Chapter 6 Elon Musk and the Triumph of Tech

Bonkers but brilliant

Chapter 6 of Always On is all about Elon Musk, the most charismatic and influential figure in the technology world since Steve Jobs. The chapter tells the story of how in late 2015 I promised my BBC bosses an interview with Musk as the only way of getting them to fund a trip to CES, the vast gadget show that takes place in Las Vegas each January.

They were beginning to tire of the show - “what will be the big theme this year"? “Probably AI..” “Yawn, we had that last year.” So I suggested that I would travel on from Vegas to interview the man whose Tesla and Space X businesses were beginning to revolutionise the car and space industries. While they had only a vague idea of who he was, they approved the trip.

But by the beginning of January, as I landed in Las Vegas, the interview had still not been fixed. Despite three months of wooing Musk’s PR team, it was only a possible. Thankfully, a couple of days in to CES, as we were roaming the vast halls of the Convention Centre, the call came through - we were on.

We borrowed a Tesla and set off to drive from Las Vegas to the company’s design studio on the fringes of Los Angeles airport, gathering shots and rather nervously trying out the car’s Autopilot feature on the way.

We arrived to find what could have been a stage set for a James Bond villain, an airy space with engineers gathered in front of rows of iMacs chewing over some meaty problem and cars hidden under covers. We had a couple of hours to set up for the interview and I paced nervously back and forth, now feeling under pressure to deliver what I had promised back in October - a newsmaking interview.

Here’s an extract from the book:

Suddenly, Musk was there, a surprisingly quiet and unassuming presence, quite different from what I had expected. The interview began, and for the first three or four minutes my anxiety rose. He spoke quietly, in something of a monotone and without animation. Nothing leaped out as a possible soundbite for a news piece.

Then, as we talked about his mission to transform the car industry, things began to liven up. ‘The two biggest revolutions in transport are electrification and autonomy,’ said Musk. ‘Those are the two biggest innovations since the moving production line, and they’re both happening about the same time.’ When I asked him to look forward ten years, he predicted that full autonomy would have arrived, and choosing to drive would be a somewhat eccentric choice, something for which he had a striking phrase: ‘Owning a car that is not self-driving in the long term will be like owning a horse – you would own it and use it for sentimental reasons, but not for daily use.’

Our conversation went on to roam far and wide. Apple was definitely going to make a car – it was ‘an open secret’. (It has not happened yet.) Tesla needed to make a car that most people could afford if it was to make a substantial impact on the world. (If you think the Model 3 at £42,000 is affordable, then he has achieved that.) While we should not be concerned about the AI in Teslas – ‘the car’s not going to develop consciousness’ – we needed to worry a lot about artificial intelligence leading to machines developing a will of their own: a scenario which was going to come ‘faster than anyone appreciates’.

Near the end, in response to a question about what drove him, Musk came up with this: ‘There are some things that are important for the future: sustainable energy, obviously; sustainable transport; ultimately becoming a multi-planet species and travelling out there among the stars.’

A multi-planet species? Travelling among the stars? Job done, I thought. But in some ways the best was yet to come. We had over-run our allotted time, but Musk graciously agreed to stay another five minutes while we got some shots to complete our package – the roughly two-and-a-half-minute report we would offer to the TV bulletins, with a much longer cut of the interview available online.

Musk and I stood chatting around the Model S, with the tycoon pointing out various features of the car. Then he told me about a new feature released in the last 24 hours: a smartphone app called Summon. This would allow Tesla owners to call their cars to them: ‘The car will exit the garage, close the garage behind it, and come over to you.’

Wow, that sounded impressive.

But, said Musk, this was just the first ‘baby step’ of Summon. ‘Ultimately you’ll be able to summon the car from New York if you’re living in LA, and it will drive across the country, charge itself at the various locations and come to you.’

But that must surely be a long way off? I stuttered.

The Tesla founder shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not that long,’ he said. ‘A couple of years.’

As I suspected at the time, that turned out to be a typically over-optimistic prediction from the Tesla tycoon - there is no sign in 2021 of his cars driving themselves solo across the United States.

I summed up the experience of meeting Elon Musk in a blogpost headlined “Bonkers but brilliant”. His PR supremo told me that was disrespectful and wasn’t buying my protestations that back in the UK “bonkers” was a term of affection.

In the years since we met - I’ve not had an interview since - Musk has shown plenty more evidence of his bonkers side, seemingly incapable of going a few days without getting into a social media fight.

Rather like a certain former American President, his weapon of choice is Twitter - whether it’s defaming a British diver who dared to mock his attempt to get involved in the Thai caves rescue, raging against California’s lockdown during the pandemic or misleading investors by claiming he has funding to take Tesla private, earning a slapdown from the regulator.

In recent weeks he has tweeted obsessively about cryptocurrencies, winning first adulation, then abuse, for promoting Bitcoin and then deciding that it’s a threat to the planet.

But amidst all this somewhat tiresome behaviour, he remains a man with big ambitions to use technology to change the world, whether it is making transport sustainable or setting off to explore other planets.

Back in 2013 the entrepreneur Peter Thiel bemoaned the fact that the smartphone era had delivered trivial changes compared with what we’d hoped for in the mid-20th century - “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

But Elon Musk really does want us to take off in flying cars. Like many a genius, he can also be obnoxious - in the space of 280 Twitter characters these days - but without him the technology scene would be a lot duller.

You can see the full uncut 2016 BBC interview with Elon Musk below.

And please buy Always On.

It is available as a hardback, ebook or audiobook here.

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