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Musk: From technology superhero to internet villain

Unseemly spat with heroic cave diver adds fuel to the fire for the entrepreneur’s critics

Gulf News

Elon Musk’s life can rarely be labelled boring. The billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX was part of the inspiration for Tony Stark, the charismatic protagonist of the 2008 film Iron Man.

But in the space of two months, Musk has seen his public image go from possible saviour of humanity to internet troll after a series of bizarre incidents culminated on Sunday night, when he baselessly accused a diver who recently helped rescue 12 Thai boys trapped in a cave of being a paedophile.

Musk, 47, had tried to help the cave rescue by providing a purpose-built metal submarine, which he claimed could be used to transport the children out of the cave safely.

For a while, it looked like Musk’s miniature metal submarine would arrive just in time to help rescue the remaining trapped children.

But the device ended up left outside the cave when the rescue team said that “the equipment they brought to help us is not practical with our mission.”

Musk travelled to Thailand, looking to help, but did not take kindly to having his rescue efforts spurned. On Sunday, he accused rescue diver Vernon Unsworth of being a “pedo guy” and implied that the fact he lived in Thailand was suspicious.

Unsworth said he was considering legal action against Musk over his comments. [Musk has apologised to a Briton, saying that remarks about Unsworth were unjustified].

The incident comes at a time of stress for Musk as his electric car company Tesla is attempting to dramatically increase production of its Model 3 sedans.

Musk said in a recent interview with Bloomberg that he has taken to sleeping in his office at Tesla to oversee production of the cars. The company set a production target of 5,000 vehicles per week, which it finally hit at the start of July. In June, Musk announced that Tesla would cut 9 per cent of jobs as it attempted to become profitable for the first time. “The past year has been very difficult, but I feel like the coming year is going to be really quite good,” Musk said.

For most technology executives, spending days sleeping on the floor of their office would be a worrying sign, evidence that they were at breaking point. But for Musk, it is almost to be expected.

When he started his first company Zip2 in 1995, he “never seemed to leave the office — he slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk”, wrote biographer Ashlee Vance. Musk went on to sell Zip2 to Compaq and received $22 million (Dh80.79 million) from the sale. Those proceeds started the fortune which he went on to use to fund both Tesla and his space rocket development company SpaceX.

The success of both has made him worth an estimated $20 billion, but recent months have seen Musk go from technology superhero to an erratic figure.

Tesla’s results call in May saw Musk becoming increasingly frustrated with analysts who asked questions about the business. “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool,” Musk said in response to a question about Tesla’s capital expenditure projection.

“These questions are so dry. They’re killing me,” he also said after being asked about pre-orders for the Model 3.

Days later, Musk purchased the website pravduh.com, a play on the name of the Soviet newspaper, which he said would become a site to rate journalists for accuracy.

The announcement came after Musk criticised journalists for what he called unfair coverage of Tesla’s safety record and business.

“The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them,” Musk tweeted.

Soon after, Musk was drawn into a bizarre fight with Tom Edwards, an artist who designed a mug featuring a cartoon spewing unicorn, a design which Tesla integrated into the electronic dashboard of its latest cars.

Edwards requested payment for use of his design, but Musk tweeted that a lawsuit from the artist would be “lame” and said that Edwards should be grateful. “He can sue for money if he wants, but that’s kind of lame,” Musk said. “If anything, this attention increased his mug sales.”

Days after Tesla hit its production goal of 5,000 Model 3 sedans per week in early July, Musk launched an attack on a journalist who had published critical stories on his company using information from a source inside the business.

Musk called Business Insider writer Linette Lopez “sketchy” and demanded that she publicly say that she had not bribed her source to give her information about Tesla.

These recent incidents have eroded any goodwill that Musk retains. His company could previously rely on Musk’s star quality to generate breathless, excitable coverage of his every announcement.

While the traditional automotive industry has always been wary of Musk, he has historically been able to count on the technology world to treat him like a hero.

That mask now appears to be slipping. It may be no coincidence that Musk’s erratic behaviour comes at the same time that questions are being asked about Tesla’s ability to match its ambitious promises.

What will worry investors is the reverse effect: The day after Musk launched his personal attack on Unsworth, Tesla’s shares dropped by 3.6 per cent.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018

James Cook is special correspondent at The Telegraph covering technology

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