The madness of Musk | Book Review — Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla and the Bet of the Century by Tim Higgins

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October 24, 2021 1:30 AM

An interesting attempt to uncover the story behind Elon Musk the man and his business ventures

Under Elon Musk’s command, Tesla has become the highest-valued car manufacturer in the world (AP Photo)Under Elon Musk’s command, Tesla has become the highest-valued car manufacturer in the world (AP Photo)

Elon Musk’s name tosses up extreme emotions among people, ranging from deep admiration to disdain associated with arrogance. This is the issue with most over-successful young entrepreneurs who have brought about a sea change in the way in which they write their stories. Musk, known for SpaceX and Tesla, has been what can be termed as a go-getter who has been aggressive in his quest for fame and achievement.

The curious part of his story is that he made his wealth by co-founding what is now known as PayPal and was actually more passionate in starting SpaceX and trying to get to Mars. The entire story is narrated by Tim Higgins in his book, Power Play, which goes into finer details of the Tesla exercise. Under Musk’s command, Tesla has become the highest-valued car manufacturer in the world. The company has brought to reality the imagination of the tech industry of Silicon Valley by putting vehicles running on batteries in various cities across the globe.

The detailing by Higgins is quite rigorous, though this is not an official biography. The author is quite unpretentious in his narrative and does not hold back from criticising Musk where required, especially when his behaviour was obnoxious with his colleagues. Higgins, a reporter from Wall Street Journal with specialisation in the automotive industry, also says at the end that this draft did go through Musk, who reacted by saying that most of what was written was ‘nonsense’. He also found it boring and dull. The reader can, of course, take a call on this by perusing this rather interesting and page-turning book.

The author, however, has averred that he has based his book on various conversations with hundreds of people involved in Musk’s life and has been through bundles of documents to present a straightforward story based more on facts than interpretations. Clearly, Musk does not agree with everything or rather accepts less of what has been written.

The two pet projects of Musk have been the electric car and the quest to ride to space. Like Bezos and Branson, his passion for achieving his goal has been immense. Reverses have never come in the way of pushing forward and this has been the hallmark of the man. He genuinely believes that he is saving the planet by getting rid of pollution through his EV mode. The principle is simple: get to run a sports car that will generate cash, which will finally be used to go to the mass market.

The car, Model 3, was to be priced at $35,000 which, though very high, was also not feasible as it was to be a people’s car, which it cannot be with this level of entry price. But there were buyers for the story and the commitment of purchase did spur Musk even though it progressively became hard to meet the commitment as costs soared. The concept of having a battery-driven car was always going to be a challenge and the tribulations that Tesla went through are quite fascinating. One problem that still plagues Tesla is getting a grasp on the vulnerability of the battery used: lithium-ion. This was a reason why conceptually cars running on chargeable lithium-ion batteries had long been a nonstarter for car companies considering this option.

An interesting part of the story is that the EV has become a niche product for the affluent than a common man’s utility vehicle. This book must certainly be read by all EV makers in India as there are several lessons to be learnt from the Tesla story. Of course, the advantage of followers is that they can eschew the cost of innovation, which is usually the cross carried by the first mover. Tesla had also tied up with China to set up its manufacturing facility to basically cut down on cost.

While the story is about Tesla, it is also about the man, and given his egotistic level, which is very high for all such ambitious entrepreneurs, there was a run-in with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Musk enraged the SEC by tweeting about pricing Tesla shares at $420, which was a joke intended to amuse his girlfriend. But Musk is not the person to bend to any authority and the arrogance displayed when pulled up has been elaborated quite extensively by Higgins. This involved all charges of violation of corporate governance which, according to the author, were serious.

Elon Musk has clearly gotten some things wrong, including missing deadlines, going on the wrong side of regulators, being brusque and unfair with talented employees, and making several unfulfilled promises. But he has set in motion some great things that will change the world for sure, which is getting the electric vehicle on the road. He has shown how a start-up can grow to become a global force. Higgins does pose the question on whether Musk is an underdog or an antihero or a con man. Or is he a combination of the three? The reader can vote on this after reading the book.

Madan Sabnavis is an independent economist

Book details

Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla and the Bet of the Century
Tim Higgins
Penguin Random House
Pp 377, Rs 799

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