Before, we had kings and queens. We still have them (Buckingham still sells, as the noisy release of Harry & 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 he find his Twitter account?
In practically each of these episodes, we see the name of the turbulent boss of SpaceX and Tesla appear. 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 numerous than those who idolize him) love it: each episode reinforces them in their convictions.
It must be admitted that the character cannot leave indifferent. But the question is not to know if we like it or if we don’t like it, it is to watch what it does and to know what traces its action will leave. We have to recognize that, whatever his failures or the excessive character of his victory slips, he will leave a mark in the economic history of the beginning of the 21st century.e century.
Failures and inopportune declarations
Everything said by those who do not support it is based on real facts. Many of his declarations or his tweets are to be classified as nonsense and his companies are far from being 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 salute each of his initiatives.
Who still remembers the Boring Company which, with such a name, could only be an Elon Musk company, with simultaneously a serious side (from the verb borondrill, dig) and a sign of derision (from the adjective boring, boring)? This invention is worthy of the man who smoked joints on TV or chose to buy back Twitter shares for the extravagant price of $54.20, because 420 in California is the time (4:20 p.m.) which one can quite legitimately want to light a firecracker.
The Boring Company, created in 2016, was to allow car traffic in tunnels and solve the problem of traffic jams in large cities. For the moment, the only realization is that of a tunnel under the Convention Center of Las Vegas, in which can circulate only Tesla; the first section could not avoid traffic jams during its inauguration and only a second station could be opened in June of 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 is likely to remain there for some time to come, awaiting another realization.
Another big announcement was the revolution in high-speed transport, with capsules traveling almost at the speed of sound in low-pressure tubes to limit air resistance. It was the Hyperloop project, launched in 2013. In fact, Elon Musk came up with the idea and then let his company SpaceX organize project launches financed and managed by other companies. This is how Briton Richard Branson set off on the Virgin Hyperloop One adventure, which this year abandoned the idea of transporting passengers this way and decided to limit its use to freight.
A few projects, such as those of the French-Canadian company Transpod, seem to have made good progress, but at the SpaceX site in California, the tube that was built to test the Hyperloop is being demolished.
Two real successes… largely due to public money
Elon Musk’s only real successes are SpaceX and Tesla. However, the start of these two activities was laborious. Launchers exploded and early rocket recovery attempts failed, early Teslas had major quality issues, and the Autopilot program caused numerous crashes, some of which were fatal.
Today, SpaceX is a key player in the space adventure and Tesla’s successes have forced all other automakers to sharply accelerate the completion of their electric motor car programs.
But even the successes raise questions about the benefit, for 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 launcher developed by SpaceX. But the money earned by Elon Musk in his previous ventures, notably 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 benefit from 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 motor cars, which makes Gavin Newsom, current governor of California, say , that Tesla might never have existed if not for his state’s generous climate change policy. The State is to be fought when it claims taxes and enacts 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 denounce state intervention to more realism: the greatest industrial successes in this world, whether whether those of the United States, China, Japan or South Korea owe their existence to the active aid of States, whatever the political regime of these States and the ideology to which they adhere.
Moreover, the excessiveness of Elon Musk’s projects is worrying to say the least. We recently learned that despite Russian attacks on its 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 intended to allow a world access to Internet, if it is carried out, must include/understand 12.000 satellites placed in low orbit; to give an idea of what this represents, it should be remembered that in total only about 2,000 satellites, including a thousand due to Starlink, are currently in activity around the Earth. And already, scientists are worried about the clutter in the sky and the risks created 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 only a fantasy.
Tesla’s success isn’t even good news for the environment. Because Elon Musk, who has a lot of faults but is not stupid, quickly realized that building an affordable electric motor vehicle that could be sold to everyone was a potentially ruinous adventure. From the outset, he preferred to position 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 climate, is of little interest: building powerful and heavy cars requiring huge batteries is heresy if the objective is to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
From a strictly ecological point of view, it would have been much preferable to first work 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, producing top-of-the-range vehicles with which people who have money can buy themselves a good ecological conscience is much more profitable. This is also the policy now followed by most major car manufacturers. 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 all the 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 the Covid-19 show that he is fundamentally hostile to any regulation. That the work being done within OpenAI on linking text and image, for example, allowing an artificial intelligence to draw a radish walking its dog is kind of fun, but other more substantial applications are arguably in the study. OpenAI’s latest chatbot, ChatGPT, gives a pretty startling glimpse of what’s to come.
As for the humanoid robot Optimus presented at the last Tesla AI Day, it frankly made people laugh with its poor abilities; and the plan to sell it millions of copies has often been interpreted as one more bluster. 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 undertakings 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, mostly women it seems, and the floor was released on the site in its most nauseating .
At Neuralink, his company in which an “augmented” man is preparing, able to communicate with computers through a chip implanted in the brain, many more animals would have been killed during the experiments than this would have been necessary, according to the assertions of employees of the company. But Elon Musk would not have listened to the warnings: he wanted quick results. A federal investigation is underway.
A power to be reckoned with
In short, in all of his many activities, this entrepreneur has succeeded in imposing his ideas with often brutal methods and, from cars to space, he forces his competitors to take his strategy into account. Even in areas where he does not directly intervene, such as cryptocurrencies, his tweets play a major 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 his workers could afford, did more a century ago to steer the world toward mass consumption than any political leader. 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 posed today by the place taken by Elon Musk in economic life is therefore to know what consequences his decisions may 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, however: Musk can be a useful partner on certain projects, but he can also be the source of very 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 is not to be neglected.