Dinner with Elon Musk begins with a drive in a Tesla. I am seated in the back, next to X, the billionaire’s two-and-a-half-year-old son. It’s around 7pm in Austin, and X is, as one would expect, cranky. We had set off to Fonda San Miguel, Musk’s favourite Mexican restaurant, after a visit with an FT colleague to the Tesla Gigafactory on the banks of the Colorado river. In this massive site Musk is producing the Y electric SUVs, the latest model in the Tesla collection that has catapulted him to the top of the world’s rich list (net worth: $232bn). Musk, with X perched on his shoulders, had proudly shown off the factory floor as he periodically raged against sluggish investment in lithium refining, which is desperately needed to ease battery shortages around the world.
Musk’s security chief, the designated driver, comes to the rescue with a milk bottle that soothes X to sleep by the time we reach the restaurant. For the next couple of hours, I am better acquainted with the curious character of Elon Musk, the engineer and the visionary, the billionaire and the disrupter, the agitator and the troublemaker. Defying armies of sceptics, including myself (full disclosure: until my family rebelled against me and bought a Tesla Model 3 and I started driving it, I was convinced the company would go bankrupt), Musk has built Tesla into a more than $700bn market cap business and forced the car industry to speed up the shift to electric vehicles. Not prone to modesty, Musk estimates he may have accelerated the “advent of sustainable energy” by “10, maybe even 20 years”.
In just over a decade, he has also transformed the commercial space industry and the economics of space, racing ahead of rivals in building a reusable rocket that can carry passengers. Nasa has picked his Starship to land astronauts on the moon over the next few years. It is now worth around $125bn. One day, or so Musk is convinced, it will be used to colonise Mars.
Musk is a maverick too, a serial tweeter to his more than 100mn followers who flouts convention, revels in outrageous outbursts, fights with regulators and staff, and taunts competitors. He has regular run-ins with the Securities and Exchange Commission: he was fined and forced to give up his chairmanship of Tesla over 2018 tweets in which he claimed to have secured funding to take Tesla private, statements that a US judge later described as having been made “recklessly”. A recent lawsuit accuses Musk of running a pyramid scheme to prop up dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that is, literally, based on a joke — an internet meme of a Japanese dog. Dogecoin has predictably crashed but Musk’s enthusiasm has not: he twins his black jeans with a black T-shirt featuring an image of the dog.
Why does a serious guy with serious ideas indulge in silly Twitter games that could also cost his followers dearly? “Aren’t you entertained?” Musk roars with laughter. “I play the fool on Twitter and often shoot myself in the foot and cause myself all sorts of trouble . . . I don’t know, I find it vaguely therapeutic to express myself on Twitter. It’s a way to get messages out to the public.”
It is fair to say that Musk is obsessed with Twitter, so much so that he’s been embroiled in an epic on/off buyout of the platform that has captivated Wall Street and the tech industry for months. Twitter sued Musk (and he sued back) after he backed out of a $44bn acquisition deal he made in April, accusing the social media company of under-reporting the number of bots on the platform. This week, and just before his scheduled deposition, Musk changed his mind. He now says he wants to buy Twitter again.
I had asked over dinner whether his original offer had been a bad joke. “Twitter is certainly an invitation to increase your pain level,” he says. “I guess I must be a masochist . . . ” But he makes no secret that his interest in the company has never been primarily financial: “I’m not doing Twitter for the money. It’s not like I’m trying to buy some yacht and I can’t afford it. I don’t own any boats. But I think it’s important that people have a maximally trusted and inclusive means of exchanging ideas and that it should be as trusted and transparent as possible.” The alternative, he says, is a splintering of debate into different social-media bubbles, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s Truth Social network. “It [Truth Social] is essentially a rightwing echo chamber. It might as well be called Trumpet.”
Musk doesn’t eat lunch, possibly because an unflattering picture in a swimsuit taken on a yacht in Mykonos went viral over the summer. Since then, he has been on a diet. At Fonda San Miguel, a teeming Mexican restaurant that promises a regional culinary experience, he is a familiar dinner customer. He orders a frozen margarita (he calls it a slushy with alcohol) and I order a beer. Musk looks around. “There’s a good buzz in this restaurant,” he says approvingly, and suggests to the waiter that they serve us some of their specialities. Musk is telling me that companies are like children when the first plates land on the table: the lamb chops in a pepper sauce, and shrimp with cheese and jalapeños. The food is “epic”, Musk gasps.
Musk is capricious, but he sees himself as a problem solver, and the problem is everything from the potential end of life on Earth to climate change and even traffic (his Boring company is building tunnels). Recently, he has dreamt up his own (rather unhelpful) peace plan for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine. Born and raised in South Africa in a well-to-do family, he landed in California after studying economics and physics in Canada and Pennsylvania. One of his first big ideas was well ahead of its time: he wanted to revolutionise banking. He merged an online payments business he co-founded with another company in what became PayPal. When PayPal was sold to eBay, he used the money to start SpaceX and invest in Tesla.
Ageing strikes me as the only threat to humans that he is not attempting to resolve, though another company he founded, Neuralink, is designing chips that will be implanted in the brain to restore sensory and motor function. Musk is very exercised about population decline, and claims to be doing his part to populate Earth by having 10 children (from various partners), including, it was recently reported, twins with an executive at Neuralink.
He scoffs when I inquire if there are other children he has fathered — “I’m pretty sure there are no other babies looming” — and he dismisses the wild rumours that he has bought a fertility clinic to support his production of babies. Some friends, he reveals, have indeed suggested he should have 500 kids, but that would be a “bit weird”. Referring to himself, aged 51, as an “autumn chicken”, he says he may have more children, but only to the extent that he can be a good father to them. Nonetheless, he predicts that “the current trend for most countries is that civilisation will not die with a bang, it will die with a whimper in adult diapers”. But he says ageing should not be solved. “It’s important that people die. How long would you have liked Stalin to live?” That is a good point.
Musk’s bigger worry is the preservation of life beyond Earth. His solution is to populate Mars. “Something will happen to Earth eventually, it’s just a question of time. Eventually the sun will expand and destroy all life on Earth, so we do need to move at some point, or at least be a multi-planet species,” he says. “You have to ask the question: do we want to be a space-flying civilisation and a multi-planet species or not?” I’m not sure what I think but Musk is emphatic. “It’s a question of what percentage of resources should we devote to such an endeavour? I think if you say 1 per cent of resources, that’s probably a reasonable amount.”
Would Musk himself join the pioneering colony on Mars? “Especially if I’m getting old, I’ll do it. Why not?” he says. But how useful would he be to Mars if he’s too old? “I think there’s some non-trivial chance of dying, so I’d prefer to take that chance when I’m a bit older, and see my kids grow up. Rather than right now, where little X is only two-and-a-half. I think he’d miss me.”
The table is too small for the large plates we are sharing as a second course: a slow-cooked lamb that melts in the mouth, chillies in a walnut-based sauce and shrimp in creamy chipotle sauce. Musk is right: it is the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
We turn to his views on government and politics and the Twitter Musk appears, the more emotional, unrestrained persona that comes across in his frenetic posts. He is lauding billionaires as the most efficient stewards of capital, best placed to decide on the allocation of social benefits. “If the alternative steward of capital is the government, that is actually not going to be to the benefit of the people,” says Musk.
Fonda San Miguel
2330 W N Loop Blvd, Austin, Texas 78756
House frozen margarita $10
Modelo Especial beer $6
House rocks margarita $10
Spicy sauce $0.50
Angels on horseback (shrimp with cheese) $18.95
Cordero lamb chops $24.95
Mixiote slow-cooked lamb $38.95
Chile en nogada (chillies in a walnut sauce) $38.95
Camarones crema chipotle (shrimp in a spicy chipotle sauce) $34.95
Total inc tax $198.37
He is railing against Joe Biden for being in thrall to the unions but also daring to snub him. “He [Biden] had an electric vehicle summit at the White House and deliberately didn’t invite Tesla last year. Then to follow it up, to add insult to injury, at a big event he said that GM was leading the electric car revolution, in the same quarter that GM shipped 26 electric cars and we shipped 300,000. Does that seem fair to you?”
Until recently Musk voted Democrat, although he is now more on the Republican side, or perhaps floating somewhere in between. He says he is considering setting up “the Super Moderate Super Pac” to support candidates with moderate views. He makes a point of telling me that he doesn’t hate Trump, even if he has clashed with him, and insists Biden is simply too old to run for a second term in office. “You don’t want to be too far from the average age of the population because it’s going to be very difficult to stay in touch . . . Maybe one generation away from the average age is OK, but two generations? At the point where you’ve got great-grandchildren, I don’t know, how in touch with the people are you? Is it even possible to be?”
Musk has a dystopian view of the left’s influence on America, which helps explain his wild pursuit of Twitter to liberate free speech. He blames the fact that his teenage daughter no longer wants to be associated with him on the supposed takeover of elite schools and universities by neo-Marxists. “It’s full-on communism . . . and a general sentiment that if you’re rich, you’re evil,” says Musk. “It [the relationship] may change, but I have very good relationships with all the others [children]. Can’t win them all.”
He also has a dim view of regulators, whom he sees as bureaucrats justifying their jobs by going after high-profile targets like him. He seems to be in a constant feud with one regulator or another, whether it’s over his own pronouncements or over the treatment of staff. Musk is unabashed about driving his employees hard. He was bullied as a child (and has also spoken of emotional abuse by his father) but is now sometimes accused of bullying others. He shoots back: if anyone is unhappy working for him, they should work elsewhere because “they’re not chained to the company, it’s voluntary”.
Does he ever think he’s above the law? That’s utter nonsense, he tells me: “I’m subject to literally a million laws and regulations and I obey almost 99.99 per cent of them. It’s only when I think the law is contrary to the interest of the people that I have an issue.” I wonder if he means the interest of Elon Musk.
There are some topics that amuse Musk, eliciting prolonged laughter, and other questions that are met with deliberate silence before he speaks. The longest silence follows my question about China and the risk to Tesla’s Shanghai factory, which produces between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of Tesla’s total production. Musk has been an admirer of as well as an investor in China. But he is not immune to the gathering US-China tensions or the risk of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan. Musk says Beijing has made clear its disapproval of his recent rollout of Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite communications system, in Ukraine to help the military circumvent Russia’s cut-off of the internet. He says Beijing sought assurances that he would not sell Starlink in China.
Musk reckons that conflict over Taiwan is inevitable but he is quick to point out that he won’t be alone in suffering the consequences. Tesla will be caught up in any conflict, he says, though, curiously, he seems to assume that the Shanghai factory will still be able to supply to customers in China, but not anywhere else. “Apple would be in very deep trouble, that’s for sure . . . ” he adds, not to mention the global economy, which he estimates, with precision, will take a 30 per cent hit.
It may be Musk’s realisation that business decisions can no longer be made without regard to security and geopolitics — or perhaps it’s simply an arrogant belief that he has all the answers — that now leads him to offer his own solutions to the world’s most complex geopolitical problems. “My recommendation . . . would be to figure out a special administrative zone for Taiwan that is reasonably palatable, probably won’t make everyone happy. And it’s possible, and I think probably, in fact, that they could have an arrangement that’s more lenient than Hong Kong.” I doubt his proposal will be taken up.
On Ukraine too, he has advocated a compromise with Russia that has earned him ridicule in Kyiv, where Starlink had made him a hero until now. He launched his peace plan in a poll on Twitter and suggested that Crimea, which Russia invaded in 2014 and later annexed, should simply be given away to Russia. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, shot back with his own Twitter poll: which Elon Musk do you like more, he asked, the one who supports Ukraine or the one who supports Russia?
We are over an hour into dinner and Musk is in a hurry, having scheduled a call with his SpaceX team. We skip dessert and I ask for the bill, only to find out it’s already been settled by Musk’s security chief. Musk ignores my protestations that he is flouting Lunch with the FT convention: “You’re indebted to me for life,” he jokes. We head back to the car that is taking him to a private airport to board his jet and he suggests we continue our conversation on the way.
I find X exactly where I left him, in his car seat, but he’s more cheerful after his nap. He is cooing as he watches videos of rockets on his iPad while his dad discusses rockets with his team. Suddenly, I notice that the car is driving itself, as if to dispel the doubts I had expressed about Tesla’s self-driving prospects. “It can get to the airport without intervention,” says Musk. Alarmed, I put my seatbelt on. Musk could be a magician, but he could also be wrong.
Roula Khalaf is editor of the Financial Times
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