Tuesday 6 December 2016

'Tony Stark' of tech swoops into Ireland in his electric car

With Elon Musk to unveil his Tesla car here, our reporter profiles a Silicon Valley maverick

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Maverick: Elon Musk's Tesla firm is valued at $25bn
Maverick: Elon Musk's Tesla firm is valued at $25bn

There was good news last week for environmentally conscious, fashion-forward motorists with confirmation that billionaire maverick Elon Musk is bringing his Tesla electric car to Ireland. The futuristic - and eye-wateringly expensive - vehicles will go on sale in 2017, with special "supercharging" stations rolled out at strategic locations (it is estimated the entry-level Model S coupé will retail at upwards of €60,000).

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The announcement comes at a high-stakes moment for Musk, who has been hailed as Silicon Valley's answer to superhero Tony Stark - aka Iron Man. While Musk doesn't fly through the air in a rocket-powered suit - not to our knowledge, anyway - he has pushed at the limits of human endeavour, with plans for affordable private-sector space transport and, eventually, a colony on Mars.

But on terra firma the outlook is less positive as his project to place a solar roof on every home in America encounters delays and the German government clashes with Tesla over the company's use of "autopilot" to describe its advanced cruise-control technology (an investigation is underway in Florida into the death of a motorist driving with the Tesla autopilot engaged).

Far from buckling under the pressure, however, 45-year-old Musk appears to enjoy a multitude of challenges. An over-achiever since adolescence, he does not seem to fear the white heat of the spotlight. If anything, those who know him suspect he rather enjoys it.

As is often true of larger-than-life moguls, Musk also has a colourful personal life, having twice married and separated from Talulah Riley, an actress 14 years his junior whom he met months after divorcing his first wife Justine, mother of his five children.

"Elon's central relationship is with his work," Justine said in an interview after their split.

On their wedding night, she claims he told her "I'm the alpha in this relationship…" She added that: "No matter how many highlights I got, Elon pushed me to be blonder. 'Go platinum,' he kept saying, and I kept refusing." After one row, he is said to have informed her: "If you were my employee, I would fire you."

Tragedy struck early in their marriage when their first child, Nevada, died at 10 weeks. "He was very much in the mode of stiff-upper-lip, the-show-must-go-on, let's-get-it-over-with," Justine later said. "He doesn't do well in the dark places." Following IVF, they went on to have triplets and twins.

An incident-packed private life has done little to detract from his cult status in tech circles, where he is regarded as a crusading genius in the tradition of late Apple supremo Steve Jobs. Musk certainly talks big, speculating reality is in all likelihood a Matrix-style simulation and telling American talk show host Stephen Colbert that the quickest way to render Mars fit for human habitation was to nuke its polar regions - a scenario straight from a Marvel comic book.

Thus, even by the messianic standards of Silicon Valley tech evangelists, Musk enjoys thinking large and making bold claims. "You basically have superpowers with your computer and your phone," is merely one among many extravagant pronouncements. "You have more power than the president had 20 years ago."

"He wants to put people on Mars, he wants electric cars, he wants solar roofs on every house in America," says John Kennedy, editor of Irish tech site Silicon Republic. "He is seen as a Tony Stark type. If you ask any men involved in a start-up who their hero is, they'll say Elon Musk or Steve Jobs."

Yet, like Jobs, Musk is more cheerleader than tech savant. He didn't design the Tesla or the experimental rockets with which he hopes to slash the cost of space commerce. Rather, he is an ambassador for these ideas, both to the public but, equally importantly, to the investment community.

"He isn't inventing any of this stuff. He isn't the guy who created the lightbulb, he won't go down as an inventor. He is very good at sweet-talking investors. He will go down as the guy who persuaded investors to open the wallets."

As with Jobs, adopted and raised in a blue-collar neighbourhood, he is also a quintessential outsider. Musk grew up in Pretoria, moving to Canada aged 17. He was 21 before he finally fulfilled his lifelong ambition of living in the United States, though he dropped out of prestigious Stanford University (the campus where Google was born) after just a few days to establish his first start-up.

Working with his brother - they would sleep in the office and shower at the local community centre - he established a media platform called Zip2, which was sold to hardware manufacturer Compaq for $300m. Musk sank his proceeds into an obscure online payment company called PayPal - netting $160m when it was bought by eBay.

However, his constant desire to push forward has placed him in occasionally precarious financial positions, too. At the Web Summit in Dublin in 2013, he confessed to having come close to ruination as the 2008 economic crash threatened to drag Tesla under.

"Personal bankruptcy was a daily conversation," his brother Kimbal would comment. "He threw everything he had into keeping Tesla alive."

The choppy waters quickly receded and Tesla is today valued at $25bn, with Musk himself said to be worth around $8bn. Nonetheless, in the fast-moving tech industry few things are enduring - fame and popularity least of all.

"He's at a dangerous point in his career," says Kennedy.

"Germany has sought to ban him from using the term autopilot for the Tesla. He's not without chinks in his armour. That said, he's still quite young. He's achieved more in a relatively short span than most people in their entire lives."

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