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Electric Vehicles

13 Wild Moments from Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk Biography

“Do you ever think about electric cars?”

Elon Musk.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Between solar roofs, home batteries, and electric vehicles, Tesla could potentially “do more to fight climate change than any other company — perhaps any other entity — in the world,” Walter Isaacson muses in his much-anticipated biography of Elon Musk, out Tuesday.

But while the central character is at times painted as a heroic visionary (Isaacson’s previous subjects have included Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci), the biography also makes it clear that Tesla’s mercurial CEO isn’t always the easiest to work with — or, in the blunter words of Bill Gates, he can be “super mean.” Here are some of the most surprising moments about climate and energy shared in Isaacson’s Elon Musk:

On Musk’s EV passion:

When Elon went with [Peter] Nicholson’s daughter, Christie, to a party one evening, his first question was “Do you ever think about electric cars?” As he later admitted, it was not the world’s best come-on line.

On education:

Musk also focused on electric cars. He and [his friend Robin] Ren would grab lunch from one of the food trucks and sit on the campus lawn, where Musk would read academic papers on batteries. California had just passed a requirement mandating that 10 percent of vehicles by 2003 had to be electric. “I want to go make that happen,” Musk said.

Musk also became convinced that solar power, which in 1994 was just taking off, was the best path toward sustainable energy. His senior paper was titled “The Importance of Being Solar.” He was motivated not just by the dangers of climate change but also by the fact that fossil fuel reserves would start to dwindle. “Society will soon have no option but to focus on renewable power sources,” he wrote. His final page showed a “power station of the future,” involving a satellite with mirrors that would concentrate sunlight onto solar panels and send the resulting electricity back to Earth via a microwave beam. The professor gave him a grade of 98, saying it was a “very interesting and well written paper, except the last figure that comes out of the blue.”

On investing in batteries:

Eager to keep the conversation going, [Tesla co-founder JB] Straubel changed the topic to his idea for building an electric vehicle using lithium-ion batteries. “I was looking for funding and being rather shameless,” he says. Musk expressed surprise when Straubel explained how good the batteries had become. “I was going to work on high-density energy storage at Stanford,” Musk told him. “I was trying to think of what would have the most effect on the world, and energy storage along with electric vehicles were high on my list.” His eyes lit up as he processed Straubel’s calculations. “Count me in,” he said, committing to provide $10,000 in funding.

On building the Gigafactory:

The idea that Musk proposed in 2013 was audacious: build a gigantic battery factory in the U.S. […] There was one problem, Straubel recalls. “We had no clue how to build a battery factory.”

So Musk and Straubel decided to pursue a partnership with their battery supplier, Panasonic […] Musk and Straubel were invited to Japan by Panasonic’s new young president Kazuhiro Tsuga. “It was a come-to-Jesus session where we had to make him truly commit that we were going to build the insane Gigafactory together,” Straubel says.

The dinner was a formal, multicourse affair at a traditional low-table Japanese restaurant. Straubel was fearful about how Musk would behave. “Elon can be so much hell and brimstone in meetings and just unpredictable as all get out,” he says. “But I’ve also seen him flip a switch and suddenly be this incredibly effective, charismatic, high-emotional-intelligence business person, when he has to do it.” At the Panasonic dinner, the charming Musk appeared. He sketched out his vision for moving the world to electric vehicles and why the two companies should do it together. “I was mildly shocked and impressed, because, whoa, this is not like how Elon usually was on other days,” says Straubel. “He’s a person who’s all over the map, and you don’t know what he’s going to say or do. And then, all of a sudden, he pulls it all together.”

On the origins of SolarCity:

“I want to start a new business,” Musk’s cousin Lyndon Rive said as they were driving in an RV to Burning Man, the annual art-and-tech rave in the Nevada desert, at the end of the summer of 2004. “One that can help humanity and address climate change.” “Get into the solar industry,” Musk replied. Lyndon recalls that the answer felt like “my marching orders.” With his brother Peter, he started work on creating a company that would become SolarCity. “Elon provided most of the initial funding,” Peter recalls. “He gave us one clear piece of guidance: get to a scale that would have an impact as fast as possible.”

On buying SolarCity:

When Musk announced the deal in June 2016, he called it a “no-brainer” that was “legally and morally correct.” The acquisition fit with his original “master plan” for Tesla, which he had written in 2006: “The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.”

On hating SolarCity:

The solar roof project caused enormous friction between Musk and his cousins. In August 2016, around the time he was teasing the new product, Peter Rive invited Musk to inspect a version that the company had installed on a customer’s roof. It was a standing-seam metal roof, meaning the solar cells were embedded in sheets of metal rather than tiles. When Musk drove up, Peter and fifteen people were standing in front of the house. “But as often happened,” Peter recalled, “Elon showed up late and then sat in the car looking at his phone while we all just waited very nervously for him to get out.” When he did, it was clear that he was furious. “This is shit,” Musk explained. “Total fucking shit. Horrible. What were you thinking?”

On really, really hating SolarCity:

There were four versions [of solar roofs], including those that looked like French slate and Tuscan barrel tiles, along with a house that featured the metal roof that Musk hated. When Musk visited two days before the scheduled event and saw the metal version, he erupted. “What part of ‘I fucking hate this product’ don’t you understand?” One of the engineers pushed back, saying it looked okay to him and that it was the easiest to install. Musk pulled Peter aside and told him, “I don’t think this guy should be on the team.” Peter fired the engineer and had the metal roof removed before the public event.

On cutting solar roof installation time:

[…] Musk clambered up a ladder to the peak of the roof, where he stood precariously. He was not happy. There were too many fasteners, he said. Each had to be nailed down, adding time to the installation process. “Instead of two nails for each foot, try it with only one,” he ordered. “If the house has a hurricane, the whole neighborhood is fucked up, so who cares? One nail is going to be fine.” Someone protested that could lead to leaks. “Don’t worry about making it as waterproof as a submarine,” he said. “My house in California used to leak. Somewhere between sieve and submarine should be okay.” For a moment he laughed before returning to his dark intensity.

On talking climate with Bill Gates:

“Hey, I’d love to come see you and talk about philanthropy and climate,” Bill Gates said to Musk when they happened to be at the same meeting in early 2022. Musk’s stock sales had led him, for tax reasons, to put $5.7 billion into a charitable fund he had established. Gates, who was then spending most of his time on philanthropy, had many suggestions he wanted to make. They’d had friendly interactions a few times in the past, including when Gates brought his son Rory to SpaceX. [...] Gates argued that batteries would never be able to power large semitrucks and that solar energy would not be a major part of solving the climate problem. “I showed him the numbers,” Gates says. “It’s an area where I clearly knew something that he didn’t.” He also gave Musk a hard time on Mars. “I’m not a Mars person,” Gates later told me. “He’s overboard on Mars. I let him explain his Mars thinking to me, which is kind of bizarre thinking. It’s this crazy thing where maybe there’s a nuclear war on Earth and so the people on Mars are there and they’ll come back down and, you know, be alive after we all kill each other.”

On dismissing climate philanthropy:

At the end of the tour, [Gates and Musk’s] conversation turned to philanthropy. Musk expressed his view that most of it was “bullshit.” There was only a twenty-cent impact for every dollar put in, he estimated. He could do more good for climate change by investing in Tesla.

On Bill Gates’ betrayal:

There was one contentious issue that [Bill Gates and Elon Musk] had to address. Gates had shorted Tesla stock, placing a big bet that it would go down in value […] Short-sellers occupied [Musk’s] innermost circle of hell. Gates said he was sorry, but that did not placate Musk. “I apologized to him,” Gates says. “Once he heard I’d shorted the stock, he was super mean to me, but he’s super mean to so many people, so you can’t take it too personally.”

[...] When I asked Gates why he had shorted Tesla, he explained that he had calculated that the supply of electric cars would get ahead of demand, causing prices to fall. I nodded but still had the same question: Why had he shorted the stock? Gates looked at me as if I had not understood what he just explained and then replied as if the answer was obvious: he thought that by shorting Tesla he could make money. That way of thinking was alien to Musk. He believed in the mission of moving the world to electric vehicles, and he put all of his available money toward that goal, even when it did not seem like a safe investment. “How can someone say they are passionate about fighting climate change and then do something that reduced the overall investment in the company doing the most?” he asked me a few days after Gates’s visit. “It’s pure hypocrisy. Why make money on the failure of a sustainable energy car company?”

On rejection:

Gates followed up in mid-April, sending Musk the promised paper on philanthropy options that he had personally written [...] “Sorry,” Musk shot back instantly. “I cannot take your philanthropy on climate seriously when you have a massive short position against Tesla, the company doing the most to solve climate change.” When angry, Musk can get mean, especially on Twitter. He tweeted a picture of Gates in a golf shirt with a bulging belly that made him look almost pregnant. “In case u need to lose a boner fast,” Musk’s comment read.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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