As I write, Tesla, the producer of electrical autos (EVs), has a market capitalisation of $1.051tn, which makes it the world’s sixth most precious firm by market cap. Tesla shares are buying and selling at $1,047, which is 64% increased than presently final yr. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the corporate, at present has a internet value estimated at $300bn, which makes him the richest individual on the earth.
Huge wealth, like energy, acts as an aphrodisiac that warps folks’s perceptions of those that possess it: it’s as in the event that they’re surrounded by a actuality distortion discipline. Comparable pressure fields have enveloped Invoice Gates and Steve Jobs of their time and now it’s Musk’s flip. As a result of he’s uncommonly voluble on social media, particularly on Twitter, the place he has 65.7 million followers, his each utterance is assiduously parsed by besotted followers (all of whom name him “Elon”, as if he had been a buddy of theirs). This offers him an affect approach past that of every other company govt, affect that, on some events, even impacts world monetary markets by means of what the usually sober Monetary Occasions calls the “Tesla-financial complicated”. A better examination of his Twitter feed, although, yields an impression of a extremely complicated particular person: a baffling mixture of formidable intelligence and ungovernability – half visionary, half genius, half fruitcake and half exploiter of tax loopholes and public subsidies. And it raises the query: what (or the place) is the actual Elon Musk?
The reply, I believe, lies in his mastery of the enterprise of producing complicated merchandise. One sees it, for instance, in the best way SpaceX, the aerospace firm he set as much as cut back the colossal prices of house journey, has change into the primary non-state organisation to: efficiently launch, orbit and recuperate a spacecraft; ship a spacecraft to the Worldwide House Station; handle the primary vertical takeoff and vertical touchdown for an orbital rocket; and ship astronauts to the Worldwide House Station. Anybody who thinks these items is simple has by no means executed it.
In comparison with SpaceX, you’d have thought that the enterprise of producing electrical vehicles could be little one’s play, particularly since, in comparison with autos powered by inner combustion engines, they’re significantly easier. (Principally, an EV is sort of a large skateboard the place the massive battery is the board.) Even so, when Tesla began making them in 2008, the world (to not point out Ford, Common Motors, BMW, Mercedes, VW and Toyota) sniggered, which, oddly sufficient, reminded this columnist of the best way Nokia and Motorola sniggered in 2007 on the concept of Apple making a cell phone.
The story is identical within the case of the automotive. Tesla did finally work out tips on how to make them – making bodyshells out of aluminium after which kitting them out with all of the stuff that goes right into a automobile utilizing a mixture of robots and people – and now its Mannequin 3 is rising because the bestselling new automotive in numerous markets.
However it seems that, simply as with Apple and the smartphone, mastering the artwork of standard manufacturing was only the start. A while in the past, Musk appeared to have had an epiphany, maybe triggered by a dialog with a grizzled veteran of automotive manufacturing named Sandy Munro, who allegedly likened the rear finish of a Tesla shell throughout manufacture to a patchwork quilt. Why, Musk mused, couldn’t the complete bodyshell be die-cast in a single piece from molten aluminium, simply as replica toy vehicles are?
You may guess the place that is heading. Tesla purchased numerous colossal press-casting machines – inevitably christened “Giga Presses” – from Idra, the Italian firm that makes them. And they’re now deployed in some Tesla factories turning out the rear half of Mannequin Y bodyshells as single pressure-moulded items. Immediately, a process that required 70 totally different elements to be assembled by 300 robots is being executed by a single large machine. The apparent subsequent step is to make use of the identical course of to make the whole bodyshell in a single fell swoop.
This step – and the massive funding wanted to implement it – suggests a brand new mind-set about Musk: because the non secular inheritor of Henry Ford. Because the early days of the automotive, there have solely been three main paradigm shifts within the manufacturing course of. The primary was Ford’s introduction of a transferring manufacturing line, memorably satirised in Charlie Chaplin’s Fashionable Occasions, which might prove a accomplished Mannequin T in 90 minutes.
The second paradigm shift got here from Toyota within the postwar years – the well-known “lean” manufacturing technique that concerned minimising inventories and arranging provide chains for just-in-time supply of elements that arrived simply earlier than they had been wanted on the related stage within the manufacturing course of. Though invented in Japan, and initially ignored by the US automotive trade, ultimately each automotive has been made the Toyota approach.
Lastly, the arrival of the Giga Press and the pondering behind it’s what means that, ultimately, Musk is likely to be remembered not a lot because the oddball who dreamed of colonising Mars (or presumably expired thereon), however because the man who discovered a brand new approach of constructing terrestrial autos. He’ll likely be annoyed by this thought, however – hey! – that’s a worth the remainder of us is likely to be ready to bear.
What I’ve been studying
Phrases of knowledge
Methods to Repair Social Media is a protracted, considerate and traditionally knowledgeable essay by Nicholas Carr within the New Atlantis.
Woolf on the door
The Work of Residing Goes On: Rereading Mrs Dalloway Throughout an Infinite Pandemic is a beautiful essay by Colin Dickey on the dystopian undercurrents in Virginia Woolf’s well-known novel and its echoes in our makes an attempt to “transfer on” from Covid.
On the intense facet…
Why People Aren’t the Worst (Regardless of, Nicely, All the pieces Occurring within the World) is the title of an intriguing interview with the journalist and historian Rutger Bregman by Kara Swisher.