Love him or hate him. That seems to be the only thing people can agree on about Elon Musk.
In anticipation of tonight’s interview with Joe Rogan, we would like to offer our contrarian view of Elon Musk: nuance.
Lots of admiration, lots to critique.
WHY ELON MUSK IS AN INCREDIBLE HUMAN BEING
Elon Musk has extremely strong beliefs founded upon the best of intentions
For as much as people doubt the sincerity of his motivations, one would have to be very deceptive to be this consistent year after year when talking about ones motivations. He constantly and consistently cites his visions for a better future for humanity and saving the planet from runaway global warming.
Which auto executive would be caught dead saying even a fraction of what he says?
Belief in a better future
Elon constantly talks about the fact that we should strive for hope for a future that we can be excited about.
He does things no one thought was possible
Creating a rocket company from scratch. Creating a car company (almost) from scratch. Creating an insanely great electric car. Doing these things AT THE SAME TIME.
Skin in the game
Unlike almost any rich entrepreneur who “makes it,” Elon put all his personal wealth into both his companies at the risk of losing ALL of his personal wealth, with no money left for rent.
Insanely hard working
He has famously slept on the factory floor to meet Model 3 production targets.
Sacrificing everything for what he believes in
We almost never see this in the business world. Elon puts his money, reputation, and most of the hours in his life to achieve what he believes must be done to save humanity
He’s had it (really) rough
Read between the lines of the accounts of his childhood and you will find clear signs of emotional (and probably physical) abuse. Such a childhood breaks many-a-soul.
WHY ELON MUSK IS A GENIUS
Brilliant mind, engineer, entrepreneur, AND designer
He’s not just the CEO of a rocket company. He’s literally a SELF TAUGHT rocket scientist. Like literally.
Like Jobs, he has no formal design training, yet he oversees design down to his factory colors and the stitching of the seats in Teslas!
And he has built several successful companies, in enormously important, and varying verticals! Quite unheard of would be an understatement.
First principles thinker
First principles thinking is essentially the ability to “boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations.” (YouTube)
So, when he dreamed about going to Mars, instead of looking at existing rockets and calculating the cost of going to space, Elon studied rocket design and looked at the fundamental components of rockets, their raw material costs, realized that they could be made much cheaper, and decided that Mars was a fundamentally achievable goal. This summary is grossly simplified, but we think the spirit it is accurate.
And for intra-city transport, he saw the slowest speed yet costliest per mile “high speed” train in the world being built in California. He didn’t just think of a way to make rail faster and cheaper. He dreamed up an entirely new way to move people quickly between cities that started with the goal, moving people, not with existing technologies, trains, and designed the Hyperloop from there.
With Tesla, he is constructing not an electric car company, but an all-in-one energy and mobility conglomerate: cars, trucks, superchargers, solar, home and enterprise energy storage. Folks, this ain’t no car company.
Steve Jobs was lauded for his genius in creating an Apple ecosystem, controlling both software, hardware, the entire user experience of computing.
Musk is doing this…on an industrial scale.
WHERE ELON MUSK DOES NOT APPLY FIRST PRINCIPLES THINKING: URBAN MOBILITY
If one were to employ the Elon’s approach to innovation and design to human mobility in cities, one would start from first principles of human mobility: weight, speed, fuel efficiency, space efficiency, infrastructure required, etc.
Yet, that’s not where Elon started from. He started from the car, which is 100 years old and which is based on the horse and buggy, which is far older.
Starting with the car and trying to improve that is the least first principles thing one can do in urban mobility! It is quite precisely “copying what other people do with slight variations.” It is the thinking by analogy that Elon warns against (for solving tough challenges).
What’s wrong cars?
The car is probably the worst way to move people in cities:
- Cars are really expensive
- They are very inefficient, weighing 4-6000 pounds yet carry only a few hundred pounds
- They pollute and choke our cities
- They are deadly, killing 1 million people every year
- They are extremely low bandwidth and clog up the streets
- They hog precious urban real estate just to be stored
- They cause stress in traffic
- They take a huge toll on human happiness
- They severely effect neighborhood vibrancy
- And require extraordinarily expensive infrastructure to support their weight
Even the introducing of electrification and autonomy will only partially solve SOME of these issues.
Cars are are basically designed for freeway speeds and to carry 3-4 passengers with cargo: basically road trips and city to city travel. You know, the way you see them in car ads!
That’s why they’re so big and heavy.
How are cars actually used? Mostly to carry one or two people, a bit of cargo, and our coffee cups, going an average speed of a pokey 20-25 mph on city streets, stopping every mile or so at a red light.
A first principles thinker would definitely not start with the car.
One electric car battery could power 100 electric bikes:
⚡🚘 Has as much battery as
50 vs 0.5 kwh
— Asher 🏰🚶🔰 (@AsherOfLA) June 11, 2018
And if you need whether protection, the Organic Transit ELF which weights 1/10th of just the battery pack of an EV:
Why did Elon pick cars?
Here we can only armchair-psychologist speculate, but here goes:
We think Elon, like many of us, simply has a soft spot for cars.
When he talks about how he first got into human mobility, he recalls that it was by trying to solve the electric car energy storage problem with super-capacitors. He never actually goes into the logic about why he chose the car as the ideal human mobility form factor (as he does for rockets, solar power, or the Hyperloop).
And what was the first thing he purchased after he made it big upon the sale of Zip2? A McLaren F1.
Hardly a people mover!
We believe he has probably never seriously considered anything other than a car to move people around.
Urban Mobility As A Complex Dynamic System
Elon musk also shows no understanding (or at least does not publicly talk about) the principles that govern dynamic complex systems. Such systems are ones that act less like machines (of which that Elon is a master of) and more like living organisms (which he does not seem to think about very much).
For instance, we have never heard him talk about induced demand: the well-known, time tested phenomenon of increased use of a good or service upon the increase of its supply, increase of its ease of use, and/or decrease of its cost.
We have seen induced demand rear its ugly head time and again with cars in urban environments. Adding road lanes, freeways simply increases the demand for more roads and lanes. So what happens when, as Elon would have it, cars become as easy to use as elevator buttons? AV enthusiasts point to increased road capacity. What Elon and other fail to recognize (or admit) is the dramatic increase in car trips, which will predictably exacerbate problems of sprawl, traffic, road noise, and poor city quality of life.
Jury’s still out.
Elon has shown to be brilliant at cost cutting and creative new solutions. It’s not clear whether his claims about substantially reduced tunnel building costs (which we need for good public transport) is true or not.
Yet he has shown not to be the most first principled thinker when it comes to human mobility or good urban design (expressing an initial desire to use tunnel to move cars, not people).
So only time will tell how the Boring Company will handle and effect human mobility.
ELON’S PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION ALLERGY
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
If we view public transportation from a Steve Jobsian user design perspective, Elon’s bitching is actually quite a valid critique for the way most public transportation systems are set up and are currently run.
But yet it sounds like his allergy to it goes beyond badly implimented public transit. It sounds like he just doesn’t like mixing in with people other people!
“And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great.”
First of all, how is this any different from…just walking down any street?
Secondly, this characterization of public transport feeds into the worst caricature of humanity: that of trashy evening news where reality only consists of the handful of crimes committed in a city of millions of people.
And thirdly, this characterization of public transit totally disregards first principles thinking, the fact that public transportation is orders of magnitude the most efficient way of moving people in a city:
On the whole, some of Elon’s critiques are valid. Yet his general distaste for mixing with normal humans and his solutions to public transit do not hold water and are not grounded in a true first principles analysis.
A FEW MORE FAULTS
The treatment of his workforce
This is a tough one.
Amazon and other corporations are borderline evil for exploiting the workers the way they do.
Yet at SpaceX and Tesla, the issue is a bit different.
First, most employees of these two companies are well educated and have many other job prospects if they didn’t like how they were being treated.
Second, many of them truly believe in Musk’s vision. The world can afford, and should have, mission driven companies where people decide to volunteer a few years of their life for a cause that they believe in. Especially when the CEO is also sacrificing as much or even more than they are. He’s not asking any of his employees to do anything he isn’t doing.
Giving up a few years of one’s life for a worthy cause is…well, damn worthy.
He’s overworked. He’s exhausted. He’s super creative. He’s attacked daily.
A few erratic tweets, even if they accidentally violate some rules, are not mortal sins. Let’s grow up.
Elon famously over-promises and under-delivers. Yet, what he delivers is head and shoulders above what anyone else can deliver. And he actually delivers what he says, even if it’s not when he says it.
So by now, we should learn to interpret his deadlines in this manner, not literally.
We give this one a pass as well.
WHERE WE THINK ELON FITS INTO HUMAN MOBILTY
In an ideal world, the car would (almost) disappear, as would the car industry.
Some cars would only remain to serve the niche of what they’re actually designed and advertised for: road trips and fluid/flexible city to city transport at highway speeds.
So we should cheer-lead Elon where he shines:
Teslas are leaps and bounds the best cars on the planet.
So the entire car industry could disappear because we don’t need most of the cars currently produced. Almost all urban mobility can be served by walking, biking, micromobility, and public transit. But Tesla should build the remaining cars we’ll need to visit grandma, go camping, and for the necessary city to city mobility.
Tesla Semis should definitely replace today’s gas guzzling ICE 18-wheelers.
The Boring Company should work on making tunnels significantly cheaper for public transit, NOT cars! Let’s see how Elon would make public transit not “suck.”
And Hyperloop should be allowed (and encouraged) to compete against high speed rail if they can demonstrate the dramatic cost reduction of city to city public transportation.
But we should reduce his sphere of influence in areas where he has clear blind spots or biases: where complex dynamic systems kick in, such as in matters of human urban mobility like personal mobility and urban public transportation.