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Elon Musk speaking at the groundbreaking of Tesla's Shanghai factory. Photo courtesy of Tesla
Jul 9, 2019

For Tesla to Become Mainstream, Elon Musk Must Be Tamed

With Tesla Direct, the company’s new “deliver to driveway” experience, Tesla hopes to increase its mainstream appeal. There’s just one thing standing in the way: Elon Musk.

Some companies are defined by the people who created them. Steve Jobs was the personification of Apple until his death in 2011; Sir James Dyson is the very public face of his eponymous bagless vacuum cleaner; and, for better or worse, when people think of Ryanair, they associate it with the impish countenance of Michael O’Leary. So it is with Tesla, the electric car manufacturer which is the cherished brainchild of South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk.

To buy a Tesla is to step into a certain self-image, an advertisement to the world of who you are and how you live life.

You might think that Musk’s business is selling cars, but that’s not really what he’s peddling. He’s hawking an idea, a lifestyle. To buy a Tesla is to step into a certain self-image, an advertisement to the world of who you are and how you live life. You are a disruptor, an innovator, an idiosyncratic genius who takes a sideways glance at the modern world and chooses to partake on his or her own terms, leaving lesser mortals marveling in your wake.

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The problem is that while Musk himself remains edgy and avant-garde, so does his brand. The two are so inexorably connected that every Musk faux pas—and there seem to be more and more of them—means an instant hit to the company’s share price. Look no further than the fallout from the now infamous “funding secured” tweet. Musk, who had to resign his position as chairman of the board, is still dealing with the SEC restrictions from that bizarre gaffe.

A car at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. factory. Photo courtesy of Tesla

Musk has poured a lot of money into Tesla, and returns have been difficult to come by. Still, the company seems to be generating a modest but consistent profit, with much more promised. But now, with a whole new raft of manufacturers entering the fray, the electric vehicle market is the most hotly contested battlefield in the industry. Jaguar has announced that it will switch to a wholly electric lineup within a few years, and most major carmakers produce several EV models. Even the supercar market is catching up: Aston Martin’s Rapide E debuted this year, and Porsche is due to produce its first all-electric car, the Taycan, in 2020. And Lucid Motors, an upstart Silicon Valley competitor that recently received a $1 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, just hired Peter Hochholdinger, Tesla’s former vice president of manufacturing. With competition like this, Tesla can no longer remain a niche brand; it has to cross into the mainstream.

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Yet Tesla remains Musk’s company. To buy a Tesla is still to put a big check next to his name, and to endorse, implicitly, his panoply of enterprises as well as his personal twitches. Once this connection unquestionably helped Tesla. Now, I’m not so sure.

Elon Musk has always carved out a reputation as a maverick. He dropped out of his doctoral studies at Stanford after two days. He founded a space transport company in 2002, when such things were not so very far away from science fiction. A couple of years ago, he set up a tunnel-drilling operation called, wittily, The Boring Company. It’s hard to argue that he’s been anything but a success story.

And yet, the storm clouds are growing. With talk of saving mankind from extinction by colonizing Mars, Musk is veering into the land of self-parody. Last summer, he hit the headlines by offering to commission and build a miniature submarine to send to Thailand where the members of a boys’ soccer team were trapped in a cave; his offer was rejected, the Thai authorities describing his machine as technologically impressive but impractical. Musk then became embroiled in an online argument with one of the rescuers, questioning his motivation for being in Thailand and describing him as a “pedo guy” before declaring in a leaked email that “I f**king hope he sues me.” Inevitably and understandably, a defamation case is pending. He smoked weed on a podcast. He released a rap record entitled RIP Harambe, an ode to the Columbus Zoo gorilla that was slaughtered after it killed a three-year-old boy who climbed into its pen. (“RIP Harambe, Sipping on some Bombay,” etc.) High-profile, yes. Twitter-crushing, sure. Good for Tesla—well, I think the jury’s out on that one.

The Tesla Model X. Photo courtesy of Tesla

People buy a car—after a home and a college education, probably the biggest investment most will ever make—for many reasons, and I’m sure that some will be attracted by Musk’s edgy adventurism and erratic personal behavior. But more will wonder if the company is as apparently unstable as its founder. Given how tightly connected Musk and Tesla are identified, do you feel confident that Tesla will be around in five years? And who’s going to service that Model X you’re thinking about buying? Those electric engines are complicated, and you know those falcon wing doors are going to malfunction sooner or later.

Consumers should want to buy a Tesla, in part, because of Musk, not despite him. Right now, he’s not helping—and the case for ousting him is growing.

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