Although Elon Musk did not found or name Tesla Inc, he often gets compared to its namesake, Nikola Tesla. Both were from the provinces – South Africa for Musk and Serbia for Tesla – and made their fortunes in the US. Both made important technical contributions – Musk to EVs and rocketry, and Tesla to AC power and motors. Both were personally impressive, with people coming away awed by them.
Yet there are negative similarities between them too. In Musk’s case these are becoming more apparent:
Both had erratic educations which they were not honest about. Tesla boasted about his time at the Imperial Royal Technical College in Graz, Austria, but dropped out in his third year, possibly due to womanizing and gambling. His father died around that time, and his uncles got him into the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, but he only audited courses there. Musk started at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario because he could get a Canadian visa from his mother, but then transferred to U Penn. He claimed to have graduated in 1995 with degrees in physics and economics, but was actually missing some required courses. He later needed them for a US H1-B visa, and U Penn waived the requirements and awarded them in 1997. This whole history was unclear enough that it came up in the lawsuits against him.
Both had psychiatric issues. Tesla suffered badly from OCD later in life, although that was not yet a defined malady. He became obsessed with the number 3 and adopted a lot of rote behaviors. Musk declared on Saturday Night Live that he has Asperger’s. His manner in presentations really is rough, with lots of staccato bursts of words. He is widely known to be oblivious to social relations, and a terrible boss.
Yet their most distinctive similarity is over-promising. Here’s what Tesla used to persuade J. P. Morgan to invest in his wireless power scheme:
This was taken in 1900 at his lab in Colorado Springs. It’s fake. You can’t possibly sit next to these coils in operation. It’s actually a double exposure. The two Tesla Coils are exchanging sparks on a long-duration exposure, and then they turned them off and had Tesla sitting there with the lights on. Tesla claimed that these high-frequency transformers would let people get power out of the air over great distances. He went on to build a big one at Wardenclyffe Long Island, with $100,000 of Morgan’s money. It didn’t and couldn’t work. Morgan pulled the plug and the project stopped in 1905. That was Tesla’s last major effort.
Here’s what Elon Musk announced in 2016 in a video showing a self-driving Model X:
This demo was rigged. The car was NOT recognizing stop lights and stop signs – it was following a pre-programmed course. They had tried to do this ten-minute drive for four days, but avoided rain and rush hour traffic. They constantly had to have the human driver take over. The car failed to parallel park, and ran over the curb and hit a fence. This has all come out in a lawsuit over the 2018 death of Walter Huang. His Model X ran straight into a highway divider at full speed, killing him instantly.
Musk has claimed on no evidence that self-driving Teslas are safer than human-driven ones, when they appear to be worse. They’re now being investigated by NHTSA. He also claimed that the Model 3 was the safest car they had ever tested, when there are lots of cars with equal ratings.
The reason was clear – stock hyping. It wasn’t enough to just build a new kind of car, since that was taking a long time and needing an enormous amount of capital. It had to be revolutionary in multiple ways. He even resorted to claiming he was going to take the company private at a premium in order to keep the stock pumped. This worked for a while, and he was briefly worth a fantastic amount, about $320B. But hyping defective products and making fraudulent stock claims cannot work for long, and he’s now in the midst of a welter of lawsuits.
His catastrophic decision to buy Twitter has led everyone to reevaluate his previous ventures. Yet it’s been obvious for a long time that self-driving is an extremely difficult problem, and that talk of colonizing Mars is ludicrous. His odd manner and his early successes contributed to people taking him to be a genius, just as they did for Tesla. Tesla died broke and in the sole company of pigeons. Let’s hope for his sake that Musk doesn’t meet the same fate.
Thanks for this informative comparison, John! I have long wondered why no one has noticed that the emperor has no clothing on (or rags instead of finery at the least) when it comes to Musk. Ego-stoking and coat-tail dreams of those around him who don’t want to admit they’ve been duped, I guess.
Musk is also like Henry Ford, but not in a good way.