Before we had kings and queens. We still have them (Buckingham still sells, like the noisy release of Harry and Meghanthe Netflix documentary), but in addition we now have the people section of the business world: who is the richest man in the world today, what is the latest Elon Musk escapade, will Donald Trump find his Twitter account?
In practically every one of these episodes, we see the name of the turbulent boss of SpaceX and Tesla pop up. Since his takeover of Twitter, a new season has started in the Elon Musk series, and all those who hate the character (they are probably even more than those who adore him) love it: each episode reinforces them in their convictions.
It must be admitted that the character cannot be indifferent. But the question is not to know whether we like it or not to like it, it is to see what it does and to know what traces its action will leave. We have to recognize that whatever his failures or the exaggerated nature of his victory, he will leave a mark in the economic history of the early 21st century.e century.
Errors and inappropriate statements
Everything said by those who do not support it is based on real facts. Many of his statements or his tweets can be classified as nonsense, and his companies are far from all successes. The list would be long because the man is certainly very enterprising and he does not hesitate to give resounding bugle calls to hail each of his initiatives.
Who still remembers the Boring Company, which with such a name could only be an Elon Musk company, with at the same time a serious side (from the verb ought todrill, dig) and a sign of mockery (from the adjective boring, boring)? This invention is worthy of the man who smoked joints on TV or chose to buy back Twitter shares at the extravagant price of $54.20, because 420 in California is the time (4:20 p.m.) when one might legitimately want to light a fireworks.
The Boring Company, created in 2016, was supposed to allow car traffic in tunnels and solve the problem of traffic jams in big cities. Currently, the only realization is a tunnel under the Las Vegas Convention Center in which only Tesla can circulate; the first section could not avoid traffic jams during the inauguration, and only another station could be opened in June this year, when the project has fifty-five; no other project could succeed. The image of Las Vegas that appears on the opening page of the Boring Company site will likely remain there for some time to come, pending another realization.
Another big announcement was the revolution in high-speed transport, where the capsules traveled at almost the speed of sound in low-pressure tubes to limit air resistance. It was the Hyperloop project that was launched in 2013. In fact, Elon Musk came up with the idea and then let his company SpaceX organize project launches funded and managed by other companies. This is how the British Richard Branson set off on the Virgin Hyperloop One adventure, which this year abandoned the idea of transporting passengers in this way and decided to limit its use to cargo.
A few projects, like the French-Canadian company Transpods, appear to have made good progress, but at the SpaceX site in California, the tube built to test the Hyperloop is being torn down.
Two real successes … mainly due to public money
Elon Musk’s only real successes are SpaceX and Tesla. However, the start of these two activities was difficult. Launch pads exploded and early rocket recovery attempts failed, early Teslas had major quality problems, and the autopilot program caused numerous crashes, some fatal.
Today, SpaceX is a key player in the space adventure, and Tesla’s successes have forced all other automakers to greatly accelerate the completion of their electric car programs.
But even the successes raise questions about the benefit, to society as a whole, of the hyperactivity of personalities like Elon Musk. It is true that our national hero Thomas Pesquet could not have reached the International Space Station in April 2021 without the Falcon 9 launch vehicle developed by SpaceX. But the money Elon Musk made in his previous ventures, especially with the resale of Paypal to eBay for 1.5 billion dollars, would not have been enough to allow him to finance all his projects. This notorious libertarian has been able to capture public money for his benefit.
For space, he was able to take advantage of the financial assistance of NASA for several billion dollars and the technical assistance of the engineers of this federal agency. For Tesla, he would have obtained at least $3.2 billion from the state of California in subsidies and carbon credits given to manufacturers of electric cars, making Gavin Newsom, current governor of California, say that Tesla might never have existed if not for his state’s generous climate policy. The state must be fought when it demands taxes and passes laws, but the money it pays does not smell bad…
This method of financing Elon Musk’s flagship companies should bring those who are in awe of the American model of free enterprise and condemn state intervention to more realism: the greatest industrial successes of this world, whether they are from the United States, China, Japan or South Korea owe their existence to the active assistance of states, regardless of the political regime of these states and the ideology they subscribe to.
Also, the overabundance of Elon Musk’s projects is troubling to say the least. We recently learned that despite Russian attacks on the country’s infrastructure, Ukraine was still able to communicate thanks to the Starlink network of satellites launched by SpaceX. It is to be congratulated.
But this project of a constellation of satellites that will give the world access to the Internet, if carried out, must include/comprehend 12,000 satellites placed in low orbit; to give an idea of what this represents, it must be remembered that a total of only about 2,000 satellites, including a thousand due to Starlink, are currently in activity around the Earth. And already scientists are worried about clutter in the sky and the risks posed by space debris. This does not prevent SpaceX in its latest projects from talking about 30,000 satellites! Fortunately, his idea of bringing 1 million people to Mars by 2050 is just a fantasy.
Tesla’s success isn’t even good news for the environment. Because Elon Musk, who is flawed but not stupid, quickly realized that building an affordable electric motor vehicle that could be sold to everyone was a potentially disastrous adventure. From the beginning, he preferred to place himself in the niche of a very wealthy clientele, to whom he first offered a roadster, then large sedans, finally an SUV, which from the point of view of the fight against global warming of the climate little interest: to build powerful and heavy cars that require large batteries are heresy if the goal is to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
From a strictly ecological point of view, it would have been much preferable to work first on small electric city cars to make the atmosphere of cities more breathable. Less spectacular, the work done by Renault to develop the Zoe was much more interesting. But of course it is much more profitable to produce top-of-the-range vehicles that people with money can buy with a good ecological conscience. This is also the policy that most major car manufacturers now follow. The climate is good.
Dream or nightmare?
His admirers will say that Elon Musk sells dreams. But what dream is it? To tell the truth, his projects make us less dreamy, as it is very difficult to know what he really has in mind. In 2014, he declared that artificial intelligence was a danger to humanity and that it should be regulated; the following year, he created OpenAI to ensure that artificial intelligence would benefit all of humanity.
But all his action on Twitter and his fierce opposition to the containment measures against Covid-19 show that he is fundamentally hostile to any regulation. That the work being done within OpenAI to connect text and image, for example allowing an artificial intelligence to draw a radish walking its dog, is a bit of fun, but other more significant applications are arguably under investigation.
As for the humanoid robot Optimus that was presented at the last Tesla AI Day, it honestly made people laugh with its poor abilities; and the plan to sell it in millions of copies has often been interpreted as another bluff. But don’t underestimate Elon Musk.
The man has ideas and he follows them when he really wants to. Those who have dared to criticize him in his various ventures have learned this the hard way. The way he took control of Twitter is another illustration of this. Anyone who might have challenged his plans was fired, the staff was reduced by about 3,700 people, it seems to be mostly women, and the word was released on the site at its most sickening.
At Neuralink, his company, where an “augmented” man is being prepared, able to communicate with computers through a chip implanted in the brain, many more animals would have been killed during the experiments than would have been necessary, according to the claims of employees in the company. But Elon Musk would not have listened to the warnings: He wanted quick results. A federal investigation is ongoing.
A force to be reckoned with
In short, in all of his many activities, this entrepreneur has managed to enforce his ideas with often brutal methods, and from cars to space, he forces his competitors to pay attention to his strategy. Even in areas where he does not intervene directly, such as cryptocurrencies, his tweets play a big role. Such power should make you think.
If you look at what other business leaders have done in the past, this is nothing new. Henry Ford, who wanted to make cars that his workers could afford, did more than any political leader more than a century ago to steer the world toward mass consumption. The entrepreneurs who launched the first personal computers and Bill Gates, with his operating systems, changed our daily lives more than any five-year plan.
The question today of Elon Musk’s place in economic life is therefore to know what consequences his decisions can have on a global level. From this point of view, Emmanuel Macron was right to meet him during his last trip to the United States. Make no mistake, though: Musk can be a useful partner in certain projects, but he can also be the source of highly questionable initiatives that should be opposed. Like it or not, it is as important to discuss with him as with other heads of state; its power is not of the same nature, but it must not be neglected.