The central appeal of Tesla CEO Elon Musk — whether you love him or hate him or feel some kind of queasy in-between — is his commitment to bad takes. But don’t let the sideshows distract you from the fact that he isn’t much more than a car salesman with an uncertain future.
It’s easy to get distracted, especially when Musk is off being a dangerous idiot. But then Musk will give an interview like he did recently with Automotive News to remind us all that he is, at his core, not much different from some schmo getting paid on commission at the dealership.
Here he is talking about the Cybertruck:
“We’re really, fundamentally making this truck as a North American arse-kicker, basically,” he said. “The goal is to kick the most amount of arse possible with this truck. We want it to be something you could use to tow a boat, a horse trailer, pull tree stumps out of the ground, go off-roading and you don’t have to worry about scratching the paint because there is no paint. You could just be smashing boulders and be fine.”
The goal is to kick the most amount of arse possible.
“It can be a better sports car than a Porsche 911, a better truck than an F-150, and it’s armoured and looks sort of kick-arse from the future. That was the goal, recognising this could be a complete failure,” he said. “But I wasn’t super worried about that because if it turns out nobody wants to buy a weird-looking truck, we’ll build a normal truck, no problem. There’s lots of normal trucks out there that look pretty much the same; you can hardly tell the difference. And sure, we could just do some copycat truck; that’s easy. So that’s our fallback strategy.”
The goal is to look sort of kick-arse and if you dimwits don’t like it fine I will simply make an F-150 clone.
“So it’s probably helpful in the apocalypse,” he said. “Things are seeming more apocalyptic these days. Let me tell you, the truck you want in the apocalypse is the Cybertruck.”
The apocalypse will have charging stations everywhere!
All of these statements are about as awkward and cringe-y as any sales literature, and there is an utter bleakness about the apocalypse comment that’s best not to dwell on for too long. There is also the slapstick hilarity that comes with admitting that the Cybertruck is basically Tesla throwing a dart into the truck market and hoping it lands at the right spot.
But more broadly Elon is being perfectly on brand here, in that his brand, like all car salesmen that have come before him, is to be a little bit of a booster and a little bit of an asshat. Tesla doesn’t spend money on marketing, but that, itself, is marketing, as is its CEO living out his strange public life.
Also marketing? The company teetering for years as it bet the house on one new product after another, since part of the appeal of buying a Tesla is buying a piece of that reality show. But that is pretty much all you get, since Elon also makes clear in the interview that Tesla is his world, and customers are just living in it.
Although Tesla is entering a high-stakes segment with fiercely loyal customers, Musk admitted the truck was not guided by any of the focus groups or outreach to would-be buyers that Ford, Chevrolet and Ram have relied on over the decades to hone their designs.
“Customer research?” he said, before bursting into laughter.
That attitude has a long history in Silicon Valley, but it also goes back at least as far as to Henry Ford, who is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Let’s see how that turned out for Ford, via the Harvard Business Review:
But everything changed with the onset of the innovations introduced by General Motors in the 1920s, which took the direct opposite of Henry Ford’s tack of “Any colour … so long as it is black” and is best summed up by Alfred Sloan’s consumer-research driven “A Car for Every Purse and Purpose,” which aimed to produce cars for distinct market segments aided by:
- Instalment selling
- Used car trade-ins
- Closed car models
- Annual model changes
In light of these, Ford persevered stubbornly with his cycle (now no longer disruptive nor virtuous) and as such, Ford’s response to these new innovations can only be described as tepid at best.
In 1921, the Ford Motor Company sold about 2/3 of all the cars built in the U.S. By 1926, this share had fallen to approximately 1/3. And in 1927, when Ford belatedly responded (at tremendous financial cost and internal strife) to changes in the market’s tastes and competitive innovation by shutting down production temporarily to re-tool his factories and bring the Model A to the market, that percentage fell to about 15 per cent.
The point here isn’t that Elon has been wrong so far with Tesla, or that it’s bad for Elon to talk up the Cybertruck, or even that Cybertruck will be a failure. The point is more that Tesla doesn’t really have much competition right now, and certainly not competition of the game-changing variety that GM offered to Ford a century ago.
We’ll see what happens when that changes, and when Elon might no longer be a car salesman with an edge. But for all of Elon’s aspirations for Tesla to be the new Ford he might also want to see what happens after its founder lost the plot.