It’s a portrait of a man who’s gone past fraying at the edges. In an hour-long interview with the New York Times, Tesla CEO Elon Musk appears as a man threatening to come apart â€” and it’s not a joyous sight.
Despite the frustration stemming from Musk’s actions and pronouncements, and the aggravation born of his cheerleading, conspiracy theorizing fan base, it’s difficult to watch a man’s ambition and drive spiral into self-destruction.Â
Musk teared up frequently during the interview, the NYT claims. Working up to 120 hours a week and sometimes spending three or four days inside the automaker’s Fremont, California assembly plant, Musk claims he doesn’t sleep much, even with help from the now-controversial sleep aid Ambien. Instead, the drug provides the impulse for late-night tweetstorms that immerse the CEO in hot water and increase the polarization of this fans and detractors.
Recent bizarre actions like publicly mulling a journalist ratings site (“Pravda”) and calling a British cave rescuer a pedophile pale, at least in terms of consequences, next to one tweet Musk sent from his car. That, of course, would be the August 7th tweet declaring his intention to take Tesla private. Funding, he wrote, was secured.
And yet it wasn’t. Per the NYT:
Mr. Musk has said he was referring to a potential investment by Saudi Arabiaâ€™s government investment fund. Mr. Musk had extensive talks with representatives of the $250 billion fund about possibly financing a transaction to take Tesla private â€” maybe even in a manner that would have resulted in the Saudisâ€™ owning most of the company. One of those sessions took place on July 31 at the Tesla factory in the Bay Area, according to a person familiar with the meeting. But the Saudi fund had not committed to provide any cash, two people briefed on the discussions said.
Another possibility under consideration is that SpaceX, Mr. Muskâ€™s rocket company, would help bankroll the Tesla privatization and would take an ownership stake in the carmaker, according to people familiar with the matter.
Directors on Tesla’s board claim the tweet blindsided them. Musk himself admits in the interview that no one saw or reviewed it before he hit “send.” Sources tell the NYT that board members scrambled to craft a public statement explaining the tweet and diffusing the already mounting criticism. Musk’s tweet lacked details, and a Tesla blog post posted not long after failed to answer the question of whether funding was indeed secured.
This didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which quickly launched an investigation into the tweet. Recent reports state the SEC resorted to subpoenas in its bid to learn who’s backing the go-private deal. Shareholders aren’t happy about being left in the dark, either. Three have already filed lawsuits.
In the interview, Musk speaks of social isolation from friends and family, a byproduct of Tesla’s frenzied Model 3 production push.
â€œI thought the worst of it was over â€” I thought it was,â€� he said. â€œThe worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint.â€�
He added, somewhat cryptically, â€œBut from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.â€�
Sources with knowledge of Tesla’s board claim there’s a hunt on for a right-hand man, someone who can take pressure off of Musk. Some directors fear the volatile combination of Ambien and Twitter in Musk’s hands, they claim, with others worried about recreational drug use.
That’s what sources claim. In public, the members remain committed to their leader, issuing a statement in response to the newspaper’s questions:
â€œThere have been many false and irresponsible rumors in the press about the discussions of the Tesla board,â€� the statement read. â€œWe would like to make clear that Elonâ€™s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious. Over the past 15 years, Elonâ€™s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.â€�
Musk himself mused about a possible successor, despite claiming he won’t step down as CEO and chairman.
“If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know,” he said. “They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”
It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. The Model 3 is in production, some of which occurs in tents, backed by a lengthy list of reservation holders eager to fill their driveway. Ardent superfans have turned Musk into their deity, with any criticisms levelled at the man or his operation attributed to short sellers and covert operatives of Big Oil. Tesla is what it is.
But at the root of its problems is speed. Growing too fast. Issuing production promises far too grand, then building cars in an all-hands-on-deck flurry. Stacking the pipeline with products like the Model Y and Semi and pickup truck, despite barely managing Model 3 production.
It’s too fast. And the speed hasn’t had a positive impact on Musk’s health.
This isn’t said out of malice, but by all appearances Musk needs help beyond what Ambien can provide. Help that’s within his grasp as a man of means. And help that might ensure a healthier future for both himself and Tesla.
[Image: OnInnovation/FlickrÂ (CC BY-ND 2.0)]