American Consequences - February 2019

There’s no denying it now: Elon Musk is not the Messiah. But how much does it really matter?

admitted of the mutant Lotus scheme while stoned on a video-streamed podcast last fall. Its new Tesla innards made the Elise significantly heavier and required them to rebuild almost every other feature to compensate. But what Tesla actually accomplished with the Roadster and everything after was the attitude we know – and/or blame – them for today: That so very Silicon Valley cocktail of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous self-righteousness. “The Tesla was the first product that let you ever be both gluttonous and virtuous at the same time,” said MIT business professor David Keith. “You could have the looks and the speed, and also be doing something good for the world.” Consumers’ commitment to the ethos – to the fact that owning a Tesla tells your neighbors something about you, something you really want them to know – has meant they’ve been willing to put up with bumps in the road: “The field quality is not what you would expect of a car that costs $100,000 – say, a Mercedes,” said Keith, invoking the Model S with its famous battery fires and so-called bug fixes. “Yet the people who bought the early Tesla are engaged in the mission to the point that every ‘bug fix’ is a badge of honor.” ‘GLUTTONOUS AND VIRTUOUS AT THE SAME TIME’

Remember, Elon Musk’s defenders keep telling me, “he’s only human.” The reminder has become a common refrain these past nine months among more ardent devotees of the Tesla CEO. His fans and followers have had to accept, amid growing reports of the eco-savior’s erratic behavior and destructive business practices, that there’s a chance he’s not the Messiah. Indeed, throughout a significant chunk of 2018, Tesla’s share price appeared to fluctuate right along with flawed human Elon Musk’s many moods. Which makes sense: His public persona and perpetual dream vision are what define the brand. And he was, at least until now, the primary (if not singular) source of its success. Musk may not be the world-saving eco- messiah certain obsessives make him out to be – but with Tesla he did carry off something akin to a miracle: He made the electric car sexy. The first Tesla, the Roadster, was an entirely different species from the boxy white Ed Begley, Jr.-mobile which, per a Simpsons spoof, ran on the driver’s “sense of self- satisfaction.” The red sports car that Musk debuted a decade ago was conceived as a converted Lotus Elise. It was sin on wheels, adapted for environmental sainthood. Portentously perhaps, his initial plan to retrofit an Elise as an electric vehicle (“EV”) failed utterly: “It was a super dumb strategy,” Musk

By Alice Lloyd

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