It’s the dream. Every entrepreneur, whether the founder of a food delivery service or a drone startup, wants to build a company that not just challenges and disrupts, but goes one better than the established, entrenched players. That’s what Elon Musk did with Tesla.
The idea wasn’t his to begin with, but it consumed him: building an electric vehicle that would revolutionise the car as we know it while going easy on the planet, and transform the very nature of the auto industry since the time of Ford. In the process of achieving this, Musk has near bankrupted himself a few times, blown through deadlines, defied investors, frustrated employees; and yet, every time Tesla seemed set for a crash, he’s pulled off a gamble that righted it again—all while tweeting wildly. It makes him an inspiration. It makes him a much-reviled hypocrite. It makes him an attention-seeker. It makes him an optimist with vision, determination and fortitude. And this is the story that Tim Higgins tells in his new book, Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, And The Bet Of The Century.
It’s a lively tale of a company constantly in the eddy of controversy and drama, not only because of the revolutionary nature of its work—trying to create the right lithium-ion battery technology to power a car—but also because of its mercurial CEO. We’re told how Tesla got from prototypes to production of its various models—the Roadster, Model S, X, and 3 series—and all the bumps along the way, saved each time by a last-minute infusion of cash. Higgins describes the many near-misses as a “defining feature of the Tesla narrative.”
The book begins before Tesla’s founding in 2003 with the host of characters—all eccentric in their own way, and some more prescient than Musk, who tinkered with cars to change the way they ran. There was J.B. Straubel, who started out by experimenting with batteries, in true Silicon Valley style, while at Stanford; Martin Eberhard who turned his midlife-crisis-driven desire to own a sportscar into building an electric one. Eberhard was the one who saw the untapped potential for a high-end sportscar that used lithium-ion batteries, but Musk would be the one who pursued it almost manically and eventually oust Eberhard from the company in an ugly battle to make himself CEO. All the while, he was trying to build rockets at Space X, solar panels, construct tunnels with The Boring Company, and more.
Musk did not speak to Higgins for this book—his only comment was, “Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense”—but Higgins, as Wall Street Journal tech and auto reporter, has covered Tesla as well as Musk’s other venture SpaceX from its early days. He’s met Musk often enough to have the material for a tell-all book like this and also draws from accounts by the original founding team, former Tesla staff, investors, industry observers, and engineers. The book, however, doesn’t touch upon Tesla’s controversial self-driving and automation software, which Musk himself has described recently as “not perfect”, and is under investigation in the US.
Tesla has now cleared Indian regulators and is likely to make its debut in India with four models, including the popular Model 3. The biggest problem that electric carmakers face is how to keep the lithium-ion batteries from overheating and catching fire on the road—and Tesla’s engineers were the first to crack this problem. Just one superheated battery in the pack can spark a catastrophe—over the past six months, some of the world’s largest electric-vehicle makers, from GM to Hyundai, have announced some of the most expensive recalls in the history of the auto industry. But those carmakers may not have even considered, let alone sunk billions into, going electric without the bet that Tesla made, and the risks Musk has taken over and over.