🔗 Elon Musk's Freudian Slip


First published: .

Up until a few months ago, I haven't really paid much attention to the escapades of Elon Musk and his companies. I knew Tesla existed, I knew SpaceX existed, I didn't know about his other ventures though, such as the Boring Company and Neuralink. I've only started to look into the professional life of the blabbiest blab on the blob when more and more Tesla vehicles started showing up on Israeli roads. And it's been a great source of comedy for me recently. I feel like I've discovered a TV show long into its run and am now binge watching it from the start.

Musk has been making some fanciful claims about what he's going to do for years now. Some of his most prominent claims and promises were:

  1. Building and selling affordable all-electric cars.
  2. Building cars that will drive you where you need to go instead of the other way around, and that will make you $30,000 a year when used as robotaxis.
  3. Building cars that could be summoned and who would drive themselves all the way from NY to LA at the push of a button.
  4. Building cars that sport rocket thrusters and could potentially fly.
  5. Boring tunnels using rocket technology at large scales and much cheaper than current technologies, and that would also enable low-cost housing.
  6. Solving traffic issues by creating an automated, super-cheap, high-speed transportation service on top of a massive network of underground tunnels, which is really not that hard, apparently.
  7. Creating a rocket-based transportation service that could take people anywhere on Earth in about 40 minutes.
  8. Making space travel cheaper by reusing rockets many times with almost no downtime.
  9. Sending thousands of humans to Mars on giant rockets with zero-g games, movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant and a lot of fun in order to build a colony on Mars, which is apparently something we should want to do.
  10. Building a humanoid robot that would alleviate humanity of menial work.
  11. Many more.

Huge amounts of money were raised, spent and moved based on these claims. When I watch videos of Musk speaking publicly or being interviewed, he appears to be quite uncharismatic, especially for a person making such bold claims. He stammers a lot and can hardly complete a full sentence without switching to a different one mid-speak; but he masks this with impressive CGI renderings and various numbers that make people happy. And confidence. A whole lot of confidence. In fact, he uses the words "I'm quite confident" so much that I now associate the word "confidence" with him.

And the people are loving it. He just says that something incredibly complicated will happen, and not only that, it will be much cheaper than what we have today, and the crowd goes wild. He says that it's actually much easier than you think, and people just take it at face value. In that, I believe Musk is doing a great disservice to the legacy of those who designed and built the truly massive, truly global infrastructure that serves us on our daily lives. From reading comments of Musk's fans online, the impression is that they believe that those who designed and built infrastructure/transportation services/cars up until now were incompetent idiots, and finally there's someone who knows how to get things done.

"Never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing."

― Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

Even if by some form of miracle these promises ever get to be fulfilled, many of them are already overdue by Musk's own predictions. He practically always provides a timeline for when his projects are going to be completed―often "by end of next year"―and he and other executives of his companies either preface these timeline statements with "I'm quite confident", "I think", or just go all-in and boldly claim that it is going to happen.

Twitter, Reddit and YouTube are constantly full of people arguing either for or against Musk's promises and ventures, and the subject of these missed timelines is a common feature. Musk/Tesla fans seem to give a lot of gravity to anything Musk says, and it's hard to find text by these fans that doesn't also mention the Tesla stock. Everything seems to start and end with the stock for these fans. "To the moon!" they exclaim, whatever the Tesla/Musk-related news say.

In a nauseating interview with Chris Anderson, curator of TED, earlier this year, the following exchange occurred:

CA: "All right, so we need to talk more about batteries, because the key thing that I want to understand, like, there seems to be a scaling issue here. That is kind of amazing and alarming. You have said that you have calculated that the amount of battery production that the world needs for sustainability is 300 terawatt hours of batteries. That's the end goal?"

EM: "Very rough numbers, and I certainly would invite others to check our calculations because they may arrive at different conclusions. But in order to transition, not just current electricity production, but also heating and transport, which roughly triples the amount of electricity that you need, it amounts to approximately 300 terawatt hours of installed capacity."

CA: "So we need to give people a sense of how big a task that is. I mean, here we are at the Gigafactory. You know, this is one of the biggest buildings in the world. What I've read, and tell me if this is still right, is that the goal here is to eventually produce 100 gigawatt hours of batteries here a year eventually."

EM: "We will probably do more than that, but yes, hopefully we get there within a couple of years."

CA: "Right. But that's still 1/100 of what's needed. How much of the rest of that 100 is Tesla planning to take on, let's say, between now and 2030, 2040, when we really need to see the scale up happen?"

EM: "I mean, these are just guesses. So please, people shouldn't hold me to these things. It's not like this is like some... What tends to happen is I'll make some like, you know, best guess and then people, in five years, there’ll be some jerk that writes an article: 'Elon said this would happen, and it didn't happen. He's a liar and a fool.' It's very annoying when that happens. So these are just guesses, this is a conversation."

Today, I am that jerk. This exchange begins with Anderson asking Musk about estimations he's made. Musk clarifies that they were very rough numbers, and invites "others" to check Tesla's calculations. So this is an instance where Musk admits he isn't confident about his predictions, but then he immediately goes on to provide a "hopeful" timeline. Anderson points out that this is far from what's needed (again, according to Musk himself), and asks Musk to provide a capacity estimation for the next decade or two. Which leads to the most shocking answer possible: "these are just guesses."

Now, you might say that Musk is referring purely to the issue at hand (future production capacity of the Texas Gigafactory), and that one should excuse this lover of humanity one instance of guessing (although I doubt that factory was built on guesses). But Musk immediately goes on to claim that what tends to happen is that he'll make some "best guess", and in five years it wouldn't happen, and people would complain. Holy. Fucking. Shit. So these are all just guesses! Musk shouldn't be held on to these things, they're just guesses! I wonder if Musk's companies preface their investor pitches with the words "these are just guesses, don't hold us to this."

So, since Musk doesn't provide clear boundaries to what constitutes guesses and what doesn't, I am left with several questions:

How far do these guesses go? What is their scope? I don't know how this incredible revelation from the man whose net worth is about 1,202,606 times the median net worth of Americans his age group did not get more attention from the press. I almost choked when I heard it. That the owner and CEO of several high-valued companies will ask people to not hold him to his "guesses" seems absolutely crazy to me.

Note: I do not hold any position in Tesla (neither long nor short) or other Musk-related ventures. I once made a few shekels by buying and selling a few Tesla shares right after the botched unveiling of the elusive CyberTruck. Thanks Elon!