Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Elon Musk is more like “The Music Man” con artist Professor Harold Hill than inventive genius Thomas Edison. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There is no there there.”

His Hyperloop Tunnel solution for slashing commute times and car pollution is illustrative. It contemplates a sealed tube or system of tubes in which a pod may travel at ultra-high speeds free of air resistance or friction. Mr. Musk is promising Hyperloop Tunnel travel between New York and Washington, D.C., in a scant 29 minutes. But the promise seems as illusory as a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will. Scientists have faulted the Hyperloop on five counts.

A mishap would kill all the passengers and conductors.

Construction is physically impossible, like cold fusion.

Heat would destroy the Hyperloop track.

Hyperloop would be vulnerable to terrorism.

The costs are understated by orders of magnitude.

But Mr. Musk’s imagination is fertile. He is also promising to revolutionize spaceflight and rescue humans from extinction on earth with Space X. It anticipates travel to the Moon this year with the Falcon Heavy rocket. But during its inaugural launch, the third core booster crashed into the ocean and its payload overshot Mars’ orbit. Falcon reliability is suspect. Earlier versions exploded. The first launch was five years late. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recently voiced safety concerns about SpaceX’s preparations to send astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead of fixing his mind on fixing these safety issues, Mr. Musk has already shifted focus to the BFR, a ‘bigger and better’ rocket that will make the Falcon Heavy rocket obsolete.

There is more. Mr. Musk has touted a “revolutionary” self-driving car. But his cutting-edge vehicle crashed twice in one week during January 2018. One driver denied fault because he was on autopilot. The other was intoxicated and assumed the car would do all the driving. Two years earlier, the driver of Tesla’s self-driving car died in a collision with a semi-truck. He had ignored the road and watched a Harry Potter movie instead. Tesla has neglected to adapt its self-driving vehicle to accommodate these types of predictable human errors or stumbles.

Mr. Musk has boasted that Tesla’s Model 3 would be the company’s crown jewel. But in 2016, the company fell short of its production goal by a factor 26, i.e., the number of cars produced was 1/26 of the projection. Mr. Musk asserted 20,000 Model 3s would be rolling off the assembly lines by December 2017 — almost 10 times greater than the 2,400 vehicles produced. The company’s current targeted forecast is 2,500 Model 3s per week. But during the most recent twelve (12) weeks, only 1,453 were delivered, and current production trajectory is 857 per week.

Tesla has burned through 80 percent of the $3.2 billion raised since March 2017. Its debt has tripled in one year to $3.36 billion. Mr. Musk has thus been placed on a new compensation scheme contingent on meeting certain non-movable targets.

In sum, Elon Musk has feet of clay. He is better at exciting the imagination than producing results. He is no business deity.

But to his credit, Mr. Musk has attracted multitudes of “Musketeers” who admire and salute his audacity and soaring visions. He has taken to a new level Robert Browning’s poetic inspiration, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for.” It is possible that time will vindicate Mr. Musk. Leonardo da Vinci’s “ornithopter” or flying machine took more than three centuries to commercialize. But as a concession to the shortness of life, we must plan and act in the short run. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes observed, “we are all dead.”

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