Autonomous Vehicles

Published on February 10th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan


Why Elon Musk Is Loved So Much

February 10th, 2016 by  

Originally published EV Obsession.

This is an article I’ve been planning to write for approximately half a year. Alas, so many other hot news stories, EV reports, conferences, and the daily truckload of editing, email, social media, and side projects have blocked that from happening. Many touching videos and insightful comments from readers almost pushed me to write the piece much earlier, and I only hope now that I won’t miss any of the thoughts that came to mind then, but I’m sure readers will add much more to extend the conversation whether I do or not.

Elon Musk aviator glasses

Elon Musk photo by Steve Jurvetson (some rights reserved).

Elon Musk is in a unique category not just because of how superbly he has done in business — from Zip2 to PayPal to Tesla & SpaceX & SolarCity. He’s also a bit of a cult superhero. Actually, he’s an iconic figure and quite idolized in several sub-cultures. Space nuts. Business freaks. Cleantech lovers. Electric car enthusiasts. Coding nerds. And surely others as well.

He’s loved so much not just because of what he’s achieved and what his companies do, though. It’s also largely because of specific aspects of his personality and how he interacts with the public. Furthermore, I think those two factors contribute a great deal to the success of some of his companies, especially Tesla Motors.

I’ll jump to my list of reasons shortly, but first, see how many cleantech CEOs you can picture with a couple minutes of thought.

Despite covering this industry obsessively for years, there are just a handful of people who come to mind for me. Frankly, I think that’s a huge #FAIL on the part of the communications and marketing arms behind most cleantech companies, as well as the CEOs themselves. Humans connect with humans more than anything else. Having a human who is the well known and liked face of a company is a great way to advance the company’s customer base and grow its business. Yet, the approach is largely ignored by cleantech companies. It’s pretty disappointing for me to witness.

But let’s get back to Elon

Whether it’s intentional or through pure luck, Elon has very effectively become the face of Tesla Motors and SpaceX … and even SolarCity to an extent, despite the fact that he spends very little time on the company and the CEO is cousin Lyndon Rive (probably one of the few faces that came to mind in the exercise recommended above). Elon has put himself out there enough that his face often pops into our thoughts when we think about Tesla, or EVs, or cleantech, or space travel — you get the picture. At least as importantly, though, many of us simply love the guy. And here’s why:

Elon is real.


Elon in tears, from this video. This segment almost moved me to write this article months ago.

CEOs these days have been polished more than Michelangelo’s David (note: that’s a potentially incorrect statement — someone should do some research on this). “Corporate talk” has become as nauseating as BS from establishment politicians. You can see how “the outsiders” are doing in political polls right now — for better or worse. Elon, similarly, is an outsider in the business world. He doesn’t fluff up his remarks and spit out generic, useless statements. He’s “real.” He says stuff how it is. He answers questions directly (except with particularly sensitive and concealed topics). He speaks in a casual, friend-to-friend style rather than like the annoying “too good to toot my own horn” members of many a C-suite.

Elon is thoughtful.

You can picture it now: Elon is served a question. He pauses, purses his lips in a particular way, gazes with inquisitive and searching eyes, starts to answer it, quickly interrupts himself to qualify a statement or make it more precise, couches the answer in some important context, perhaps drops an engineering term or two on us, and closes the answer as if he’s taking the explanation further in his head or thinking up more context and is still unsure if he should go on or leave it at that.

Altogether, we can see that he’s very thoughtful. In his answers and in what he does. We appreciate that.

Elon doesn’t just shoot over some catchphrases or generic answers — at least, not very often. He turns a question into an enlightening college seminar in whatever the topic might be.

Partly because we respect thoughtful behavior, and partly because we love it that Elon cares and engages with us enough to spend the time on such things, many of us love this aspect of his character.


Screenshot of Elon via Invest Hong Kong interview.

Elon cares.

Speaking of caring, I am repeatedly impressed with how much heart he puts into his work, and I’m sure many other people love this as well. Elon cares. He cares about others, doesn’t want “jerks” on his teams messing up people’s work atmosphere, wants the customer to be happy (and sometimes goes to absurd lengths to make them so), and wants to spend his life helping society.

At least since he “hit it big” with PayPal, Elon has dedicated an absurd amount of his breathing life, and his cash, to helping society. Tesla Motors is about combatting global warming, cleaning the air, building the safest cars on the planet, and making products that excite and inspire people. SpaceX is about helping to make the human species interplanetary, both for boosting our long-term survival odds as well as for bringing unprecedented adventure and exploration to another generation. SolarCity is about transitioning to a clean, abundant, and socioeconomically decentralized source of electricity generation.

Interview after interview, Elon comes back to the thoughts he had in college regarding the factors most critical to the future of humanity and human well-being. If you don’t know by now that Elon really cares about society, you haven’t watched enough interviews with him. Here’s a good place to chill out for a bit.

Elon is the nerdy underdog who was almost bullied to death (literally) and then won the world.


Screenshot of early Elon Musk interview.

No doubt about it, Elon is a nerd. And we seem to be in a phase where nerds are glorified. We love nerds. Maybe many of us feel like we were/are the nerds. Maybe we’ve just come to love the quiet bookworm types. I’m not sure, but Elon’s nerd status (king of the nerds?) certainly helps grow his appeal.

Whether we see him as a classic lover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or just some generic nerdboy turned nerdman, he’s very endearing to many of us.

Learning about his childhood, in which he read book after book like a machine, learning about the extent to which he was bullied (and even nearly beaten to death), and learning about his early video game entrepreneurship with brother Kimball, he grows on us more and more.


“Elon Wins.” Elon & wife Talulah Riley at Tesla Roadster launch.

Elon talks to us on our level, and remains “just one of the guys.”

elon-musk-tweetThis is similar to the section at the top on Elon being “real,” but I thought it was worth teasing out as well. Despite his nearly “untouchable” status, Elon seems to talk to nearly everyone in the same way. Whether you’re a young high schooler or a rich businessman or a TV show host, Elon talks in practically the same style. He doesn’t typically talk down to people or butter people up.

Nonetheless, he brings the discussion to our level. He tries hard to answer questions in a way that will help the questioner. He puts the language at the expected level of knowledge of the listener(s), and he provides analogy after analogy, metaphor after metaphor, to put complicated points that normally only certain engineers or economists or businesspeople would understand in terms that an uninitiated, uncultured, buffoon-like cleantech blogger can digest.

It’s not just more interesting and stimulating for the audience — it also shows respect for the person on the other side of the conversation, whomever it may be. It shows Elon’s not just interested in talking for his own benefit or to hear his own voice, but to help improve the understanding and experience of as many people as possible.

Elon is cautious and humble (to an extent).

As noted above (in the “Elon is thoughtful” section), Elon is quite cautious about his statements. Yes, he is known to be overly optimistic regarding timelines (perhaps that’s part of why he gets so much done — “It’ll just take this long. Let’s do it.”), but regarding most matters, he is obsessively cautious about accuracy and performance. While he may be profiled in some ways as a risktaker, he went to great lengths to build the safest car on the planet. He is obviously having a lot of fun while doing so, but it’s worth highlighting that some of his chief life aims are helping society to be more cautious with the planet’s climate, helping society to be more cautious with the planet’s store and quality of natural resources, and helping society to be more cautious with our likelihood of long-term survival.

Elon doesn’t neglect to state a stunning accomplishment when it’s relevant to the conversation and it advances an argument, but, from my perspective, he’s very cautious to not state things that aren’t true and is humble about how much he and his companies can actually achieve.

As has been noted numerous times before, he expected Tesla Motors and SpaceX to fail. He has said in the past that Tesla’s stock price seemed a bit high compared to what Tesla had achieved. He has cautioned innumerable times that he isn’t certain about this or that, something could always go wrong, his projections are just best estimates (not sure to be correct), etc.

I imagine some people will disagree with me on this one, given how I’ve seen Elon profiled in some other places, but I see him as an abnormally cautious and humble person.

Elon is Iron Man.


Image via Forbes

The humility doesn’t mean Elon can’t be idolized a bit. The man has inspired a generation or five. He has achieved several things that all but a small minority thought were practically impossible. He has made a million, turned that into a billion, and then turned that into $10.8 billion. Robert Downey Jr. shadowed him in order to get into character for Tony Stark, Iron Man. His accomplishments are worth celebrating. He’s worth celebrating.

Call me a fanboy — fine by me. I love the guy, similar to how I love many goodhearted and hardworking friends, and similar to how heroes in certain movies appeal to my sensitivities. For all of the reasons above, that seems to be more common than not loving the guy.

fanboi 1

EV driver survey results (from this report).

fanboi 2

Potential EV buyer survey results (from this report).

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Jim Seko

    He’s the Albert Einstein of APPLIED physics.

  • Bubba Nicholson

    I met Elon Musk vicariously on the “set” of The Simpsons. I’m Homer.

  • Frank

    There is one other thing. He will occasionally not answer a question, but instead of pretending to answer the question and assuming we are either too stupid to notice or too polite to say anything, he just tells you why he doesn’t want to answer. At about 13 and a half minutes Will never get that from a presidential candidate.

  • D Loppy

    Think it is too early to crack open the champagne yet. Tesla burn rate is still too high and Space X has not succeeded in creating a truly reusable rocket yet. Even the best of inventions need to be economically viable else they fade prime example being Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower.

    • Carl Raymond S

      I listened to the entire earnings call yesterday, because I too was getting nervous that Tesla could run out of cash before the Model 3 hits profitability.

      I’m now not nervous at all.

      2016 is a year of consolidation for the existing products. Gross margin on the S and X will climb from 20% up to 25-30%. There’s more margin on the X than the S and the X troubles are now mostly history. Jason Wheeler, the ex Google finance guy is good; he has his finger on the pulse and will ensure they keep a comfortable billion in reserve.

      The spending this year is on readying the Gigafactory for cell production, Fremont preparations for the Model 3 line, plus 20% service expansion to cover the 2016 fleet growth – and the money for all that comes from those 25% margins.

      TSLA climbed after the earnings call. (But of course remains down, along with the rest of the market).

      • D Loppy

        I agree that expected gross margins are great. I am still concerned that losses per car are $18,000 down from $19,000 last quarter. If we include tax rebate of $7500 per car thats a $25,000 loss. A negative 30% margin is not something that can reversed by a new model. I believe Musk needs to focus in on one project at a time. Tesla has first mover advantage and needs to build maximum brand advantage and customer base before the other companies join the party. He also needs to find a Tim Cook to his steve jobs.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Don’t look at the “loss per car”. There is no loss per car, the gross profit margin is very high.

          Look to see whether the bottom line loss for the overall company is justified. Is the loss due to execs pulling down multi-million salaries and five gallon buckets of nose candy in each corner office? Or due to thought out spending used to build the company?

        • dogphlap dogphlap

          Tesla make around 25% profit per Model S sold, likely the Model X will be less initially until the production processes have been refined over time. $7500 is the tax rebate a buyer receives, it does not go to Tesla so why you would bring that up is beyond my ken. Tesla makes a loss overall because it spends big money building for the future e.g. the Giga factory and the SuperCharger network to name just two, I’d call those wise investments. Maybe GM would be wise to emulate those at least as far as a DC fast charger network (or team up with Tesla to expand their network and share the chargers) but they have shown no inclination to do that.

        • Carl Raymond S

          Absolute gibberish. Investment in growth is not loss. It means that when you decide you are big enough, you rake it in. Not millions, but billions. Telsa is playing the long game – and doing a mighty fine job of it.

          • neroden

            If you want to look at the downside for Tesla, look at the “Sales, Service & Admin” and R&D expenses. then consider: how much higher do those have to be to support way more cars per year? Can Tesla sell enough cars to cover the costs of all those service centers? Can Tesla build enough service centers, for that matter?

          • sklancha

            This is not my area of expertise, but every time I read something indicating Tesla’s growth investment as a loss… it leaves me dumbfounded

    • ROBwithaB

      The thing to remember about SpaceX is that even the rockets that fail to re-land safely have already paid for themselves by successfully delivering their payloads to space. ULA isn’t even trying to re-use their rockets, and they’re a lot more expensive per kg of payload to start with. (There’s also significant backlash against their use of Russian rockets to deliver ‘top secret” American military payloads.)

      Basically, SpaceX is getting paid to “practice” it’s technique of re-using rockets. It’s not like they’re losing money if the thing falls over when it’s trying to land. And when they get it right (it looks pretty close now) they will be MUCH cheaper than the competition. They will basically have a monopoly, probably for at least a few years. It could become very lucrative. Of course, nobody knows exactly how lucrative, but at least that one is working on the opposite of the whole “taxpayer subsidy” accusation that Tesla often faces.

      • neroden

        BlueOrigin is the main competition I see for SpaceX.

      • sklancha

        I doubt the monopoly. Spacex is more likely to share the knowledge (after mastering it) in order to get competitors to help accelerate the technology.

  • Eric Lukac-Kuruc

    To me, he’s one of the few in big business that makes our future look less darker. His will to fight against the business as usual approach and the overall status quo of the incumbents is remarkable.

    • cynthia Irene

      Perhaps it is just that some days, the news is so dark and difficult to integrate — that is outside of renewable energy progress, cleaner air and water options to find something that breaks through the status quo, someone who breaks up the game with fresher air, helps. Staying abreast of the news of what man does to man is difficult, downright sad too often. –Positive notes, like Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, bright up the day — instead of the same old oversized yacht, overdone glam, etc. Important Media, is also refreshing help to daily life. Along with questioning the dark, like Fracking, bringing to light the dirty of dirty oil — the blog keeps pointing to the positive, the light, the solution. It is nice to think of those people who help change the game- – I also hope he finds time with his sons!

  • Sreehari Variar

    The guy never ceases to inspire. The candidness is so admirable. Telling it like what it is has its perks, at least if you are Elon.

  • Holy battery

    Can it be more pathetic?

  • Coley

    Great bloke, I really admire what he has done, his achievements are second to none, but if he is half the bloke I think he is, then this ridiculous article will have him burning with embarrassment.
    He is a bloke who has made serious inroads into the FF establishment, who has given the EV movement the jump start it needed, to be given this “boy band” hype is, IMHO totally immature.

    • Frank

      Watching Elon is like watching Leo Messi with the ball at his feet.

      • Coley

        Had to Google Leo Messi-;)
        Yes, people who are great at what they do are worthy of admiration and comment, but not the gooey adolescent stuff that sometimes breaks out on here.
        Sorry if that offends some.

  • omar

    I like posts like this, it attract big list of coments. I feel happy when I see big list of comments

    • cynthia Irene

      I am sure Zachary is smiling as well.

  • Karl the brewer

    His offer to everyone at the Model X launch to come and poke around in his own car was amazing but for me he achieved legendary status with the Falcon 9 landing in Cape Canaveral. Watching the live stream I was struck by one thing, the absence of Musk. On such a momentous occasion he had every right to horde the media attention but instead he disappears and lets his bright young engineers take centre stage and all the credit. He is such a legend that I may even have to name a beer after him 🙂

    • Kyle Field

      Do it! I very rarely drink…but for “The Elon”, I would make an exception.

      • Karl the brewer

        Happy to do one if CT can come up with a name. Also can do a little article on the making of it although it won’t strictly be cleantech.

    • Brooks Bridges

      As long as it’s an IPA.

      • Karl the brewer

        Ahh you Americans and your IPA’s 😉

        • Coley

          India pale ale is, is American!!?

  • eveee

    Yes. Quite a contrast between the GM marketing interview and a Musk interview. Musk is an interesting, charismatic character. We like it when people show their human side.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Elon talks about what the company is doing in a much more informal manner than what we generally see with the carefully scripted presentations from other car companies. I think many of us enjoy the opportunity to look a bit more inside the company than what we get with the full color brochure wall put up by traditional corporations.

  • Jason Willhite

    I agree, Elon seems like a great guy. I do sincerely hope, though, that his ambitious undertakings do not prevent him with spending a lot of quality time with his sons. That would be a bigger tragedy, in my opinion, than anything else.

    • sklancha

      That is a tough balance for many parents. For a person willing to take on worldly burdens, the ‘greater good’ is a powerful influence. Soldiers, presidents, …

    • Tim

      You’re an idiot

      • Philip W

        How about you stop the personal attacks? Nobody wants that there.

        • Tim

          Blah, blah, blah. His comment was moronic. You want the most important person to saving the world to take time off and spend it with his kids? Geeze, what a moron! There is hard cold math stalking the human race and Elon knows it. That’s why he’s working so hard – so he can save his own kids in the process. Utter lunacy from simple minds that don’t understand numbers…

          • Philip W

            At least he can articulate in a decent way. It’s not the first time that you have been offensive. If you continue, Bob will probably show you the way out very soon.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Tim, if you continue calling people names I’m going to kick your ass off this site.

  • Ross

    I like the way Elon has licence to go full nerd, approaching it scientifically, when he answers questions. People listen because of his record of achievement and because his objectives are inspiring.

    • Frank

      The feeling I get when he talks, is that he will take a topic, figure out what is the critical truth, hand it to you on a silver platter, really simple and obvious, and the smile and stop talking like it’s no big deal.

      • rick

        Or say good question, I don’t know……

  • A littlebit of truth cant hurt

    I want to dance and sing and laugh and jump because Elon is in my heart. People, Elon loves you, let him in your hearts.

    • Tim

      Uh, Christ much? Anyway, not a bad analogy. He works for our physical salvation.

  • turbovega

    The man is cool, no doubt. I look forward to the IPO of SpaceX.

    • Dan

      He has said that won’t happen until at least the fate of the Mars missions are certain. He would not trust his goal of going to Mars in the hands of a publicly traded company. In my opinion, establishing moon infrastructure should come before the mars colony for many reasons.

      My favorite two are to build manufacturing on the moon for more space infrastructure and a hyperloop style railgun rocket launch slinger to shoot space vehicals to Mars and elsewhere. Not sure of the details for either of those but do think the moon has more potential than Mars for the short term and makes the Mars colony more achievable. I applaude the ambition and vision it requires for a Mars colony and Elon has succeed in stirring my and many people’s imagination of what we could accomplish in our lifetime.

  • oldschool

    What makes him unique is that he thinks outside the box.

    • Otis11

      I would disagree. I’d argue he thinks inside the box – He just picked the right box!

      Most of his ideas are very straight forward – some would argue obvious – but yet no one does them because they’re labeled ‘impractical.’

      Musk is just that guy who questions that assumption and examines the real problem and devises a solution (while most people examine proposed solutions and, after discounting enough of them, claim it’s infeasible). And I think he’d say it himself – in one interview when they ask what makes him different he responds (paraphrasing) “Well, I’m not sure that I am. I just reason about things from first principles until I convince myself of whether or not they are possible to a first order, and then whether it’s worth exploring.”

      I think what really makes him unique, though, is that he realizes (and probably overestimates) the odds of failure, but proceeds anyway. Most people in the US overestimate the chances of success and will only pursue something that’s all-but guaranteed.

  • Allan Barr

    The United States treates him like shit unfortunately. He said he feels like a kid surrounded by sumo wrestlers. Instead of opening more giga plants in America along with more tesla motor plants he has opted to open them in Germany and China. Way to go NOT.

    • Preston C.

      The reasoning behind opening a plant in China has to do with the import taxes they impose on vehicles there.

      • neroden

        Elon specifically stated that he intends to shorten the supply chain (for environmental and economic reasons). So Chinese cars get built in China, European cars get built in Europe, North American cars get built in the US.

        Makes sense to me.

    • rick

      It’s amazing how many allies he does have in America.He makes the vast majority of the trained psycopaths look in the mirror and either get jealous, envious of someone that persists in just good intent and has proven great design can break loose these 100 year old robber baron monopolies.

      He sorta has to build the plants in the countries where he sells the cars. He is not making patriotic idiotic moronic egomaniac choices. He is taking the fastest route to electric transportation. He’s not a stupidified job creation machine. Jobs based on doing the right thing can really get us out of this ditch of unsustainability the global mafia oligarchy has driven us into.

    • Carl Raymond S

      I think we can take most of the anti Elon comments as ‘pay per post’, sponsored the by fossil fuel lobbies, mixed with occasional unpaid comment from hormone overdosed young revheads. I’ve also seen put downs based on his name alone – so add in a handful of xenophobic racists.

    • Coley

      Actually it’s the most sensible way to go, he wants to revolutionise the car/energy markets, the more globally he spreads his ideas the better, though I would be cautious about China, he might get his arse bitten over there.

    • sklancha

      The reason for opening gigafactories in other continents is to build local to the place of sale. It is more cost effective.

  • MacAdvisor

    The author forgot to mention how incredibly handsome Mr. Musk is. Despite his 44 years, he could well pass for late 20s or early 30s. His smile beams and his eyes crinkle. Having sex appeal is another factor he is so popular.

    • Philip W

      I don’t think this is of any importance to many fans and most probably not hetero men 😉

      • Calamity_Jean

        As a hetero woman, I have to say that his looks are reasonably nice but not extraordinary. What I admire about him is that he is trying to save the world.

      • Shane 2

        He has an excellent transplant job – see images circa the Paypal exit. I think he would still look fine if he went for the shaved head option.

  • UrbanCamper

    If Bernie gets elected we won’t see any more like him in America.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Well, that wins the weird claim of the day award.

      • eveee

        Whats the prize?

        • Riely Rumfort

          Hopefully an education.

          • GodoStoyke


          • TedKidd

            Maybe free college.

        • Bob_Wallace

          His/her name on the mod’s list of “special people”.

          • Karl the brewer

            Now that sounds like something worth competing for 😉

      • Brent Jatko

        This comment is completely unsurprising provided you have seen his other bizarre right wing rants.

    • Elon, forgive us

      Bernie it is then.

  • kendreik

    Yes Elon, we all love you so much.. you will bring the human race to future space travel. People will build you monument when you die. our hero-elon musk….

  • JP

    Agree with everything you said. I think he’s slowly winning over his critics, too, though it will probably take a successful Model 3 launch before they’re silenced completely. I feel like the people that don’t like him have some combination of jealousy and a refusal to believe that a low-carbon future is possible/economical.

    What I find most admirable about him is just how far he will go to keep his companies going. The guy had hundreds of millions of dollars, yet threw so much money into them that he nearly went bankrupt. I think that was “the moment” for me.

  • onesecond

    Yes he is real and all that what you wrote in this article. It is easy to see when you watch all the interviews with him on youtube.

  • Zorba

    “He pauses, purses his lips in a particular way, gazes with inquisitive and searching eyes”

    Having just read the comments on another Tesla article I guess there will be some fun and games on this one too 🙂

    But yes, instead of making it and then spending his cash on superyachts or something he dived into space exploration and electric cars so I can’t help admiring the guy.

    • Harry Johnson

      Paul Allen rips up coral reefs…

  • jeremychone

    Agree, he is unique and probably will be more remembered than many presidents.

    • cynthia Irene

      And a good memory

    • Coley

      Given the oddballs and loonspuds that are currently available to the US electorate, is it too late for him to hoy his hat into the ring?

      • neroden

        He’s got better things to do!

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