History hasn’t been kind to visionaries. Giordano Bruno, the first astrologist to ponder the infinite universe, was tried as a heretic and burnt at the stake. Nikola Tesla was ridiculed as a mad scientist and died in penniless obscurity. Steve Jobs was fired from the company which he built.
And then we have Elon Musk, who has just released part two of his ‘Master Plan to less-than-enthusiastic fanfare.
Part one of the Master Plan came out 10 years ago. At the time, it raised a few industry eyebrows for its lofty ambitions. Those ambitions included building an electric sports car, using the revenue from that car to build a mass-market electric car, and providing “zero-emission electric power generation options.” Needless to say, he smashed those goals — and broke records along the way.
When he penned part one of the Master Plan in 2006, he was still regarded as somewhat of a kook, who had 160 staff members holed up in a Southern Californian facility tasked with building rockets for space travel. In 2005, when asked who would want to buy space rockets, Musk replied, “NASA will buy from us.”
Big defence and aerospace contractors probably snickered at the time. How could a small startup built from scratch compete with industry behemoths like Boeing? But as the Bush administration slashed public funding for the space program, Musk was steadfast in his goals to run supplies to the International Space Station. “I don’t know of anyone besides SpaceX that could realistically do it in the time frame under consideration, within the next five years,” he said. Musk was wrong. It actually took seven years before SpaceX would make history as the first privately held company to trade with NASA.
Returning to part two, or as Musk calls it, “Part Deux” of the Master Plan: it picks up where its predecessor left off. Only this time, Musk lights up his true agenda in (solar powered) lights, and broadcasts it to the world.
“The main reason [for the Master Plan] was to explain how our actions fit into a larger picture, so that they would seem less random. The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good. That's what "sustainable" means. It's not some silly, hippy thing — it matters for everyone.”
“By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse. Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better.”
The next portion of Part Deux outlines the new goals Musk has crafted for himself, and Tesla at large.
Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage.
Musk plans to do this by merging SolarCity and Tesla.
Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments.
In order for electric vehicles to contribute toward bettering climate change, they need to take over public transport systems and produce trucks and SUVs.
Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning.
Despite the recent fatality caused by a self-driving Tesla vehicle, Musk is doubling down on autonomous transport.
Enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it.
Enable Tesla owners to lease out their cars in order to bring down ownership costs, helping ease electric cars into the mass-market.
Tackling climate change. Making electric cars more affordable. Saving the world. In an age when we’re perilously close to electing a Cheeto-hued fascist, you’d think Elon Musk is the hero we need right now. But you’ve probably seen The Dark Knight, so what happens next pretty much sticks to the script.
The L.A. Times posted a snarky retort, highlighting his failures (which, according to them, includes a failed marriage) before castigating him back into the mad scientist trope:
“It’s unclear what Musk’s primary drivers are, but if you take him at his word, it’s creating a human civilization on Mars while solving energy problems on Earth.”
Needless to say, the automotive industry — heavily funded by big oil, which has a lot invested in not saving the world — was quick to offer swift admonishments.
Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Autotrader, told The L.A. Times:
“As is typical, Elon Musk has laid out a grandiose plan for the future with no time frames and few specifics, and no mention of how and when Tesla will be profitable.”
And therein lies the rub.
Musk has historically thumbed his nose at these financial power players, refusing to turn Spacex into a publically traded company until after his mission to Mars is complete. “I just don’t want it to be controlled by some private equity firm that would milk it for near-term revenue,” he told Aeon Magazine in 2014. ‘That would be terrible.’
The markets reacted to Part Deux of the Master Plan, and Tesla’s stock dropped by approximately 3%. “We still don’t think [the merger] a good use of capital,” a senior analyst told ValueWalk, referencing Musk’s plan to merge SolarCity and Tesla.
But Musk is no stranger to criticism, even acknowledging the likelihood of an upcoming attack in Part Deux.
“Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face, accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people, implying that we felt there was a shortage of sports car companies or some other bizarre rationale. Unfortunately, the blog didn't stop countless attack articles on exactly these grounds, so it pretty much completely failed that objective.”
The stock markets and paint-by-the-number analysts may pooh-pooh Musk’s ambition, even in light of his remarkable ability to keep his word. Alas, Musk doesn’t have time to entertain bland speculations on his “overly ambitious” goals. He’s too busy shooting for the stars.
After all, Elon Musk has attracted a cult-like following of fans for his commitment to invigorate a wounded space program, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. He has also attracted many comparisons to fictional superhero Tony Stark, with Musk himself quick to wink at the analogy.
Musk has a keen eye for predicting the trajectory of his future endeavors. Naming his electric car empire after Nikola Tesla was perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the skepticism his enterprise would face.
But unlike Tesla's namesake, Musk isn’t in danger of fading into obscurity anytime soon.