Tim Urban thinks Elon Musk is "the world's raddest man." It's a long read but it's well worth it.
Here are a few excerpts:
In college, he thought about what he wanted to do with his life, using as his starting point the question, “What will most affect the future of humanity?” The answer he came up with was a list of five things: “the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.”
A lot of people thought SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City were really bad ideas. Despite the odds, although with some set backs, Musk made it happen.
While 2008 hardly marked the end of the bumps in the road for Musk, the overarching story of the next seven years would be the soaring, earthshaking success of Elon Musk and his companies. Since their first three failed launches, SpaceX has launched 20 times—all successes. NASA is now a regular client, and one of many, since the innovations at SpaceX have allowed companies to launch things to space for the lowest cost in history. Within those 20 launches have been all kinds of “firsts” for a commercial rocket company—to this day, the four entities in history who have managed to launch a spacecraft into orbit and successfully return it to Earth are the US, Russia, China—and SpaceX. SpaceX is currently testing their new spacecraft, which will bring humans to space, and they’re busy at work on the much larger rocket that will be able to bring 100 people to Mars at once. A recent investment by Google and Fidelity has valued the company at $12 billion.
Tesla’s Model S has become a smashing success, blowing away the automotive industry with the highest ever Consumer Reports rating of a 99/100, and the highest safety rating in history from the National Highway Safety Administration, a 5.4/5. Now they’re getting closer and closer to releasing their true disruptor—the much more affordable Model 3—and the company’s market cap is just under $30 billion. They’re also becoming the world’s most formidable battery company, currently working on their giant Nevada “Gigafactory,” which will more than double the world’s total annual production of lithium-ion batteries.
SolarCity, which went public in 2012, now has a market cap of just under $6 billion and has become the largest installer of solar panels in the US. They’re now building the country’s largest solar panel-manufacturing factory in Buffalo, and they’ll likely be entering into a partnership with Tesla to package their product with Tesla’s new home battery, the Powerwall.
Critics doubt Musk will be able to deliver on his promises. He wants to send a million people to Mars, but his rockets keep blowing up. He wants to kill the gasoline powered car but he can't make enough of his cars.
But, while his grand gestures inspire awe and curiosity, they often fall short in the execution. Since 2011, Tesla has failed to meet Musk’s product-launch, production, and financial-performance promises more than twenty times, according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal. Even a private showing, in early January, of Tesla’s new Gigafactory, in Storey County, Nevada—which Musk claims is on schedule to mass-produce lithium-ion batteries at rock-bottom costs by 2018—didn’t instill confidence in Musk’s ability to achieve his stated goals. As the Pacific Crest Securities research analyst Brad Erickson said in a note, the tour left “much to the imagination.”
And in September an explosion destroyed an unmanned SpaceX rocket on the launch pad during a fuelling exercise—an incident that called into question the viability of Musk’s radical notion to refuel craft en route, with astronauts on board. A little more than a year earlier, a NASA-funded SpaceX rocket carrying cargo destined for the International Space Station exploded two minutes after lift-off, destroying the payload. A NASA report on that incident raised questions about quality standards at Musk’s company. The first unmanned SpaceX flight since the September accident is scheduled for later this month.
Musk has made really big promises, and now he has to deliver. But there are many signs that indicate he'll fall short.
Musk’s career has had moments of piercing vision. He was a pioneer in online-payments systems and eventually co-founded PayPal—and walked away with about a hundred and sixty million dollars when eBay purchased the company. Tesla itself was an innovative company that made a product that, while affordable to only wealthy people, nonetheless brought the concept of electric cars into the cultural mainstream. But, like Trump, Musk has used limited success to create an aura around himself, one that suggests he is capable of superhuman feats. Musk is certainly an appealing entrepreneur, with ambitious and intriguing ideas that make people want to believe what he promises. He has a large, devoted following. But to keep from losing the public’s attention, he can’t put off delivering much longer.