Visionary or villain? The enigma of Elon Musk

Rocket man: The SEC claimed Musk sent the tweets as a joke to impress his girlfriend, singer Grimes. © Getty

Is he a role model? Elon Musk has blasted US regulators for forcing him to pay a $20 million fine after accusing him of fraud. His behaviour has grown increasingly erratic in recent months.

A thriving city on Mars with everything from “iron foundries to pizza joints”. An electric pod that catapults you between cities at 600 mph.

Welcome to the future according to Elon Musk, visionary entrepreneur and eccentric billionaire.

But recently, he has been hauled down to Earth with a bump.

In September, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined him $20 million (£15.3 million) and forced him to resign as chairman of Tesla, his electric car company, for three years.

He agreed to pay the fine but is still seething about what happened. In an interview yesterday he said he “no respect” for regulators, and that he only paid the fine out of “respect” for the justice system.

The fines relate to a series of tweets he posted, in which he falsely claimed he was planning on taking Tesla private. This broke industry rules by misleading investors.

Musk’s emotional state has grown erratic, tearfully admitting that the toll of Tesla’s struggle to make a profit has left friends “really concerned” for him.

Most bizarrely, in July he groundlessly called Vernon Unsworth, a British diver who helped rescue 12 Thai boys trapped in a cave, a “paedo”.

It is a stark fall from grace for a tech pioneer.

Elon Musk spent his “excruciating” childhood in South Africa, where he was bullied viciously to the point of being hospitalised. Introverted and intelligent, he turned his attention to computers, and by age 10 had taught himself programming. At just 12 years old, he sold a video game for $500.

Musk was an early figure in the internet boom and made his first billion when eBay bought his online payment company Paypal in 2002. He has since launched SpaceX, Tesla and the Boring Company for ventures from rockets to flamethrowers.

His greatest achievement came earlier this year with the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which blasted a Tesla sports car into orbit using reusable launchers.

But as Musk’s ingenuity turns into ignominy, is he a role model?

The mad scientist

No way, say some. While Musk’s ambition can’t be faulted, most of his goals are unrealistic and will see huge sums of money wasted. Tesla has lost billions of dollars and will soon be eclipsed as rivals turn their gaze to electric vehicles. Besides, his behaviour shows him as spoilt, arrogant, irresponsible and cruel. What’s to admire?

We should all take inspiration from him, argue others. Elon Musk’s vision, dedication and boundary-pushing mark him out as a true genius. Yes, his personal conduct has been unbalanced, but that doesn’t take away from his revelatory contributions to human progress. We should seek to emulate his open-minded ambition.

You Decide

  1. Should we admire Elon Musk?
  2. Do you think it is possible to become a billionaire and remain grounded?

Activities

  1. Come up with your own Musk-like ideas for the technology of the future. Let your imagination run wild, and produce a poster explaining your invention.
  2. Produce a biographical page for Elon Musk. Summarise his life in 400 words and finish with a list of his top five achievements.

Some People Say...

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.”

Elon Musk

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Securities and Exchange Commission fined Elon Musk $20 million (£15.3 million) and ordered him to resign as chairman of Tesla over “misleading” investors on Twitter. However, has remained CEO and kept a place on the company’s board. Musk’s unbounded invention and riches are said to have inspired Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Marvel’s Tony Stark in the Iron Man films. In fact, Musk makes a cameo appearance in the franchise’s second film.
What do we not know?
What the long-term impact of the Tesla tweets scandal will be on Musk. The future of the company is also uncertain as it continues to record losses. The billionaire has proved himself unpredictable, so it is impossible to tell whether his future will bring new glories or further disgrace.

Word Watch

Iron foundries
Factories where raw iron is melted and shaped so it can be used. The crust of Mars has about twice as much iron as Earth’s.
Billionaire
Last December, Musk was estimated to be worth £15.5 billion. Experts suggest the recent tweets scandal may have cost him as much as £3 billion.
Securities and Exchange Commission
An independent US government agency responsible for enforcing laws relating to stock markets and trading.
Interview
A 60 Minutes interview with Musk that aired on CBS on Sunday night.
Private
Tesla is currently a public company, which means any member of the public can buy shares in it. When a company goes private, it borrows money to buy back all of its shares from shareholders. Going private can allow companies to focus on long-term goals rather than having to satisfy shareholders in the short-term.
Groundlessly
Musk made the comment after Unsworth dismissed Musk’s offer to rescue the boys using a SpaceX submarine. Unsworth is now suing Musk for defamation.
Falcon Heavy
A mannequin is strapped into the car, which could remain in orbit for millions of years, playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity on repeat.
Ignominy
Public shame or disgrace.