Are Tesla Cars Over-Hyped And Is Musk A Moron?

Updated on

Whitney Tilson’s thoughts on this article, “Surely We Can Do Better Than Elon Musk” and this book, “Lifted: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.”

Get The Full Henry Singleton Series in PDF

Get the entire 4-part series on Henry Singleton in PDF. Save it to your desktop, read it on your tablet, or email to your colleagues

Q1 2021 hedge fund letters, conferences and more

Surely We Can Do Better Than Elon Musk

I recently read this long, mostly critical article by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs: Surely We Can Do Better Than Elon Musk. Excerpt:

There are two facts that I have sometimes found it difficult to reconcile. The first is that Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) makes innovative and genuinely impressive electric vehicles that can hold their own against the fastest performance cars in the world. The second is that the CEO of Tesla, Inc., celebrated entrepreneurial genius Elon Musk, is a liar, huckster, and moron, who regularly says things so ignorant that I cannot understand how they can come from a human adult, let alone one treated by his fans as a super-genius. Is one of these facts untrue? Are Tesla’s cars actually bad, their deficiencies carefully covered up and their quality over-hyped? Is Elon Musk actually not a liar, huckster, or moron? If you look more closely, are things that look like fraud and stupidity to me actually signs of brilliance? Or is there a way for both facts to be true?

It turns out it’s all true. The cars are impressive and their flaws get covered up. Musk is a lying ignorant grifter and he has inspired innovation in the electric car industry. Understanding that these seemingly contradictory things can be true simultaneously is important, because societies who cannot hold these two ideas at the same time may end up following scam artists and false prophets off the cliff and into the abyss.

Lifted: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX

I also just finished listening to the new book by Eric Berger, Lifted: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, which I really enjoyed. Here’s the summary:

In Liftoff, Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, takes readers inside the wild early days that made SpaceX. Focusing on the company’s first four launches of the Falcon 1 rocket, he charts the bumpy journey from scrappy underdog to aerospace pioneer. We travel from company headquarters in El Segundo, to the isolated Texas ranchland where they performed engine tests, to Kwajalein, the tiny atoll in the Pacific where SpaceX launched the Falcon 1. Berger has reported on SpaceX for more than a decade, enjoying unparalleled journalistic access to the company’s inner workings. Liftoff is the culmination of these efforts, drawing upon exclusive interviews with dozens of former and current engineers, designers, mechanics, and executives, including Elon Musk. The enigmatic Musk, who founded the company with the dream of one day settling Mars, is the fuel that propels the book, with his daring vision for the future of space.

There’s quite a jarring contrast between these two accounts!

As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle…

Anyone (like Robinson) who calls Musk ignorant, a moron, and a grifter is a moron. Whether you love or hate him, he is indisputably a genius. He has an extraordinary entrepreneurial track record, which rivals Steve Jobs, building leading businesses in vastly different industries (PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX). In addition, years ago I spoke with two of the top auto/electric vehicle engineers in the world who worked at Tesla, both of whom raved about him. One said, “There is nothing that Elon Musk and [Tesla co-founder and former Chief Technical Officer] JB Straubel can’t do.”

As for being a grifter, defined as “a person who engages in petty or small-scale swindling”: a) there is nothing small-scale about anything Musk does; and b) he hasn’t swindled his investors – he’s made them fabulously wealthy!

That said, Musk’s fan-boys who worship him and blindly believe everything he says are also morons. He is a deeply flawed human being in so many ways. For starters, he utterly lacks an empathy gene. I can find no evidence that he has an ounce of kindness in him, and he has a vicious side, attacking and bullying his critics.

He’s also a pathological liar. Lots of tech founders like Jobs are prone to exaggeration and setting unrealistic timelines, but Musk takes it to an extreme degree. For example, in October 2016, Musk said:

Basic news is that all cars exiting the factory have hardware necessary for Level 5 Autonomy so that’s in terms of cameras, compute power, it’s in every car we make on the order 2,000 cars a week are shipping now with Level 5 literally meaning hardware capable of full self-driving for driver-less capability.

Then, during Tesla "Autonomy Day" on April 22, 2019, Musk promised that the company’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) would be “feature complete” by the end of the year, leading to one million robotaxis on the road a year later (i.e., a year ago), which would result in a $50,000 new Tesla purchased at that time (two years ago) soaring in value to $150,000 to $200,000 as a used car. These statements are so absurd that I consider them securities fraud. But Musk doesn’t care – he regularly crosses ethical and legal lines, daring anyone to do anything about it (pretty much nobody has – so far anyway).

Lastly, while he has many brilliant ideas, he has an equal number of truly idiotic ones, as Robinson documents. For instance, Musk has long dreamed of sending a human to Mars (I wouldn’t bet against his ability to someday do this) and ultimately colonizing the planet with a million people. This is sheer lunacy, for reasons this article outlines:

It’s 34.8 million miles away at its closest, and 250 million miles away at its farthest. It would take seven months to travel there, at least.

Then, on arrival, you’d find very little oxygen in Mars’s atmosphere – it’s mostly carbon dioxide.

The atmosphere is high in radiation, too. It’s also so low in pressure your blood would literally boil as a result.

Mars has 38% of the gravity Earth does – and the lack of gravity could lead to serious health risks. Water is scarce and the soil is pretty toxic, too.

And if all of the above wasn’t a barrier to life on Mars, we’d probably freeze to death first. Nasa puts the average temperature of the red planet at around -81°F, which makes Earth’s 57° sound quite pleasant. Temps can go up to 68° or drop as low as -195°.

“But why not pursue this bold vision?,” you might ask. Because it’s a terrible misallocation of time, attention, engineering talent, and trillions of dollars to pursue something that is impossible – and, even if it were, as Charlie Munger says, “Something not worth doing is not worth doing well.”

All this said, I admire the boldness of Musk’s ambitions and hope he’s successful in converting the world to electric vehicles, advancing autonomous driving, and continuing to make breakthroughs in rocketry.