2020 ALL STAR | INDUSTRY NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR
Even in a year as wild and unpredictable as 2020, Elon Musk found ways to dominate headlines.
The 49-year-old polarizing chief executive of Tesla Inc. launched a new crossover in the U.S. and China, launched astronauts into low-Earth orbit on SpaceX rockets and launched into a profanity-laced tirade against coronavirus restrictions on an earnings call.
He released an electronic dance music track on Soundcloud, fathered a son with singer Grimes, sold a Tesla-branded tequila and implanted a computer chip inside the brain of a pig. In recent weeks, Musk made waves for possibly contracting the coronavirus while questioning the efficacy of tests.
Through it all, the electric vehicle maker he leads has posted a streak of five consecutive quarterly profits — and counting — while continuing to pace the industry in EV sales. The company broke ground on two plants, in Germany and Texas, unveiled a slew of in-house battery breakthroughs it hopes will reduce costs and improve efficiencies and launched a controversial beta version of its Full Self-Driving driver-assist technology.
The automaker’s value has continued to soar and it’s set to join the S&P 500 next month.
“I must be doing something right, as far as my managing style’s concerned,” Musk told Automotive News this year. “Tesla’s worth twice as much as the rest of the U.S. auto industry combined.”
While Musk is known to miss self-imposed deadlines and milestones, here’s one he could meet: half a million Tesla deliveries in 2020. Through three quarters it has delivered 318,980 vehicles. If fourth- quarter sales outpace the third quarter’s 140,000 by 41,000, Tesla will meet that full-year target.
“Please take whatever steps you can think of to improve output (while increasing quality),” Musk wrote to employees last month.
The milestone can be credited to the start of Model 3 production in China late last year and the early success of its Model Y crossover, which Musk has predicted could eventually outsell all of its other vehicles combined.
Tesla has been on a financial hot streak, posting a $331 million profit in the third quarter. The most recent earnings news prompted Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights, to say the automaker was “well out of rookie territory,” and that, if it continues along the path it’s on, it “will become a fairly mainstream automaker before the midpoint of this decade.”
Despite success at Tesla and SpaceX, 2020 has not been without controversy for the tweet-happy executive.
In the early days of the pandemic, Musk incorrectly predicted there would be “close to zero” virus cases by the end of April and initially defied state orders to shut down Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., plant before doing so on March 24.
He traded verbal jabs with California Gov. Gavin Newsom after the governor claimed that hospitals had not received Musk’s promised donation of ventilators. Then, on an April earnings call, he unloaded on stay-at-home orders.
“Frankly, I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights, in my opinion,” he said. “Breaking people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong and not why people came to America or built this country. What the f---?”
He called the orders “fascist” and undemocratic.
“This isn’t freedom,” he said. “Give people back their g--damn freedom.”
Earlier that day, Musk tweeted, “FREE AMERICA NOW.”
Despite concerns from safety groups, Musk rolled out the Full Self-Driving driver-assist feature in beta mode to a select group of customers.
Critics argue the name is dangerous, implying that the software is more capable than it really is and that drivers don’t have to pay attention. It’s the same argument made against the brand’s Autopilot feature, which has been activated on a number of crashes that have resulted in deaths.
Musk said the criticism of the Autopilot name was “ridiculous,” arguing that Tesla gives ample warning about the feature’s abilities.
“It’s not like some newbie who just got the car and, based on the name, thought they’d instantly trust the car to drive itself,” he said this year. “That’s the idiotic premise of being upset with the Autopilot name. Idiotic.”
The news likely won’t slow down anytime soon.
Once its Texas plant comes online next year, Tesla is expected to launch its most anticipated — and polarizing — vehicle to date: the Cybertruck pickup.
Musk has described it as a “North American ass-kicker,” and the automaker has received hundreds of thousands of preorders in the form of $100 refundable deposits. If successful, the vehicle would give Tesla a foothold in one of the most lucrative and popular segments in the automotive industry, which is dominated by the Detroit 3.
Despite the high stakes, Musk has played down any pressure to succeed, saying he wasn’t trying to market the vehicle to a specific buyer.
“If they like the Cybertruck, cool. If they don’t, yeah,” he said. “We’re not trying to play some marketing game. We’re just trying to create products that people will love.”