It’s taken a little decade for entrepreneur Elon Musk to transform from hi-tech start-up to less than smart upstart.
Yep, this is a man whose Tesla company started out putting electric batteries into Lotus sports cars, set his sights on building a colony on Mars, put one of his vehicles into Earth orbit and now, in a fit of pique on Twitter pits his plant in California against the health and safety of his workforce there.
If that’s not bad enough, on May 1 he managed to wipe some $5 billion (Dh18.36 billion) off his company’s worth with a tweet that its value was simply too high. Some shareholders wonder if that was the only thing that was “high”.
From the very start of this coronavirus crisis, he has been tweeting that COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad flu and that the cure of closing down the American economy — and most of the rest of the world too — is worse that the virus itself
Could anything else go wrong for the 49-year-old wunderkind from Pretoria who seemingly has managed to alienate all but his most ardent hyper-looped fellow space cadets? Or maybe his erratic behaviour simply shows that the pandemic affects different people in different ways — and Musk certainly is different.
From the very start of this coronavirus crisis, he has been tweeting that COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad flu and that the cure of closing down the American economy — and most of the rest of the world too — is worse that the virus itself.
And last week, after California confirmed that it would not be lifting lockdown restrictions anytime soon, Musk threw a twitfit and ordered his 10,000 staff in the factory in Fremont, one of the counties hardest-hit by coronavirus, back to work.
Despite an order from local health authorities prohibiting the manufacture and assembly of non-essential goods, Tesla began churning out vehicles once more. Musk also took to Twitter again, saying that if anyone was to be arrested for violating the order, it should be him.
The local health department capitulated, acceding to his demands that the factory reopen even though production has already re-started. It is a situation that has been months in the making.
By March, when there were just over 15,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the US, he was tweeting that the US would have “close to zero” new cases by the end of April.
“The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he wrote. Tell that to the relatives of the 82,000 and rising dead in the US now.
A few months ago, everything seemed to be going Musk’s way, as he presided over an upstart electric car company that was worth more than General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler combined.
That company, Tesla, had reported profits two quarters in a row, proving that it could earn money even as it grew. Its stock was surging. Musk opened a factory in China and was planning another in Germany.
And his other business, SpaceX, was poised to become the first to ferry Nasa astronauts to orbit from American soil since 2011, a trip scheduled for the end of this month. That’s off for now.
He also claimed vindication by defeating a defamation lawsuit filed by a British driver he had called a “pedo guy.” He was staying out of trouble on Twitter, where he has long antagonised critics and regulators, who fined him $20 million in 2018 for statements he made there.
His partner was pregnant, too, with a son born this month. Even the choice of his son’s name — “X Æ A-12” — seemed to offer a hint that not is all entirely well within the House of Musk. He’s been divorced three times, has five other children and had another who died in infancy.
Born in Pretoria, on June 28, 1971, he’s son of an engineer father and a Canadian-born model mother and left South Africa in his late teens to attend Queen’s University in Ontario. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years and earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and business.
After graduating from the prestigious Ivy League school, Musk abandoned plans to pursue further studies at Stanford University. Instead, he dropped out of school and started Zip 2, a company that made online publishing software for the media industry.
He banked his first millions before the age of 30 when he sold Zip 2 to US computer maker Compaq for more than $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) in 1999. Musk’s next company, X.com, eventually merged with PayPal, the online payments firm bought by internet auction giant eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.
After leaving PayPal, Musk embarked on a series of ever more ambitious ventures and became the chairman of Tesla in 2004. Musk serves as chief executive officer and chief technology officer of SpaceX, which has become a leading supplier of private space launches.
In 2012, SpaceX sent its Dragon cargo ship to the orbiting International Space Station.
After some early crashes and near-misses, SpaceX has also perfected the art of landing booster engines on solid ground and on ocean platforms, rendering them reusable.
He has also promoted research into an ultra-fast ‘Hyperloop’ rail transport system that would transport people at near supersonic speeds.
“He is a visionary who has some key passions which he pursues with vigour,” Jackdaw Research chief analyst Jan Dawson said of Musk. “He doesn’t sit around and wait for people to do something about them; he goes out and does it himself.”
Some of his ideas have prompted questions and he has raised eyebrows with a theory that the world as it is known may be a computer simulation. Musk has also said he wants to make humans an “interplanetary species” by establishing a colony of people living on the Mars.
Back on Earth, Musk’s anger over the Freemont factory led him to threaten moving it out of the state, As it reopened, Musk thanked employees for making “the factory come back to life.”
“I have vastly more respect for someone who takes pride in doing a good job,” he said in an email, “whatever the profession, than some rich or famous person who does nothing useful.” Hmmm.
With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign correspondent based in Europe