they really are.
This series was made possible by our supporters over on Patreon, and if you learn something from it, I’d ask you to consider joining them at patreon.com/techwontsaveus.
So, with that said, let’s continue unmasking Elon Musk.
After being deposed as CEO of X.com, later officially renamed PayPal, Musk turned his attention to other pursuits. In 2001, he had the following to say to CNN.
ELON MUSK: Well at this point I would say I’m a little tired of the internet. The next company that I do, one of the things I think would be important is that it has some long-term beneficial effect.
That ultimately led to SpaceX and Musk’s involvement in Tesla, and though SpaceX came first, this episode will focus on Tesla and some bigger transportation ideas that are often associated with it. If you only ever heard Musk talk about it, you might think he was the founder of the company. He certainly calls himself one, in part because he settled a lawsuit in 2009 that allowed him to call himself a cofounder — even though he wasn’t. Tesla was actually started by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. They were not only the ones who had the idea to start an electric car company, but they did the important business planning and engineering work that created the foundation many think Musk should actually be credited for.
MARC TARPENNING: He was always supportive from the beginning, but he wasn’t a founder, in the sense that we started it. MARTIN EBERHARD: This is one of the things I found kind of fascinating about him is he accomplished some amazing things. SpaceX is amazing and he’s done some interesting things with Tesla, for sure. I’m not sure why he also has to say he’s a founder when he wasn’t. I don’t understand that.
That’s Marc Tarpenning followed by Martin Eberhard. In 2019, they sat down with CNBC.com journalist Lora Kolodny — you might remember her from the last episode — to discuss the early days of the company. Eberhard told her the impetus for starting Tesla was that he wanted a new sports car after getting divorced, saw the Iraq war going on over oil and the growing threat of climate change, and wondered why he couldn’t get an electric one. At the time, California’s electric vehicle mandate had recently been rescinded so options that were available not long before were being sent to the scrapyard because automakers no longer had to make them. That was in part because the car and oil companies had the support of the Bush administration in pushing back on the pressure to go electric, and used the fantasy alternative of hydrogen vehicles as a delay tactic.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era. And if you’re interested in our environment and you’re interested in doing what’s right for the American people, and you’re tired of the same old endless struggles. There seem to be nothing but noise and high bills, let us promote hydrogen fuel cells as a way to advance into the twenty-first century.
Bush called the hydrogen car the FreedomCar. But Ashok Gupta, the lead energy economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Grist in 2003, “The FreedomCAR is really about Bush’s freedom to do nothing about cars today.” So, the government and the traditional automakers had left the door open to competition. For a while, that charge was led by cars like the Toyota Prius — a small sedan that still had a gas tank, but was a fantastic hybrid with great fuel economy. However, for a rich guy like Eberhard — or Musk, for that matter — they weren’t going to be caught dead in such a vehicle. North American expectations of masculinity wouldn’t allow it. An interesting tidbit here: this isn’t new. As you probably know, the first electric vehicles rolled out in the late 1800s and for a while in the early 1900s, it looked like they might actually beat internal combustion vehicles. But even then, the electric car was positioned as a more feminine alternative to the internal combustion engine that required a driver — who would typically be a man — to crank the engine and shift the gears, allowing them to show off some manual skill.
It’s often argued that Musk is responsible for the electric vehicle revolution we’re experiencing today, but I’ve always thought that gave him too much credit. We were heading in that direction either way, and if Musk hadn’t come along, someone else would’ve taken up that mantle. Don’t believe me? Take it from Musk himself: In the 2023 biography written by Walter Isaacson, Musk is quoted as saying, “Building mass-market electric cars was inevitable. It would have happened without me.” And even if we do buy the central role of Tesla, Eberhard seems to have been much more central than Musk. He did the real innovating. Musk just provided the capital, until ultimately forcing Eberhard out and taking over the company.
MARTIN EBERHARD: There was a small company in southern California called AC Propulsion that had made that had made exactly three of a little kind of handmade sports-cary things, very homemade. MARC TARPENNING: Gokart-ish. MARTIN EBERHARD: So I contacted this company and spoke to them and they were actually busy going out of business because the majority of their business had come from doing small projects for the car companies as they were trying to make electric car demonstrations. I invested some of my own money into the company and tried to get them to build me, personally, a car. That car was a lead-acid,-powered car, and was therefore very short range and the batteries were persnickety and dangerous. And so, in my conversations with them, I said, “well why don’t we consider lithium-ion batteries?”
That’s Eberhard and Tarpenning speaking to CNBC again. It’s fascinating to hear about Eberhard investing in a company and working with them on the battery technology for a car he wanted personally, because it almost makes one think of Musk investing in Tesla and then trying to shape the Roadster to his personal desires. Tesla was ultimately founded in 2003, and self-funded by Eberhard and Tarpenning for a time.
MARTIN EBERHARD: Everything had to be invented from scratch. There was no state of the art. Nobody had ever, ever considered taking nearly 7000 cells and putting them all together into a battery pack. Nobody had ever done that, at all. It was insane when we described it to people. All of the battery management systems in all of the electric cars today is based on that work. All of them.
The battery pack was the core innovation that made Tesla a serious player in the electric vehicle game. It built on the work of AC Propulsion, but with a much grander vision — and much of it was already underway before Musk came on board in April 2004. Even the strategy, often associated with Musk’s first Master Plan published to the Tesla website in 2006, came from Eberhard and Tarpenning.
MARTIN EBERHARD: He got our idea, our vision right away. In our original presentation, we said, look, we need to change the way the world looks at electric cars. Today people think about electric cars as little ugly things nobody wants to drive. And we know we can make an electric car that’s very different. So to change the way people think about that, we need to make something as radically different than what people expect. So we’d like to make something that’s a high-performance sports car to destroy that old image of what electric cars were. And then follow that up with more mainstream cars, moving down market as it becomes more possible. And he got that.
Make the sports car, then use it to fund the development of the increasingly more mainstream vehicles. That’s been the Tesla strategy since the beginning — since before Musk joined — but you’d never know that if you didn’t go back and look at the history. Remember, through this whole series we’ve been discussing how Musk changes the narrative to suit himself — and this is no different. Over time, the relationship between Musk and Eberhard deteriorated. They didn’t get along particularly well, but Musk was incensed that when the media would report on Tesla’s work, they often gave Eberhard the credit — and rightfully so; he was doing the key work. But Musk wanted the media attention for himself. It finally came to a head after the Roadster unveiling in July 2006.
MARTIN EBERHARD: You can have a car that’s quick and you can have a car that’s electric. But having both is how you make electric cars popular.
That’s Eberhard speaking to AutoBlog Green at the Roadster unveiling. Afterward, Wired’s article on the vehicle only mentioned Musk as an early investor so he sent a furious email to Tesla’s vice president. “The way that my role has been portrayed to date, where I am referred to merely as ‘an early investor,’ is outrageous. My influence on the car itself runs from the headlights to the styling of the door sill to the trunk, and my strong interest in electric transport predates Tesla by a decade,” he wrote. He demanded to “talk to every major publication within reason.” Before anything like that could be actioned though, the New York Times published its writeup the following day and Musk wasn’t mentioned once. They even said Eberhard was chairman, the position held by Musk. That sent him over the edge. Musk wrote to Eberhard and the company’s PR firm directly to let them know he was furious. It was in response to that coverage that Musk wrote and published the Master Plan — as a way to try to assert his authority over the company and place himself at the center of the narrative.
That’s not to say Musk wasn’t involved. But while his funding was essential, the way he forced himself into the design of the car caused a lot of problems. According to Isaacson, the target production cost of the Roadster was $50,000 so the company could make a healthy profit to fund the development of its next, more affordable model. But the more changes Musk demanded, the more the cost increased. First to $83,000 by November 2006, then $110,000 in July 2007, and finally $140,000 for the initial production Roadsters — a figure that wouldn’t get much below $120,000 at higher volume. While there were other issues at the company, it was Musk’s interventions and demands that were harder to produce and kept pushing up the cost of the vehicle. The same thing would be replicated on future models, where vehicles would always be delayed and end up costing more than projected in part because of Musk’s demands on vehicle styling and design.
In August 2007, Musk ousted Eberhard as CEO. This time it didn’t happen to him. Tarpenning left the following year. In the summer of 2008, Musk launched a series of attacks against Eberhard, ultimately leading him to sue Musk for libel and accuse him in the lawsuit of setting out to “re-write history.” Even though they agreed not to disparage one another in their 2009 legal settlement, Musk continues to occasionally tweet about Eberhard — and he doesn’t say nice things. While Eberhard didn’t comment on it to CNBC in 2019, Isaacson spoke to him for the biography published in 2023. Isaacson described a “undertone of pain and sorrow” when Eberhard speaks about the events, and when asked about the ongoing accusations from Musk, he told Isaacson, “This is the richest man in the world beating on somebody who can’t touch him.” There’s nothing Musk loves more than to punch down, and that’s about the only option he has from the privileged perch he occupies.
I’m not going to be able to tell the whole history of Tesla through this episode, but if we want to discuss the success of the business, there are a couple key details that must be part of the narrative. When we talk about the support Musk’s businesses have received from the government, the focus is often on SpaceX, but Tesla’s success owes a lot to public subsidies, loans, and programs as well. On top of that, Tesla isn’t just an automaker.
LORA KOLODNY: I call the company the original meme stock, right, they have this very loyal, somewhat say cultish fan base, right. Either fans of the product, the environmental mission of Elon Musk, or people who love that the stock price has risen so much in this time, that they’ve really netted a windfall, right, and you have all these threads coming together with a lot of enthusiasm.
That’s Lora Kolodny again, the CNBC.com journalist who interviewed Eberhard and Tarpenning. We discussed the cult around Musk and how some in the media helped inflate it in last week’s episode, but that also intersected not just with the narrative around Tesla, but also the performance of its share price. Musk deployed some of the same lessons he used to boost his own profile as part of an effort to make interest in Tesla soar too.
Through 2008 and 2009, Tesla was pursuing a $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy so it could finance the development and manufacture of what ultimately became the Model S. If you listen to Musk today, he’ll tell you very clearly that the loan wasn’t necessary because he hates the perception that his success could be attributed to anything other than his own brilliance. Remember how vehemently he now fights the story of the emerald mine and the support he received from his father.
In Ludicrous, Edward Niedermeyer details this period in the company’s history and what it ultimately taught Musk. In October 2008, a Tesla employee leaked to Valleywag that the company only had $9 million in the bank and was burning through customer deposits without actually delivering the cars. Tesla later confirmed the story. In early 2009, the company also raised the price on the Roadster, including on those who’d already placed their orders, explaining to customers that the vehicle was simply more expensive to produce than predicted — in part because of Musk’s poorly considered interventions, though that’s not what they said. A couple months later, Tesla signed a deal with Daimler to supply it with batteries, and while Musk acknowledged it was a “lifesaver,” it clearly would not have been enough to follow through on what Tesla was promising.
Speaking to Mother Jones in 2013, Eberhard said Tesla would have had to raise more capital to get through that period if the loan hadn’t come through. “This would likely have diluted Elon’s share of the company: Loans are nondilutive, whereas selling stock is dilutive. This is perhaps why Elon was so enthusiastic about pushing for the loans,” he said. In February 2009, Musk claimed in an email to customers that “the Department of Energy informed Tesla last week that they expect to disburse funds from our $350M Model S loan application within four to five months.” But Niedermeyer found the government agency had actually rejected the application in December 2008 and Tesla didn’t resubmit until May 2009 — months after Musk claimed he had verbal approval.
In March 2009, Musk held an event to show off what he claimed was the first Model S — its supposed more affordable Tesla model. But his biographer Ashlee Vance revealed that wasn’t really the case.
Amid rocket engines and hunks of aluminum, Tesla showcased a gray Model S sedan. From a distance, the display model looked glamorous and refined. The media reports from the day described the car as the love child of an Aston Martin and a Maserati. In reality, the sedan barely held together. It still had the base structure of a Mercedes CLS, although no one in the press knew that, and some of the body panels and the hood were stuck to the frame with magnets.
It was that unveiling, along with the company’s claim to have made a $1 million profit in July 2009, that helped prove to the Department of Energy that the company had solid foundations and deserved the loan. It was officially confirmed by the end of the year. In that moment, Musk told everyone that the Model S would cost less than $50,000, after a $7,500 federal EV tax credit — another form of public support for Tesla — but, in practice, it was never able to truly follow through on that promise. Once again, the Model S was delayed and the price tag was higher than predicted. Even now, a decade later, the starting price is $74,990 — and that’s after recent price cuts.
In his book, Niedermeyer wrote that period had a profound effect on Musk, but not in a good way. “Musk seemed to come away from his dark night of the soul more convinced than ever that he could will his vision of Tesla into reality by creating the right perception.” Again, there’s that focus on narrative. And to get the federal loan, he’d gotten away with not one deception, but two: the $1 million profit Tesla posted in July 2009 was only possible due to another form of public support going to the automaker.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: California’s EV program, fundamentally, was the prime mover of the modern electric vehicle movement. Essentially what it is, it’s a cap and trade thing, right? Where they say certain percentage of your vehicles have to be zero emission. If you’re over it, you earn credits, if you’re under it, you have to buy credits. Pretty straightforward. But like all of these regulatory schemes, riddled with all kinds of weird, complex stuff that only lobbyists understand for the precise reason that they only want lobbyists to understand it. This ZEV scheme alone, it’s in the billions of dollars that Tesla made off this.
That’s Niedermeyer again. For years, when Tesla would report a profit, it wasn’t actually because of the sale of its vehicles, but because of the money it was making from the sale of carbon credits. Without that program, Tesla would’ve faced even greater financial difficulty. But that’s not the full story.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: Musk basically realized, or someone at Tesla realized that this credit was written really, really badly. And essentially, what it said was, if you can do a demonstration, that proves it’s possible to refuel one of your cars — and there was a specific thing in the regulation, it was like 80% in 10 minutes, something like that— that every single car you produce will make almost double the credits, it was like nine credits instead of five, or something like that. And so that’s what Elon did. He did one demonstration of this system, he was like, oh, it’s all fully automated, it was all behind the curtains. And, and they built the swap station at, you know, halfway between LA and San Francisco at Harris ranch. I went down, I checked out the swap station, it just wasn’t being used, and they were bringing extra superchargers and hooking them up to diesel generators instead. And it was this whole just like bizarre seeing that was like the start of my getting sucked into this whole crazy thing. And I went to CARB. I was like, guys, like, you’re getting taken for a ride here, right? And at the staff level, they’re like, oh, yeah, yep, we’ve seen this, and we brought it up to the board. And I’m like, Well, what did the board say? Oh, well, the rules are gonna change a couple of years, so like, we’ll just let them get away with it until then. And then I spoke to board members, and they basically told me the same thing.
Tesla wasn’t just getting carbon credits; it did a demonstration of a battery swap and claimed it was setting up a battery-swap station, but never actually followed through. It was all a rouse designed to increase the number of carbon credits it received from the California Air Resources Board — and that ultimately made them billions of dollars without making any additional difference to the environment, which the carbon credits are ultimately supposed to be about.
As Niedermeyer described, Musk was seeing how exaggeration and deception could be a boon for the company, but he had a problem: the Department of Energy loan kept him somewhat restrained. He knew he had to get out of it so he could really start juicing the hype around Tesla and its share price. Here’s how Niedermeyer explained what happened.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: So Tesla went public in 2011. People forget this. And between 2011 and 2013, nothing happened with their stock. And they had this overhang because at the time, the government was an investor. They were limited in what they could do as a term of that loan from the government. But then in 2013, they pulled off this miraculous first quarter sales. They sold a crazy amount of cars in the last month of this quarter, that was like a make-or-break quarter, Q1 2013. In the auto industry, you sell all your cars in the last month of a quarter, like that doesn’t happen normally, something happened there. But they did it, they were able to leverage that perception, that we turned a profit. They were able to refinance, essentially their government loan. Wall Street loved that. That overhang wasn’t there anymore. Musk saw that moment as the point at which he needed to pour gas on the fire. I call it that’s when Tesla entered Ludicrous Mode, where he’d always overpromised, he was starting to do it more and more. But like, this was the point at which that VC hype game was just unleashed on public market investors. And he was doing it by being in the media a lot and making a lot of promises. First big one was Superchargers. People forget about this, but it was like, drive forever, for free on the power of the sun. That was his promise. In 2012, you know, so that was like right at the beginning of this. And it just got crazier and crazier from there. And I think Full Self-Driving was the point at which that dynamic achieved escape velocity, and ever since then, we’ve been living in the Elon Musk sort of cinematic universe.
Musk loves to tout how the company repaid the federal loan early, but the reality was that doing so was essential for the hype-driven rocketship growth the company later followed — growth that was premised on big promises that rarely ever came to fruition. In order to pay that loan back, he again had to show rosier numbers that would get investors excited so they would invest in the company and he could take that money and use it to repay the loan. Making exaggerated statements became a template for his companies, and has made him fabulously wealthy and incredibly powerful. But some of those big claims have had some pretty big consequences that we’re only recently starting to come to terms with.
You’ve probably heard of this thing called Autopilot. In the mid-2010s, it was all the rage for some tech companies and later automakers to claim that self-driving cars were right around the corner, and would upend the transport system for the better. In 2023, we know that didn’t happen — but man did they believe it, or at least convinced the media and by extension the public, they did. Elon Musk first mentioned Tesla’s plans to develop its Autopilot feature in 2013. By that time, Google was already developing its own self-driving technology after having hired some engineers who’d developed rudimentary versions of it for US military-funded competitions several years earlier. The story goes that in 2013, Google was poised to purchase Tesla, but the deal ultimately fell through when Musk and Larry Page started arguing over the specifics. Once that happened, Musk decided he was going to develop his own Autopilot system instead of collaborating with Google.
In May 2013, he was quoted by Bloomberg as saying, “The problem with Google’s current approach is that the sensor system is too expensive. It’s better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what’s going on just by looking at things.” As you can see, a misguided belief that all the system would need is cameras has been central to Musk’s views on Autopilot since the beginning. Edward Niedermeyer explained to me why that approach is so flawed.
EDWARD NIEDERMEYER: What Elon Musk has done with Autopilot and Full Self-Driving is they’ve taken the parts of driving that we do consciously — steering, accelerating, braking — and automated those. Our conscious mind, says, that is what I do when I drive, therefore, you have automated the driving process. In fact, the actuation of controls, is at the very end of this massive stack of processes and things that we do. It’s the end result of the driving task. And this is why Elon Musk whole approach of like, and he does this, he says, we only need two eyes to drive. Therefore, a computer should only need a camera. This taps into his belief that AI is about to make us all into into slaves, and all this other stuff. He fundamentally thinks AI is way, way smarter than it is.
By September, Tesla was hiring people to start building out its Autopilot team, and Musk’s statements about how rapidly the technology was going to take over began in 2014. Let’s go through them.
Here’s Musk speaking to CNN in October 2014.
ELON MUSK: Autonomous cars will definitely be a reality. Tesla car next year will probably be 90% capable of Autopilot. So 90% of your miles could be on auto.
Next year! Alright, let’s see what he was saying in September 2015 in an interview with Dagbladet Børsen in Denmark.
ELON MUSK: We’re probably only a month away from having autonomous driving, at least for highways and for relatively simply roads. My guess for when we will have full autonomy is about three years. INTERVIEWER: Three years? ELON MUSK: Approximately three years. However, regulators will probably not allow full autonomy for probably, at least one to three years after that.
There’s not only a change in timeline, but also an argument Musk has constantly used as a fallback: the delay in the rollout of autonomous driving isn’t so much due to the technology, but the pesky regulators — who, let’s be clear, up until recently have been doing virtually nothing to stop the tech from proliferating.
Let’s keep going. Here’s Musk speaking with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher again at the 2016 Code Conference.
ELON MUSK: I really consider autonomous driving to be basically a solved problem. A Model S and Model X at this point can drive autonomously with greater safety than a person. I think we’re basically two years away from complete autonomy. KARA SWISHER: Wow. ELON MUSK: Complete. Safer than a human.
Did you catch the little wows in there? That was Mossberg and Swisher once again buying Musk’s bullshit hook, line, and sinker. Musk’s statements about Tesla’s Autopilot system being safer than humans have been around for a long time, but they’ve always been quite deceptive. In January 2017, a report from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggested Tesla’s Autopilot was 40% safer than a human driver, but there were serious flaws in its data. For years, Musk repeated the claim, even after the agency distanced itself from the numbers in 2018 and an independent group called Quality Control Systems Corporation finally obtained the data in 2019 and released a report detailing its flaws. In May 2016, Tesla’s Autopilot also had its first major crash, where the vehicle plowed into a tractor trailer, killing driver Joshua Brown in Florida. The safety issues would only escalate from there.
A few months after that Code Conference interview, Tesla released a video claiming to show how well its self-driving tech worked. In January 2023 — many years later — Ashok Elluswamy, director of Autopilot software at Tesla, testified that the video had been staged.
Let’s keep moving with Musk’s statements from April 2017 at the TED conference. This promise will be common to anyone who’s been following along for a while.
ELON MUSK: I think we’re still on track for being able to go cross-country from LA to New York by the end of the year, fully autonomous. CHRIS ANDERSON: Ok, so by the end of the year, you’re saying, someone’s going to sit in a Tesla without touching the steering wheel, tap in “New York,” off it goes, won’t ever have to touch the wheel, by the end of 2017. ELON MUSK: Yeah. Essentially, November or December of this year, we should be able to go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey. CHRIS ANDERSON: Amazing.
Again, listen to how Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, responded to Musk’s bullshit. Remember what I was saying last week about the many powerful people who enabled Musk and helped boost his profile over the years. Anderson is yet another of them. And while I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, that Los Angeles to New York trip never happened — and still hasn’t in 2023.
In 2018, Autopilot suffered another major crash where it sped up and steered into a concrete barrier, killing driver Walter Huang. The National Transportation Safety Board later ruled Autopilot was probably at fault for the crash. But Musk went on Good Morning America for a soft ball interview, and admitted something he rarely did anywhere else.
ELON MUSK: It’s important to emphasize we’ll never be perfect. GAYLE KING: Autopilot will never be perfect? ELON MUSK: No. Nothing in the real world is perfect.
If only he could have that humility all the time. He certainly didn’t in April 2019, when Tesla held its first Autonomy Day to get people excited about another future that would never arrive.
ELON MUSK: By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with Full Self-Driving hardware, feature complete at a reliably level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention, meaning you could go to sleep in your — from our standpoint, if you fast for a year — maybe a year, maybe a year and three months, but next year for sure — we will have over a million robotaxis on the road.
In 2023, there are currently zero Tesla robotaxis on the road — and no signs there will be any anytime soon. In December 2020, when given the Axel Springer award, he was again saying next year but suggesting it was regulators who would hold it back.
ELON MUSK: I’m extremely confident of achieving full autonomy and releasing it to the Tesla customer base next year. Now there’s an uncertain period of time for when regulatory approval will be will take how long will it take.
A year later, in December 2021, Musk sat down with his superfan Lex Fridman. Again, he said the same thing.
LEX FRIDMAN: When do you think Tesla will solve level four FSD? ELON MUSK: I mean, it’s looking quite likely that it will be next year.
How many times can he get away with saying next year before his cult fans stop believing him? In July 2023, even he had to admit it was getting a bit ridiculous.
ELON MUSK: I know I’m The Boy Who Cried FSD, but man I think we’ll be better than human by the end of this year.
Notice what he said in that Tesla earnings call though: After previously asserting that Tesla’s tech was safer than humans, he was all of a sudden saying it would be safer by the end of the year — a clear rollback in scope. But if the tech never seems to arrive, why does Musk keep making these big promises? It’s pretty simple. Like Niedermeyer observed, Tesla’s valuation became detached from reality when Musk started making a bunch of outlandish promises — and Autopilot and Full Self-Driving were central to them. In June 2022, Musk even let the truth slip a little, saying Tesla was “worth basically zero” if it can’t deliver self-driving cars. But it’s possible that may be the case. Even if they can make the tech work — not something I’d hold my breath for — regulators and courts are increasingly turning their attention to the problems with Tesla’s software. It’s facing court cases in California and Florida and federal agencies are delving into whether the system is safe enough to allow on public roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to deliver the results of a two-year investigation by the end of the year — and it could be bad news for Tesla. But it’s not just about the company — self-driving was also supposed to be key to Musk’s plans to solve bigger transport problems.
ALISSA WALKER: When I went to that opening of that Boring Company tunnel, under the streets of LA, that was five years ago. We all kind of got out of the vehicle. And we’re just like, What the hell was that? And I see so many people, there’s still so many reporters there that were so determined to believe that what he was still proposing that we could see with our own eyes, it was a something that we were able to witness and say, That is not what he said he was going to do, it does not work. And then you know, there’s a huge gala party with like celebrities milling about just like shaking his hand and elected officials shaking his hand and people with a lot of money. So for us to kind of see it in person, that was the first time I like really witnessed that, not just the inability to deliver but also this like kind of like a gaslighting experience. So I’ve been set trying to say this, and I think other journalists have for, you know, a couple of years, but it was still incredible to watch how many traditional tech reporters, or people who just had to continue to get access that just, if even if they didn’t believe it, they wanted to believe it. And we’re like, Are you kidding me?
That’s transportation journalist Alissa Walker describing the moment she saw clearly through Elon Musk’s antics and how wild it was to see so many journalists and public figures buy into a project that was so clearly never going to work in the real world. If you don’t recall, the Boring Company was supposed to deliver not just a cheaper way of boring tunnels for transport projects, but also create a system called the Loop that would consist of dozens of tunnels underneath cities like Los Angeles that would be connected to elevators on street level where drivers would park their cars on platforms that would descend into the network and rapid shoot them to wherever they wanted to go in the city. Transport experts saw through it from the beginning, but it should have been clear to many others it was a con by the time of the demo Walker described. At that event, Musk changed the parameters of the system, announcing vehicles would drive directly into the tunnels instead of using platforms, and journalists described how the tunnel wasn’t even smoothly paved, resulting in a really bumpy ride. It was a rushed demo that should’ve proven the proposal wasn’t to be taken seriously.
In the years that followed, Musk went around the United States selling the project as an airport connector in Chicago and a means to bring people to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Boring Company was even approached by the local government in Fort Lauderdale about building the city a train tunnel on the cheap, only to sign an agreement to build a tunnel for Teslas to the beach instead. Ultimately, none of those projects were actually built. The only one that was is a short tunnel in Las Vegas that’s more of an amusement park ride for Tesla fans than a transportation system. Don’t believe me? Take it from Alissa Walker.
ALISSA WALKER: These are still qualifying as amusement park rides. That’s the approvals they’re getting. It’s a monorail. It literally has a monorail permit. That’s how they have it in Vegas.
The Loop in Las Vegas isn’t autonomously driven, as Musk promised, with human drivers still behind the wheel, and it goes much slower than he claimed it would. It’s also virtually useless, providing vehicles to drive through narrow tunnels around the convention center with plans to connect it to hotels along the strip too. But it’s more of a promotional opportunity for Tesla than something that will make any real dent in the transport system. And that’s in part because Musk doesn’t actually know anything about transportation — he just assumes that since he’s rich, he knows it all. Before pushing the Boring Company, he was even proposing double-decker highways as a traffic fix. But widening highways has been tried for decades and never delivers the results. The new lanes just get swamped with cars too.
You might think, “What’s the harm of letting him try?” But I would argue the problem is quite obvious: whether the Boring Company or self-driving cars, Musk has wielded these ideas against real improvements to public transit systems. In 2017, he told Wired how he felt about public transit: “It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport.” No surprise to hear a rich guy doesn’t like the bus or subway, but that doesn’t mean he should be shaping transportation for everyone else. The problem is that Musk’s ideas were used to convince some policymakers and members of the public that making investments to improve mass transit systems was a waste of time because they were outdated. Instead, Musk’s new tech ideas were going to take over.
Many of Musk’s Boring Company projects were proposed as alternatives to real transport solutions then never went anywhere, and right-wing groups have been using self-driving cars for the past decade in their campaigns against transit projects. In 2018, the New York Times reported that the libertarian Koch Brothers were funding a campaign across dozens of cities carried out by Americans for Prosperity to convince people to vote against ballot measures that would fund improved bus and light rail services. One of their central pitches was that they were outdated because driverless cars were right around the corner, and in some of those cities they had success in convincing people to vote against improvements to their own mobility and ultimately keep themselves trapped in cars.
When you look back at that initial Boring Company proposal, the true motivation seems clear: Musk wanted to build a tunnel from his home in Los Angeles to SpaceX headquarters so he could personally opt out of traffic on the highway. It was never really about anyone else; it was always about serving himself. And that continues to this day: In his 2023 biography, Walter Isaacson writes that as Musk prepares to build a home in Texas, he’s mused about building a Boring Company tunnel to connect it to the Giga Texas factory. All that collateral damage all so want man can try to realize his fantasies.
The Boring Company isn’t the only joke of a transport project in Musk’s empire. There’s also the Hyperloop, and while they’re often positioned as distinct ideas, they’re not so different than one might expect. Musk started talking about the Hyperloop in 2012 before unveiling a white paper he had no plans of actually pursuing in 2013. The idea was that a supposedly futuristic vacuum-tube transportation system should connect San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds so high the trip would take just thirty minutes. And while it’s often presented as being a train-like system to move passengers, the original plans included a Boring Company-like platform for cars too. As Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek in his first interview about Hyperloop after unveiling the white paper, “You just drive on, and the pod departs.”
Magically, the system wouldn’t just be super fast, but far cheaper than any other conceivable transport project connecting the two cities — especially the high-speed rail line that California had set out to build. It wouldn’t just be cheap to build, he claimed, but the cost to passengers would also be less than a plane ticket. Musk sided with high-speed rail’s critics, calling the project too slow and expensive. He wanted people to shift their attention to his fantasy instead.
In the 2015 biography of Musk, Ashlee Vance shared details of his conversations with the billionaire that revealed the degree to which his motivation to push the Hyperloop idea was inspired by his opposition to California high-speed rail.
Musk told me that the idea originated out of his hatred for California’s proposed high-speed rail system. … He insisted the Hyperloop would cost about $6 billion to $10 billion, go faster than a plane, and let people drive their cars onto a pod and drive out into a new city. At the time, it seemed that Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train. He didn’t actually intend to build the thing. … With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled. Musk said as much to me during a series of e-mails and phone calls leading up to the announcement.
Vance makes Musk’s intentions quite clear in that passage: he didn’t just dislike high-speed rail; he wanted the project to be canceled and hoped the Hyperloop fantasy would help make it happen. I need to settle a bit of a score here. When my book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation came out last year, I resurrected that passage that many had forgotten. Once it went viral, Jalopnik reached out to Vance, who told them my characterization was “vaguely accurate but a disingenuous take on the situation,” contradicting what he had written years earlier. But even before the Hyperloop white paper was released, Musk couldn’t shut up about how much he disliked high-speed rail.
This is Musk speaking to PandoDaily in March 2013:
ELON MUSK: This is partly prompted by the California thing, like you know we’ve got like a bullet train that’s like, it has the dubious distinction of being the slowest bullet train and the most expensive per mile. INTERVIEWER: Go California! ELON MUSK: We got some superlatives there. So we’re setting records at the wrong ends of the spectrum.
A few months later at the D11 conference hosted by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, prompted by a question from investor Shervin Pishevar, Musk was even more explicit.
ELON MUSK: The basic thought is, is there a better way to travel quickly from, say, downtown LA to downtown San Francisco — LA to San Francisco — that’s better than the high-speed rail that’s being proposed? Because the high-speed rail — that’s originally what got me thinking about is there a better way to do it. Because the high-speed rail that’s being proposed would actually be the slowest bullet train in the world and the most expensive bullet train per mile in the world, which is — those are not the superlatives we’re looking for. WALT MOSSBERG: Kind of like our internet here. ELON MUSK: But, I think, it’s a little depressing to have something that’s like the slowest bullet train in the world in California at enormous cost, and isn’t there something better we can come up with? WALT MOSSBERG: And that something better is the Hyperloop? ELON MUSK: Well, I think so. Probably. WALT MOSSBERG: But I don’t know what that is. But I want a ride on it.
From that clip, you can see how Musk had his talking points down and that they revolved around his dislike of the high-speed rail project and his desire not to see it built. But you can also see, from Mossberg’s comments, how friendly some of those in the press were to him. Regardless of how stupid the Hyperloop proposal was, they were ready to buy into it — just like Alissa Walker described when Musk was showing off the first Boring Company tunnel.
But while the tech press was enamored and happy to buy into whatever snake oil Musk was selling, a lot of experts were not. Just a few days after the white paper was released, the Los Angeles Times published a column which proclaimed,
To hear Musk tell it, a suitable mass transit system would have to be safer, faster, cheaper, more convenient and more earthquake resistant than the alternatives of planes, cars and trains. The Hyperloop, he says, is “the right solution.” It’s curious that he comes to that conclusion, because judging from his own proposal, the Hyperloop would be none of those things.
Ultimately, the Hyperloop hasn’t going anywhere. It was used to attack high-speed rail in California and distract from real transport proposals in other parts of the world as people rolled out the fantasy created by Elon Musk. Companies sprouted up to take advantage of the low-interest-rate environment and claim they’d deliver on Musk’s big plan — but none of them could, and as interest rates have risen over the past year, many finally went under. At one point, Musk did pretend he was going make a serious go at creating a Hyperloop demonstration, but that never went anywhere either. Here’s Alissa Walker again.
ALISSA WALKER: All of a sudden, the tube just vanished from outside of SpaceX headquarters, where he had been actually blocking like sidewalk and pedestrian access for quite some time, which just seems like the most perfect metaphor for an Elon Musk’s Transportation Innovation.
Elon Musk likes to claim that Tesla has made the largest private contribution to addressing climate change — but what is its real impact? Ultimately, Eberhard, Tarpenning, and Musk set a model for the electric vehicle industry — and, by extension, part of the mainstream sustainable transportation movement — that centered the concerns and interests of rich dudes like themselves. They stuffed the cars with incredibly large batteries to try to make the use of an EV replicate that of a gas or diesel vehicle, but those batteries weigh a lot, have significant embedded production emissions, and require an escalating amount of mining around the world. In the process, they also infected the wider auto industry — at least in some parts of the world — with a similar motivation, and that worked its way into government policy too. Here’s Amy Westervelt, a climate journalist and host of Drilled.
AMY WESTERVELT: Biden’s big piece of climate policy incentivizes kind of all of the things that Elon Musk loves. It’s like EVs and some amount of renewables, lots of like hydrogen and carbon capture. And very much embraces this idea of technological market-based solutions to the climate problem. He’s certainly not like the only person who’s responsible for that mindset. Lots and lots of folks think that way. And there are a lot of people in the government who think that way too. But he very much kind of embodies what people envision when they say, climate is a market opportunity, you know, there’s going to be a whole new, like new industries built to solve this problem. Elon Musk is kind of the poster child of that idea.
In short, we’re pursuing a model of green transition — if it can even be called that — that’s maximally resource and capital intensive not because it’s the best way to address the problem or delivery a better quality of life for people, but because it’s what works best for billionaires like Musk and his capitalist buddies. Musk’s vision of a sustainable future isn’t one where life gets better for most people, but rather one where everything stays the same except we electrify our homes and cars and power them with renewables — ideally all created and sold by Tesla. At the same time, he can still fly his private jet, just fueled by sustainable jet fuels in the future. But a real future that truly tries to take on the climate crisis and the other problems in our society wouldn’t stop there; it would require massive investments in collective transportation to get people out of cars, rethinking how we build and plan our communities, and attacking the power of the ultra-wealthy to set the direction of our societies for their own gain. But Musk has absolutely no interest in seeing that happen. In fact, Tesla has been fined multiple times for breaches of the Clean Air Act and recently released its full emissions data for the first time — which was quite a bit higher than climate experts expected. Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there.
AMY WESTERVELT: I think that actually the bigger impact that he’s had is cultural and social. I think he may be more than anyone has really embedded in people’s minds the idea that we can buy our way out of this, that tech can solve everything, that money can solve everything, and that if all else fails, we can just take off to Mars. And I think that is a very, very unhelpful viewpoint to have as we try to figure out a really complicated problem that is going to impact a lot of people.
That’s an essential point we need to grapple with if we’re to understand the full extent of Musk’s harmful influence on our society. It’s not just the impacts of his companies, but the way he’s spread ideas that shape the way we perceive our collective future. In Isaacson’s biography, he constantly comes back to one important quality of Musk’s: his lack of empathy toward others. If we give such a man the power to condition how we think about humanity’s future, will it really result in one that responds to the everyday challenges most people are facing — or focus on the narrow-minded preoccupations of some of the wealthiest people in the world? To close off our series, we need to dig into the future Musk is building — and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing next week.
Elon Musk Unmasked is a special four-part series from Tech Won’t Save Us, hosted by me, Paris Marx. Tech Won’t Save Us is produced by Eric Wickham and our transcripts are from Brigitte Pawliw-Fry. This series was made possible through support from our listeners at patreon.com/techwontsaveus. Consider joining them to ensure we can keep providing a critical perspective on the tech industry that you’re unlikely to get anywhere else. You can also get access to our Discord server and some stickers. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be uploading the uncut interviews with some of the guests I spoke to for this series, exclusive for Patreon supporters. So make sure to go to patreon.com/techwontsaveus to support the show, and come back next week for episode 4 of Elon Musk Unmasked.