‘Absurd! Absurd!’: Elon Musk interview has bluster but also realism

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Elon Musk had a sit-down conversation with Kara Swisher, business journalist par excellence and co-founder of Recode, Wednesday night. During the 80-minute conversation, Musk said a number of things on a variety of subjects, e.g.: Twitter (“Some people use their hair to express themselves; I use Twitter”); journalists as creators of clickbait (“… the more salacious the headline is, the more clicks it’s gonna get. Then somebody is not a journalist, they are an ad salesman”); the number of hours he spends working (“Now we’re down to 80 or 90. It’s pretty manageable”); and, of course, vehicles.

Some of the things said about technology seems a bit, um, unusual: “The car needs to drive better than a human driver using the same inputs as a human driver. Eyes are basically just cameras.” Why someone wouldn’t avail themselves of inputs that go beyond what a human driver can perceive — as in lidar, radar and ultrasonics — isn’t clear. After all, he also went on to say, “I don’t want to sound overconfident, but I would be very surprised if any of the car companies exceeded Tesla in self-driving, in getting to full self-driving.” I think he is going to be surprised by those companies that are using a sensor array.

But amid the boasts, and bizarreness of some of the things he said to Swisher, there are a couple of comments that may be overlooked but which indicate that Musk is no naïf when it comes to the business of the car industry.

As in: “Running both SpaceX and Tesla is an incredibly difficult. … You realize we’re fighting the incredibly competitive car companies. They make very good cars. They’ve been doing this for a long time. They are entrenched. Mercedes, Audi, BMI, Lexus, you name it.”

So Musk recognizes that the established companies are not to be taken lightly. He seems to know that they’re coming after Tesla, hard.

Then there’s this: “It’s trivial to start a car company. It is insanely difficult to make it successful.”

In a week when Faraday Future seems to have left itself — financially and organizationally — without a future, those words have important resonance. Realize that for all of its hiccoughs and missteps, Tesla is building cars, so many that they’re now completely relevant when industry sales numbers are being calculated. And while there are a number of startup EV companies, they seem to be better at making models than on delivering compelling, unique products, something that Tesla has done. Tesla keeps building cars. The others are coming.

All of this is underscored by Musk’s observation: “So, as a startup, a car company, it is far more difficult to be successful than if you’re an established, entrenched brand. It is that Tesla is alive. ! !”

Cue Samuel Beckett.

But perspicacity doesn’t lead to humility, as Musk said to Swisher: “Tesla cannot die. Tesla is incredibly important for the future of sustainable transport and energy generation.”

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