I Can't Be Alone in Thinking Elon Musk Has Become a Liability for Tesla

Time for Musk to step down as Tesla CEO? 7 photos
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Anyone familiar with the true story of Tesla will know Elon Musk hasn't been part of the company from its very beginning. This is a fact no court settlement allowing Musk to call himself "co-founder" can change, and frankly, is not even something the current CEO should try to sweep under the carpet.
Regardless of whether you love or hate EVs - or are completely impartial to them - or whether you think Musk is a fraud or a genius, there is one thing we all need to find agreement on: Tesla would not be where it is today if it wasn't for the involvement of the man who would later on call himself the Technoking. That last sentence right there pretty much contains the essence of what is both good and bad about Musk's tenure at Tesla, and I'm starting to get the sense that the bad is beginning to outweigh the good.

To make his world-changing rhetoric around Tesla believable, Musk needed to change the public's perception of Tesla and leave no doubt over who is running the show. Looking back, it's hard to believe he only became CEO in 2008, five years after Tesla Motors became a thing and two years after the Roadster's debut. Well, that's probably because he was the most vocal out of everyone involved in the company at the time and quickly managed to turn himself into the unofficial face of Tesla. Well, that, and also a very careful rewriting of history.

Go to Tesla's website right now and look for the initial Master Plan. Under the headline, you'll find the author - Elon Musk, no surprises there - and a few details such as the date - 2nd August 2006 - as well as his position within the company - "Co-founder," something Musk only earned the right to call himself after a 2009 court settlement with Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, the real founding fathers of Tesla, and "CEO," a position Musk only acceded to in 2008, so two years after the Master Plan was written. I guess we could look on the brighter side: at least it didn't say "Technoking."

Musk started building his public persona early on, first by using Twitter and the occasional interview in the media, and then by fronting Tesla's every major event. By the time he did that, there was a section of the audience that was eating out of his palm, so even if his MCing wasn't always at the highest standards, it mattered very little because, for some people, seeing him on stage was already just as important as whatever new model or technology the entire show was actually about.

It's this genius, visionary, can-do-no-wrong aura Musk has created around himself that shields him from the most basic - and, more often than not, very much deserved - criticism. "So what if he cut a few corners," you'll hear a lot of people say, "he's done more for humanity than anyone else alive right now." The ends justify the means, they seem to think, even though it's not very clear whether the "end" is anything other than good-old profit, and the "means" involve blatantly lying on a regular basis.

That 2006 Master Plan set a very clear path for Tesla: build a low-volume sports car (the Roadster), use that money to make an affordable car (the Model S), use that money to make an even more affordable car (the Model 3). The word "affordable" needs to be put into context here since neither the Model S nor the Model 3 can be described as such other than in comparison to other EVs present on the market at the time.

Crucially, there was one more bullet point on the Master Plan, one that, I would argue, was the most decisive for the company's future and for building Musk's public image. "While doing above," it read, "also provide zero emission electric power generation options." This one set Tesla apart from the rest of the industry and made Elon essentially untouchable because to criticize him and his work became synonymous to dooming Earth to a quick and painful scorchy end.

I think this was Musk's masterclass in how to control public perception, and he deserves full credit for it - as well as for the way he managed to make everyone forget about these claims down the line when it all turned out to be empty promises. By that time, the focus had switched to 0-60 mph times and what would soon turn out to be the next carrot dangled in front of everyone: autonomous driving.

It's hard to keep track of how many times the Tesla CEO has promised full self-driving capability would be available, but we're nearing ten years since it should have been on the roads. In the meantime, Tesla is not that much closer to delivering the promise while continuing to have one narrative for the public, and a completely different one for the authorities (remember how Tesla admitted the FSD Beta is nothing more than a Level 2 system in a letter to the NHTSA).

Full autonomy is just one perpetual example, but the carrot dangling technique is actually Musk's constant MO. The CEO has made a habit of presenting something quite revolutionary, promising to have it ready in a short time, then stalling endlessly while finding excuses and making everyone around work overtime. Sometimes, the product does actually get delivered, but it's quite a few years late and comes with a few caveats (usually much more expensive than promised).

The Cybertruck is the latest example in a long series. With the first deliveries event set for November 30, we don't yet know exactly what to expect from the electric truck in terms of performance and, even more crucially, pricing. However, given how Musk's predictions are always based on the most favorable (and least likely) scenario, it's safe to assume there will be some differences from the 2019 presentation. And even if there won't be, keep your eyes peeled over the coming months: Musk is clever enough to keep things in line with the initial specs during the launch, when all eyes are on him, and ease in price hikes gradually as time goes by while laying blame on various external factors that are out of his control.

Judging by the tone of the latest earnings call, you'd suspect the atmosphere inside the Tesla camp is not an overly positive one, despite the company doing better than ever. The Model Y is selling like crazy, the Model S Plaid remains undefeated in terms of performance by anything less than ten times its price, and the only reason the Model 3 isn't talked about more is that it's been overtaken by the Y as the company's bestseller.

The gloom comes from one place and one place only, and that's Musk's relentless desire to showcase his alleged brilliance.

Instead of the door stopper-shaped Cybertruck, Tesla could have released a much more conventional pickup truck. The company has reached a point where its products don't need to be quirky to sell well, they just have to be good. A somewhat regular design would have shortened the time it took to enter production (potentially beating Ford's F-150 Lightning to it), would have been easier to manufacture, and would have arguably looked better.

However, a tame design would have dented Musk's image as an industry disruptor, and when you're the Technoking, you can't have that. After all, what good is a perfectly functional pickup truck that's readily available if you can't give it a "cool" name? Would it have turned as many heads as the Cybertruck did at last week's US Formula 1 Grand Prix? Well, probably not, but I'm pretty sure it would have garnered plenty of attention at the 2021 United States GP, if you get my drift.

Dangling carrots can only take you so far before even the dumbest and most gullible donkey gives up. It's not even important whether it realizes it's being taken for a ride, or it's simply too tired to continue. What matters is that whoever was wielding the stick with the pointy orange vegetable at the end now has to come up with another idea. Making huge initial promises that are only partially delivered after many failed deadlines is not a sustainable strategy in the long term.

We all thought it was just temporary until Tesla could get a stronger foot in the industry, but now that it has, every decision about the Cybertruck shows that nothing has changed. It's safe to assume at this point that, if Musk either knew how or wanted to do things differently, he would have by now, which makes hoping he'll change the way he leads Tesla quite pointless.

Whoever says it's the right time for Musk and Tesla to part ways could do so with the EV maker's best interest at heart. By hook or by crook, Elon has managed to turn Tesla into not only the most valuable car company in the world, but also one with strong manufacturing capabilities throughout the world. Nothing anyone can say or do will ever change that.

Now, though, it's time to turn into a serious, respectable, and credible carmaker, and all the past evidence suggests Musk is not the man for that. His flashy online attitude got him in the situation where he was forced to purchase Twitter at a much higher price than the company's actual market valuation, and, the recent spat with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales shows he hasn't learned his lesson. Just in case you missed it, Musk offered to donate one billion dollars if they agreed to change the name to "Dickipedia" for one year? Why? Because apparently the world's number one free speech supporter doesn't like some of the things written on his page.

For years, Musk's ability to endlessly create drama around himself has benefited Tesla, but now that the company has grown, it doesn't need it anymore. In fact, it's quite the opposite of the balance and stability that could help it reach that next level. It could definitely do without weird vehicles that pointlessly complicate matters created at the whim of a CEO who appears to have lost the plot.

The gist of it all is this: Musk's star appears to be on a downward trajectory, whereas Tesla's is on the rise. If the two continue to be linked with each other (even if Musk was to step down as CEO, he'd still be the number one share holder, so the connection will probably never be completely severed), it's only a matter of time until it becomes detrimental for Tesla. Some might argue it has already started.
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About the author: Vlad Mitrache
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"Boy meets car, boy loves car, boy gets journalism degree and starts job writing and editing at a car magazine" - 5/5. (Vlad Mitrache if he was a movie)
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