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That strange piece of metal origami embodies all Elon Musk’s flaws

That strange piece of metal origami embodies all Elon Musk’s flaws

The Cybertruck looks edgy, that’s for sure, but it has serious problems.

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Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 04:50 IST
Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 04:50 IST
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By Elizabeth Spiers

Some of the problems Tesla is facing — including first-quarter profits that are down 9 per cent from last year, stressful months for shareholders and layoffs of about a tenth of its work force — are the result of factors affecting the electric vehicle industry as a whole. But many of Tesla’s troubles are unique to Tesla and the fact that its chief executive and co-founder, Elon Musk, is unique to the auto industry. He’s a Silicon Valley creature in a Detroit ecosystem who values innovation for its own sake, even at times when he could be more focused on safety and quality. His ethos and approach to running Tesla are embodied by his pet project, the Cybertruck.

Though it fits the technical definition of a truck (it has a bed), the vehicle looks more like an origami version of an El Camino. Mr. Musk suggested its stainless steel exterior might be bulletproof; some owners say it rusts.

It’s not unusual for new car and truck models to have some flaws, but the Cybertruck, which has sold only about 4,000 units, was recalled recently because the accelerator had a sticking problem, which is sort of like a parachute having a gaping-hole-in-the-canopy problem. Some owners have reportedly gotten an alert that the “vehicle may suddenly lose electrical power, steering and propulsion.” And you may want to watch your fingers with the frunk (front trunk) and doors; they don’t have industry standard sensors that can keep doors from snipping off someone’s digits. (The Cybertruck’s lead engineer said the steel doesn’t rust, and the company is working on the frunk issue)

Tesla delayed the Cybertruck’s release a few times in order, the company said, to fix design and manufacturing flaws, but Mr. Musk’s primary focus often appears to be the aesthetics of science fiction and the desire to be seen as edgy (perhaps literally so in the case of the Cybertruck, which is surprisingly devoid of curves for a machine that needs to be aerodynamic). This is a man who named his child X Æ A-12, who rebranded Twitter as X and who endlessly engages in the performative subversion of posting antagonistic memes. Conventional automakers produce daring-looking concept cars, too, but they’re not made for mass production, and unlike the retro-futuristic Cybertruck, they are crafted with an eye toward what transport will look like in the future, not what the future looked like in the past.

Musk’s approach to innovation is in keeping with much of Silicon Valley’s. The tech industry puts a cultural premium on shipping products to market quickly and worrying about the consequences of any unfinished work, harmful features or deficiencies after consumers complain or the company gets sued. “Move fast and break things” is intended as a battle cry against sclerotic institutions and norms, but sometimes things get broken that should have been protected, like consumer privacy and safety. Democracy, even.

The consequences may be negligible if the product is an entertainment app, but with cars and rockets, the stakes are terrifyingly high. Tesla gives the impression that it accepts certain risks as the price of innovation.

The people who venerate Mr. Musk think of him as someone who takes big risks, someone with a vision that no one else has. I think his risk taking is better explained by an anecdote in Walter Isaacson’s biography. Once when Mr. Musk played Texas hold ’em, his former colleague Max Levchin said, Mr. Musk kept betting everything and losing, putting in more money and losing more rounds until he finally won one.

There are people who hear this story and think, “Wow, what an exciting high-stakes risk taker!” There are other people (me) who think risking it all is relative and it’s easy to go all in when you can always buy more chips. When Mr. Musk put a big chunk of his PayPal exit money into SpaceX and Tesla, it might have been because he saw specific opportunities. It might also have been that his desire to be viewed as cool and edgy made him interested in fast cars and shiny rocket ships. Or it might have been an impulsive decision based on emotion and in-the-moment appeal. It wouldn’t be the first or last time he made major decisions that way.

Mr. Musk came into the auto business as an investor, with no expertise in the industry. Like many of his tech counterparts, he operates as though his knowledge and skills are essentially transitive to any business. He’s repeatedly told that he’s a genius, and the venture capitalists who fund his industry routinely insist that a talented founder can run any company. Tesla’s early success lent credence to this view. But recent events — and the heightened scrutiny that all public companies receive — have revealed the extent to which his ego drives the company. He has embellished his engineering credentials, dismissed or fired experts who disagree with him and spent a great deal of energy on X trying to manage his public persona and cheerleading right-wing trolls. (Ross Gerber, a shareholder, says that has damaged the Tesla brand; he may be right, considering that sales are down among Democrats, according to one poll.)

The Cybertruck is a manifestation of Musk’s immaturity, both as a person and as a chief executive. It is futuristic in a way that is adolescent and unprincipled. It is reflective of a mentality that says rejecting expertise is appealingly subversive instead of plainly dangerous. It is not yet ready to exist in the adult world.

On an earnings call last week, Mr. Musk promised to deliver a more affordable E.V. by 2025. He has blown through many deadlines, but a cheaper electric vehicle is a sensible goal. He also promised something else: a sentient humanoid robot, something experts have said is not possible. He introduced an early prototype of the robot, called Optimus, in 2022. Videos showed it staggering around a stage and pantomiming a dance. It was retro-futuristic looking, with a silver-toned exterior. It looked, in short, like an ambulatory recycled Cybertruck.

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