Elon Musk has long been the best thing Tesla had. There’s no question the startup automaker fostered a paradigm shift in the auto industry with its long-range battery-electric vehicles, but it likely never would have gained the attention, nor the market traction, without the always quotable, South African-born entrepreneur.
Never shy about sharing his opinions, Musk was one of the most familiar voices on Twitter. That’s gotten him in trouble on several occasions, notably with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But his stubborn willingness to speak his mind won him legions of fans — and, for Tesla, plenty of buyers.
Now, however, he’s facing much more intense — and much less friendly — scrutiny. He’s accused of sexual harassment as well as fostering an environment where Tesla’s customers’ safety is an afterthought. Musk’s $44 billion bid for his favorite social media outlet is now uncertain — even as he uses Twitter to seemingly go full MAGA. Musk is raging loudly against the very folks who’ve traditionally been the strongest backers of electrification, from liberals all the way up to President Joe Biden.
And that raises some basic questions: to use an admittedly tired cliché, has Elon Musk jumped the shark? And should he step out of the limelight, whether by choice or, if necessary, under the “guidance” of Tesla’s board of directors?
Tesla’s stock in freefall
Certainly, the board needs to be concerned about what’s happening, Tesla’s once high-flying stock has lost nearly 14% of its value during the last five days, and it’s begun this week with another loss. True, the stock market has been hit hard overall as signs of a recession become more worrisome. But the automaker’s shares now stand at barely half their 52-week high of $1,243.59. Stockholders have lost more than $600 billion in value since November — and it’s anyone’s guess where the bottom is.
What’s clear is Musk is out there, as always, though his social media presence and more intense than ever. Among other things, he’s using it to express his apparent frustrations with his proposed acquisition of Twitter. The controversial deal seemed locked in stone once founder Jack Dorsey said he was “happy” about the deal. No one seems happy now.
Musk has raged about the supposed number of fake Twitter accounts, claiming “bots” account for as much as 20% of its users. By the social media company’s count, the figure is more like 5%. Exactly what Musk is seeking is uncertain. Is he using Twitter itself to drive down the proposed purchase price? Or is he looking to get out of the deal — and avoid paying the $1 billion penalty he could face for backing out?
What’s again clear is that Tesla has gotten caught up in the mess. One reason its own share price has fallen is Musk’s use of his vast stock holdings to back up the proposed Twitter purchase.
The situation worsened last week when Business Insider revealed SpaceX — another high-visibility company Musk developed — paid $250,000 to bury a sex harassment suit in which Musk allegedly exposed himself to, and then propositioned, an attendant on a company jet. Meanwhile, Tesla has been hit with a wave of additional sex harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits, as has SpaceX.
In a tweet, Musk called the flight attendant a “liar,” and it’s again unclear whether he’s linked to the other legal actions. But critics have long contended the CEO tolerates — if not encourages — a climate of sexual and racial harassment at corporate headquarters, as well as Tesla’s California manufacturing site.
Add to that concerns raised by “Elon Musk’s Crash Course,” a 75-minute New York Times documentary sharply critical of Tesla’s safety policies and its semi-autonomous driving technology.
Elon’s “Crash Course”
Autopilot has triggered a variety of federal safety probes and been linked to a number of crashes, some fatal. (It’s yet to be confirmed whether Autopilot was in use when a Tesla crash this month killed three occupants and injured three construction workers.)
Even as the crash, injury and fatality tolls rise, Musk has upped the PT Barnum-style hype, dubbing the latest software update “Full Self-driving” — which it isn’t. He promises it will reach that goal by the end of this year. But he’s said that for a number of years.
As so many things start to go wrong, Musk’s social media posts have taken on a more angry and divisive tone, attacking any and everyone he doesn’t like or trust.
Going full MAGA
“In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” he posted on May 18. “But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican. Now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold.”
At the same time, Musk posted a “help wanted” ad on Twitter, calling for the sort of lawyers who might’ve been gunslingers back in the old West. He made it clear he’s ready to “fight,” though whom he’s aiming at is unclear.
Ironically, the man who is using his planned Twitter acquisition to promote himself as the ultimate proponent of free speech clearly doesn’t like it when folks speak out against him. Before he dissolved Tesla’s public relations department its primary duty was to aggressively attack any reporting seen as negative — as I personally learned on several occasions. Will that be one of the goals of the new legal hit squad? Perhaps it’s an omen that Musk already is suing one critic in China.
A backlash brewing?
The darker side Musk is now showing has surprised many supporters. They’re lashing out on his own Twitter page, as well as on Tesla websites. A number of EV buyers claim they’ve canceled Tesla orders. Some current owners say they won’t be back when it’s time to trade in.
Of course, it’s easy to write a post. The test will come as Tesla reveals sales numbers in the upcoming quarters. The company has gained plenty of momentum in the last year and is on track to sell more than 1 million vehicles for the first time this year.
But it’s clearly not a good time to be ticking off potential buyers, as the market is exploding with new competition. There were less than 20 long-range (200+ mile) EVs at the end of 2021. The number will near 60 by the end of 2022, with some highly rated competition coming, including the Ford F-150 Lightning, the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and more.
Making matters worse, Tesla won’t have anything new of its own, at least until 2023. And that’s if the Cybertruck finally goes into production, something even Musk has raised doubts about on several occasions. The Semi and the Roadster have also been delayed. And plans to come in with products in the $30,000 range are on indefinite hold, even as competitors like General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen prepare to enter more affordable segments.
Don’t write Musk — or Tesla — off yet
One has to be very, very careful before dismissing either Tesla or its CEO. The carmaker has defied all odds to get where it is today. And, even after its huge stock slump, its share price dwarfs all competitors, as does its overall market value. As for Musk, he’s stared down plenty of critics, and survived several battles with the SEC, NHTSA and short-sellers.
But the current situation appears to be unique, with slings and arrows being fired from all directions. And Musk’s personal problems have reached a level where his golden boy image could be sullied beyond salvation. That would only further hurt Tesla. It would seem to be a very good time for him to consider taking a break. Perhaps a year on a quiet island with limited Internet connectivity. Indeed, he’s got more than enough money to buy a very nice island.
And even if Musk can’t find the personal resolve to step away from the coming fights, it seems increasingly incumbent upon Tesla’s board to step in and push him out. The path Musk seems determined to take risks bringing down the company he once so effectively built up.