Thomas the Think Engine

Why does Elon Musk make me so cross?

Elon Musk gets on my nerves. Whenever I see him in a headline my teeth start grinding.

But why? I agree with all his goals. I love the idea of clean energy. I want better batteries. I’m excited by colonising the universe and digging cheaper tunnels. So why does his every pronouncement get me upset?

I’ve been dwelling on this recently, and can only conclude it’s because of the lack of public skepticism he encounters.

Whenever I think about the future, I like to consider it in probabilistic terms.  So when I hear Elon Musk talk about using rockets to travel from New York to Sydney in an hour, I naturally try to imagine what the likelihood of this happening is. I generally come up with numbers awfully close to zero.

Apparently other people’s thinking goes off in different directions, wondering about comfort during take off:

I don’t find myself thinking about g-forces. I’m too busy puzzling over why he should be able to make a roof including solar panels for less than the price of a roof. What does he think roof manufacturers have been doing for all this time?

Musk is not short of ambition or afraid to make his life more complex. For example, the original Telsa plan had nothing in it about automation or self-driving. He just bolted that onto the plan, presumably expecting it would be doable if the engineers just tried hard enough.

I remain skeptical.

When people think about the progress of science, they have an awful tendency to be swayed by survivor bias. They think especially about progress in personal electronics – because that’s where the progress is. They infer that technology can utterly transform itself with a decade or two.

But when you take a broader sample, you see something different. For every iPhone that did get invented, a flying car failed to be. While we beat back AIDS, cures for dementia and multiple sclerosis languished. And not for want of effort. You can’t tell in advance which fields will yield to effort.

I was a big fan of an old website called Paleo Future, which goes back and looks at old predictions of the future. They’re mostly silly.

In fifty years, most Musk plans will seem as silly. But they’re being repeated across all forms of media. That credulity, and the adulation that goes with it, really rustles my jimmies.

WHY SO CREDULOUS?

There’s a well-characterised cognitive bias where we think that a person who has success in one field will be able to translate it to another. It’s why former Olympic swimmers get hired by big financial institutions, say. It explains why we think Elon Musk can set up a dozen companies including in busy fields like automotive and tunnelling, and come out a winner.

The other relevant cognitive bias is the base rate fallacy. People ignore the fact that in a given domain (colonising space, say) background probabilities of success are very low. They prefer instead to focus on some other seemingly salient factor, like whether the person making the plan to do so is a genius. (And I’m perfectly willing to admit Musk is.)

Now, the charm of having so many cognitive biases running in your favour, is you can attract a lot of capital and hire a lot of good employees. You get to make a lot of bets at once.  Take one 5 per cent chance, you’re set to fail. But take ten and you have a 40% chance of one of them coming good.

So I’d be surprised if everything Musk tries from hereon turns to poop. He can probably go down in history as a genius inventor. But at the moment he’s getting way ahead of himself.

STRATEGIC THINKER?

Musk’s strategic thinking has worked well so far for Tesla, but past performance is no guarantee of future performance. You only need to look back on his Tesla “Master plan Part Deux” from 2016 to get a sense of how iffy it can be. It contained a very peculiar section on taking the aisles out of buses to make room for more seats. Ignore for a moment that aisles are important to buses – the point is that that kind of fine detail has no place in a strategic plan. Shortly afterward, he walked back the whole section on buses anyway.  The whole thing made me wonder if his success came because of or despite his strategic vision.

It is possible that long before he has a chance to be proven wrong on intercontinental travel, Mr Musk will have a reversal of fortune.

MODEL 3

Tesla’s plan to ramp up production of Model 3s in a new facility looked risky to me from the start. Manufacturing is hard and Tesla is new to doing it at scale. Today we learned initial production of the smaller more affordable car has fallen short.

The company has identified ‘a handful’ of bottlenecks in its production systems and produced way fewer Model 3s than it planned (260 vs an expected 1500). I fear that for a company doing its first ever mass-production, solving that handful will only reveal another handful. Complex systems are interlinked and problems can cascade throughout.

Expecting to move smoothly to mass production was pure hubris – big new projects regularly have huge cost overruns and delays.  (I used to work on Defence projects so I’ve seen cost overruns and delays.) Furthermore, in making its new factory, Tesla skipped a step most manufacturers use, getting all its tooling made before they’d had a dry run. That will save time and cost only if all the systems fit together neatly and as expected.

I understand why they’re rushing. There’s two reasons Tesla must sprint to survive.

First, so much debt has been brought on that they need a lot of sales to pay the interest (with the share price so high I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just issue shares, which don’t need to be periodically refinanced).

So far Tesla burns cash just to stay running. Having big debt and negative cashflow is not sustainable. There’s not many times corporate finance is heart-in-your-mouth terrifying, but Tesla is making it like watching one of those guys in a wingsuit.

Second, the longer they delay the more competitors with proven manufacturing ability can catch up and steal the market. The Chevy Bolt is a proven success and we heard last week that even vacuum manufacturer Dyson is entering the electric car market. A Bloomberg article published today had a huge list of Tesla competitors. Fifty new electric vehicles are going to hit the market in the next five years, from companies with a strong history of making quality products.

I think the Tesla corporate structure needs careful steering to not end up on the rocks. The technology and brand could well be for sale within five years, and gleefully bought up by someone like General Motors or Google. That’d be awful for Tesla investors and employees but mostly fine for society, as the losses incurred in creating all this technological progress would be internalised by all the investors who’ve done their dough.

SHOULD I BE SO MAD?

So am I justified in being so cross at Elon Musk and all the people who believe in him?

One argument is I am not. To the extent that he is making great progress, I should shut up, and to the  extent he is selling risky bets, his main victims are private investors who are welcome to include in their portfolios a few risky bets.

While money will be wasted, technology will also be created. If it has value, that technology will presumably be up for grabs if Tesla (or SpaceX, or Hyperloop) ever needs to make their creditors whole, and society will still be able to benefit from them. From this perspective, the cult of Elon Musk is just a big scheme to get private investors to take the risks of moving science forward. And it’d be awfully pig-headed to be mad at that.

From another perspective, investor money is finite, and we should be careful to steer it toward those schemes with the highest chance of success.

So tell me, dear reader. Am I being too much of a grouch toward Mr Musk?