I’ll leave it to market analysts to figure out whether that can happen (some actually think it can), though the solution will not come from finding the next John Sculley to discipline Musk’s Steve Jobs. The Apple of the 1980s was a brilliant idea with a terrible leader.
Tesla, by contrast, today is a terrible idea with a brilliant leader. The terrible idea is that electric cars are the wave of the future, at least for the mass market. Gasoline has advantages in energy density, cost, infrastructure and transportability that electricity doesn’t and won’t for decades. The brilliance is Musk’s Trump-like ability to get people to believe in him and his preposterous promises. Tesla without Musk would be Oz without the Wizard.
Much of the blame for the Tesla fiasco goes to government, which, in the name of green virtue, decided to subsidize the hobbies of millionaires to the tune of a $7,500 federal tax credit per car sold, along with additional state-based rebates. Would Tesla be a viable company without the subsidies? Doubtful. When Hong Kong got rid of subsidies last year, Tesla sales fell from 2,939 — to zero. It may be unfair to describe Tesla as Solyndra on wheels, but only slightly.
But the Tesla story isn’t just about the perils of misdirected government-led development and clever rent-seeking entrepreneurs. And it isn’t about the virtue signaling of those who like their environmentalist bona fides to come with vegan-friendly upholstery. It’s about hubris and credulity — the hubris of the few to pretend they know the future and the credulity of the many to follow them there.
Electric vehicles were supposed to be the car of the future because we were running out of oil — until we weren’t. And Musk was supposed to be a visionary because he spoke in visions, for which there will always be a large receptive audience. Casting about for a cause and a savior to believe in is what too many Americans do these days, perhaps as a result of casting off the causes and saviors we used to believe in.
Donald Trump long ago figured out that truth is whatever he thinks he can get away with, a cynical kind of wisdom he rode all the way to the White House and whose consequences we live with every day. With Musk the consequences are hardly as serious, but the essential pattern is the same. Maybe he’ll next try to sell us on a time machine and promise rides to anyone willing to make a $10,000 deposit. Tesla could surely use the cash.