The two sides of Elon Musk

Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Liar or optimist? Troll or marketing genius? Icarus or Daedalus? A trial in Delaware highlighted the contradictions at the Tesla chief’s core.

In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a brilliant inventor who fashioned wings for him and his son, Icarus, to escape imprisonment. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. But Icarus, heady with the power of flight, couldn’t help himself. Daedalus survived; Icarus scorched his wings and died.

When Elon Musk laid out an ambitious plan to buy the struggling solar firm SolarCity in 2016, Tesla’s then-CFO internally dubbed it “Project Icarus” — a detail that came out in a trial this week as Musk took the stand to defend the controversial $2.6 billion deal. “Did it dawn on you that this is the flying too close to the sun?” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Randall Baron, asked the Tesla chief, referring to his SolarCity bid. “This is the crashing and burning that he meant?”

Musk said he caught the allusion but took it as simply a bit of humor, not a prophecy of doom. “It should have been called Project Daedalus,” he added, smiling — perhaps implying that Musk, like Daedalus, would escape the ordeal unscathed.

The trial is, on one level, a business dispute over the SolarCity deal, which some Tesla shareholders view as a boondoggle that Musk forced through for his own purposes. (SolarCity was run by his cousins, he was part owner, and it was in financial crisis when Tesla bought it.) But for Musk, the stakes are higher. It’s a referendum on his own leadership, integrity and vision. Put another way: It’s about whether he’s Daedalus, the resourceful mastermind, or Icarus, flirting with disaster and bound for a tragic fall.

The answer matters to more than just Musk. He now leads two companies, Tesla and SpaceX, whose products people literally entrust with their lives. Both have pushed the boundaries of what’s considered possible — and safe. Like Daedalus’ wings, Tesla’s “autopilot” technology andSpaceX’s crewed space missions require enormous faith in technology and expose their users to novel risks. So the question of Musk’s trustworthiness is, in a real sense, life-or-death.

The trial’s most illuminating moments were the ones in which the central questions that have long haunted Musk’s career were made explicit. Is he a visionary or a huckster? A marketing genius or a narcissistic troll?

The world’s second-richest person, by some counts, easily could have afforded to settle the SolarCity case out of court, as all of his fellow Tesla board members did last year. Instead, he chose to fight it. And so he spent Monday and Tuesday in a dreary Delaware courtroom, defending his reputation against a lawyer bent on exposing him as a self-dealing fraud, even as his fellow billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos were in various stages of adventuring to space. (Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The cost of that defense is fresh scrutiny of Musk’s record, and by implication, his fitness to lead. On Monday, Musk did himself no favors by calling Baron “a bad human being” — or by insisting that “I rather hate” being CEO of Tesla. But his exchanges with Baron did on several occasions offer insight into how Musk views himself, and how he justifies actions that others find troubling or incomprehensible.

For example: Why does Musk routinely make unrealistic promises? And does that make him dishonest, or is it crucial to his success?

Specifically, Baron pressed Musk on his grand plan for a “solar roof”: a house roof that’s literally made out of solar panels. He unveiled the idea in 2016, partly to justify the SolarCity deal, and at one point claimed that it would be ready for widespread deployment by the following year — a bold claim for what was at the time a nonfunctional concept. Five years later, it still isn’t in mass production, though Musk hasn’t given up on it.

“I have a habit of being optimistic with schedules,” Musk said. “If I wasn’t optimistic, I don’t think I would have started an electric-car company or a rocket company.”

Baron wasn’t buying it. “This is more than optimistic,” he said of the solar roof timeline. “This is just plain-out false.”

So is Musk an optimist or a liar? The truth may be some of each: Whether it’s his prediction of a solar roof by 2017, a fully self-driving Tesla by 2018, or one million robotaxis on the road by 2020, Musk often fails to deliver. And yet it’s that same outrageous ambition that has driven his companies to achievements that few thought possible, from leading an electric revolution in the automotive industry to pioneering commercial space exploration.

Similarly, Musk’s bizarre tweets and antics — from crowning himself “Technoking” of Tesla in a federal filing to selling flamethrowers to smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast to naming his child X Æ A-12 — can be viewed in two ways. One view is that he’s an immature, entitled jerk with no self-control. The other, which Musk himself hinted at in court this week, is that he’s an ingenious marketer and showman.

Baron held up the “Technoking” maneuver as an example of Musk’s willingness to put his own whims above the interests of his firm. Musk countered that his whimsy is actually strategic. “If we are entertaining, then people will write stories about us, and then we don’t have to spend money on advertising that would increase the price of our products,” he said.

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