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Tale Of Tesla, Elon Musk Is Inherently Dramatic And Compellingly Told In 'Power Play'

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at court during the SolarCity trial in Wilmington, Del., on July 13.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at court during the SolarCity trial in Wilmington, Del., on July 13.

Elon Musk has gotten a lot of things wrong. He's blown deadlines, pissed off regulators, driven away talented employees, and made unfulfilled promises that ran the gamut from unrealistic to absurd.

But he got some things — some big, fortune-making and world-transforming things — right. He believed the world had an unmet appetite for electric cars. He thought a California startup could upend the global auto industry. And time and again, when Tesla's future seemed doomed, he (quite literally) gambled that the company could pull through, and he won.

That's the story at the heart of Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, And The Bet of The Century. The latest take on the Tesla saga, from Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins, eschews sensationalism for a high-resolution portrait of how exactly an unusual man and an unusual company managed a meteoric rise.

The book starts with a detailed account of Tesla's turbulent origins in the early 2000s. Although the company is now essentially synonymous with Elon Musk, he didn't come up with the idea. Musk, who made rich by co-founding what we now know as PayPal, was much more focused on starting SpaceX and trying to get to Mars.

But a handful of people in California were stuffing lithium-ion batteries into cars, and dreaming big dreams. And they kept asking Musk for money. A young engineer who wanted to revolutionize transportation got $10 grand (and later, a crucial job). A couple guys who wanted to make an electric car for the masses got rebuffed. But two Silicon Valley types who wanted to sell a high-end electric sports car — they got a multi-million-dollar investment. And with it, a lot more than they'd bargained for.

Musk had a sharper and more ambitious vision for the company's future, one that merged the ideas of everyone who'd pitched to him. It went like this: Make that sports car, build buzz and cash, expand enormously to go mass-market, and save the world. And he wielded battle-hardened boardroom tactics that paved the way for him to consolidate control of the company and eventually install himself as CEO.

So no, Tesla wasn't Musk's idea. But it became his all-consuming mission. You'd almost call it single-mindedness, except that Musk is perpetually multi-minded, juggling SpaceX, solar panels, Tesla, tunnels, flamethrowers and whatever whim occurs to him. But throughout it all, he relentlessly pushed for Tesla to dominate the market and turn the auto industry on its head. It worked — Tesla has built a best-selling car, and now virtually every major carmaker is planning to pivot to electric vehicles. And the bulk of Higgins' book explores how, exactly, Musk beat the odds and did the dang thing.

The answer involves a lot of near-misses, Musk investing virtually his entire fortune in the company, frantic fights to secure funding and battery supplies, and herculean efforts to solve would-be disastrous engineering challenges, including the fact that lithium-ion batteries like to catch on fire. Many people contributed to the story, but it also involves an awful lot of Elon Musk being Elon Musk — impulsive, stubborn, exacting, erratic, unpersuadable.

Musk is — at the risk of extreme understatement — a polarizing figure. Fans see a genius, foes see a fraudster, and some people seem to waffle back and forth depending on the latest headlines. Higgins frames the question, Carrie Bradshaw-style, like this: "You couldn't help but wonder: Is Elon Musk an underdog, an antihero, a con man, or some combination of the three?" Higgins is fairly even-handed on the question and, ultimately, not terribly interested in it. He focuses less on Musk's character, and more on the machinations that created his success.

Musk, of course, has a take on the book — calling it mostly but not entirely nonsense and declaring it "both false and boring" on Twitter in response to a comment about a disputed event.

The book pays scant attention to Full Self-Driving Autopilot, the controversial self-driving software Musk has long promised is on the verge of perfection. It also barely glances at the Supercharger network of vehicle chargers that's been a key part of Tesla's success story.

But Higgins is generally quite even-handed when it comes to assessing Musk's decisions.

And, in truth, the book is hardly boring: The tale of Tesla's ascent is inherently dramatic and compellingly told. It is, perhaps, a little repetitive. Tesla almost runs out of money, Musk raises the cash — and repeat, and repeat. Musk demands the impossible from employees, they deliver — and repeat, and repeat. Musk gets mad and fires someone, and repeat — a lot.

But the most interesting elements of the book, perhaps, are the hints at what might have been. Tesla could have built a plug-in hybrid, or sold itself to Google, or become a battery supplier to the big dogs of the auto world. The fact that Elon Musk would seize the steering wheel, double down on all-electric vehicles, bet his fortune on Tesla's success and shift the trajectory of the entire auto industry was never inevitable.

It's just what happened.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.