Tesla's story has been such a soap opera that it's hard to know which twists and turns are worth heeding. Tesla CEO Elon Musk's pathos-laden interview published Friday by The New York Times might seem like just another distraction, but it's probably as important as anything to do with Tesla's manufacturing or sales.
After all, the most important factor in Tesla's success is not its electric drivetrains, sleek styling or stunning performance, but its uniquely inspiring CEO. Musk's ability to present himself as the architect of a gleaming science fiction future has made Tesla's cars and stock into symbols of triumphant techno-optimism, lending their owners a piece of Musk's heroic appeal. So when the world's most famous optimist admits that friends are concerned about him and that "the worst is yet to come," it's every bit as important as a missed production or financial goal.Tesla's greatest strength has been becoming a weakness for some time. A Rolling Stone profile last year provided the first undeniable glimpse of Musk's emotional instability, and tweets about drug use presaged the latest revelations that Musk's use of the sleep aid Ambien has worried Tesla's board of directors.
To those versed in the challenges of the auto industry, Musk's wild-eyed ambitions and bizarre pronouncements have always smacked of a disconnect from reality. So too has Tesla's utter dependence on its CEO.
Making cars is the ultimate team sport, and in general, industry leaders are more committed to their teams than their own images. Though widely seen as a futuristic figure, Musk is in many ways a throwback to the swashbuckling early days of the auto industry when forceful personalities led a handful of companies to lasting success, and many more to bankruptcy and the ash heap of history.