Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Book Review)

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Originally published on Tesla Mondo.

“Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” That’s the title. The word “fantastic” doesn’t belong. Neither Elon nor the author uses such hyperbolic language. They’re both admirably dry. Elon’s ice-breaker at a party, quoted by a girl, goes like this, “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” That’s pretty dry.

Here’s what TeslaMondo is pondering, having just finished the book:

  • The president and COO of SpaceX is a woman. That’s interesting because of Elon’s rep as a hardass who can’t click with women. Professionally, at least, that’s not true.
  • Musk may sometimes be insensitive to the needs of individuals, but his entire adult life is absorbed with steering mankind as a whole to a better place. So he breaks even at least.
  • He’s in a rush to accomplish Herculean things before he dies, yet he takes such horrible care of himself that he might actually abbreviate his life. Sure, he may sleep six hours per night on average, as he’s said in interviews, but that average is probably stretched over months and includes many consecutive days of virtually no sleep. And he inhales food because he’s too busy to enjoy a meal. “I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.” He even pees fast. Yes, that’s an observation in the book. Will his life expire fast? Hope not.
  • He does not binge eat or drink, but he binges on video games until a bartender of sorts cuts him off. His five sons are also game addicts. Elon tries to make gaming as skill-building as possible, steering his sons toward more cerebral games.
  • He was beaten badly as a child, by other children. And he was psychologically beaten by his father. Years later, he almost died from Malaria. And he lost his first son just after birth. The adversity gave him the resolve of a wolverine. He often wonders if his sons should have more obstacles thrown their way, but how?
  • His punctuality problem pervades everything, not just product launches. He’s late for everything. Yet, when you back up the camera and look at this accomplishments, he’s on permanent fast-forward. Hmm . . .
  • If you had to boil down his business acumen to one word, it’s efficiency. Much of the book chronicles his ability to do things — very big things — much faster and much more cheaply than established rivals. That’s true for SpaceX, Solar City and Tesla. They’re all about making difficult things work faster, better and on the cheap. Good example: A SpaceX engineer reported to Musk that a supplier had quoted $150,000 for a component. Musk pushed and pushed that engineer until he finally built one in-house — for $3,900. One could argue that Teslas aren’t cheap. But one could counter-argue that Tesla is almost single-handedly driving down the cost of electric vehicle technology and will hit the tipping point with Model 3. Ditto Tesla Energy in its own realm.
  • A Tesla employee gives a good example of Tesla’s nimbleness and real-time flexibility compared with its elephantine peers in the auto world: “If Daimler wants to change the way a gauge looks, it has to contact a supplier half a world away and then wait for a series of approvals. It would take them a year to change the way the ‘P’ on the instrument panel looks. At Tesla, if Elon decides he wants a picture of a bunny rabbit on every gauge for Easter, he can have that done in a couple of hours.”
  • Good example of derring-do despite precarious financials: “The Supercharger stations, as Tesla called them, represented a huge investment for the strapped company. An argument could easily be made that spending money on this sort of thing at such a precarious moment in the Model S and Tesla’s history was somewhere between daft and batshit crazy. Surely Musk did not have the gall try to revamp the very idea of the automobile and build an energy network at the same time with a budget equivalent to what Ford and Exxon Mobil spent on their annual holiday parties. But that was the exact plan.”

After reading the book, you’ll want a movie. Problem is, as always with movies, it could never tell the real story in 90 minutes. Plus, by the time a movie could be finished, the story will have changed completely. Such is the pace of Musk Heavy Industries.

Reprinted with permission.

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