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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Musk vs Milton :: forthright vs fraud [allegedly]


Recently, Federal prosecutors indicted Nikola Motors founder Trevor Milton on three counts of fraud for statements that misled investors about the state of the electric truck startup's technology.

I was discussing this topic with a friend and he said, "Milton copied Musk's playbook and now Milton is likely going to jail. It won't be long before Musk shares a cell with him."

"Woah!", I said, "That's a big leap in logic."

His argument went something like this: 

"Musk has made (and still makes) big bosterious, obvisouly unrealistic, claims to get media attention and investments. Musk claimed that they'd have a "lights-out alien dreadnaught" factory; that never happened. The Roadster, Semi, and Cybertruck have been announced for years and are still not going to be delivered to customers anytime soon (if ever). Outside of a prototype or two, the Cybertruck. is. not. real! He's obviously trolling. Musk has even said the Roadster will fly or hover, this will *never* happen in a production version. It all just chum for the fanbois. Musk is the P.T. Barnum of our day, not the Edison or Tesla."

"Milton followed the same playbook. He even named his company after the same guy, Nikola Tesla. Here's the most telling dead givaway, Milton said he was going to "Out Elon, Elon." Milton made big claims that they'd have a great factory, great products, a great fueling network, partnerships... The only difference is that Milton was not granted the "Elon Time" to deliver on fifty percent of what he promised and then declare victory."

Tesla's original battery factory --

"Gigafactory Nevada," I interjected. 

"I refuse to call them 'Gigafactories'," he said -- "As I was saying (he continued), Tesla's original battery factory is still not as big as Musk claimed it would be when he made the deal with the state Nevada. It's been years. That's fraud [allegedly]. What about the solar covered charging stations, only a few of them even have solar panels. That's greenwashing and lying to the public. Then there's, the icing on the sham cake, Full Self Driving. It requires an attentive driver at all times. That's not self driving, "full" or any other level. It's a driver assist system, with relaxed operational domains and a chump behind the wheel to take the blame when something goes wrong. Musk has been selling FSD for years, since 2016 in one form or another, with the promise that it will be here "soon." All the while taking people's money while making them the beta testers for it."

Those claims certainly don't paint a pretty picture of Musk (or Milton). Both men have certainly made incredible claims. There's, however, an important distinction. Musk makes claims about what they will do (forward-looking statements). Milton lied about what they had done. Let's deal with Milton first. 

Milton [allegedly] had a semi-truck rolling down a hill and passed it off as being powered by their technology. Milton [alegiedly] had a supplier's names taped over and then passed the component off as something they had developed. The Hindenburg Report detailed all of these allegations and more. So it's not that Milton wasn't given "Elon Time" to make good on promises. The charges against him are not for saying that they would have a great factory and great products. There are charges against him for misrepresenting things that he was showing to the public and claiming as accomplishments. 

Let's address each of the claims about Musk: 

  • Milton used Musk's playbook - Musk's playbook is to sell the idea of a better future. He is far from the first one to sell the vision of a bright future based on their products, but yes Milton did use Elon as a role model. Milton made similar fantastic claims, the difference was that (in my opinion) Milton didn't have the talent or resources to ever deliver on those blusterous claims. And, most importantly, Musk's playbook does not including showing non-working prototypes and claiming that they work. Musk's playbook does not include rolling vehicles down a hill and implying that it's operational.

  • Alien dreadnaught - Tesla's factories are highly automated (as are all modern auto factories), but it's not a lights-out (no humans) factory by any means. Musk admitted he was wrong about this and called humans "underrated." Being wrong about something, learning, and then admitting you were wrong is not the same as lying. Tesla still built factories, they just changed the plans when they found the current state-of-the-art in robotics to be lacking. 

  • Roadster, Semi, and Cybertruck - Every vehicle that Tesla has ever made (with one notable exception) has been late. Tesla does not just change a few tailfins and release a vehicle calling it a new model. Each one is a clean-sheet design to maximize safety, range, and manufacturability. When a product is not derivative, delays are common (if not inevitable). Tesla has delivered millions of vehicles, there's no reason to believe that these three will be any different. These will go to production. It doesn't matter if it's in 2022, '23, or '24. These vehicles will be the yardstick by which every electric entrant into that market space is measured. Saying things like 'the Cybertruck is fake' frankly makes you sound like you are hating on Tesla with no basis in facts.
     
  • Flying Roadster - The SpaceX edition of the next-gen Roadster will have cold gas thrusters. These are the same type that are used as maneuvering thrusters on rockets. I think Musk knows where to find a few engineers with experience designing these. Sure there may be legal restrictions about where they can be used, but, as wild as this claim is, there are no laws of physics that have to be suspended for this to occur. Just because no one has ever done it, doesn't make it impossible.

  • Gigafactory Nevada is not done - In 2020, the show Super Factories covered Gigafotory Nevada. They said that 13 million battery cells were produced per day. Panasonic later disputed this number but did confirm that in 2019 Gigafactory Nevada producing at a rate of 54 Gigawatt-hours annually. And by the way, this is why they are called 'Gigafactories' because they produce in the gigawatt-hour order of magnitude. So this is a massive factory by any measure. As for the incentives with Nevada, these were based on milestones that Tesla has to meet over a 20 year period to receive the tax incentives.  If Tesla does not meet the milestones, they don't receive the benefit. The contract even has clawback provisions that could allow the state to rescind prior-year incentives in some cases. 

  • Solar-powered charging stations - Tesla has installed charging stations around the world. They have more DC fast-charging stations than the next three providers combined. Most of these are leased areas on the parking lots of retailers like Target or Walmart. Installing a solar canopy would be up to the site owner, not Tesla. And many of those sites do have solar panels on their roofs (not as visible or sexy as a solar car cover canopy, but still there). At the sites that Tesla owns, like Kettleman City, they have solar canopies providing shade and energy. Additionally, Tesla has sold residential solar and commercial solar systems.

  • Full Self Driving - No one is required to buy FSD. It is an option. Tesla is not twisting people's arms to buy it. There's no high-pressure salesman trying to get you into an FSD system today. It's a checkbox on the website, if you think it's worth the money, get it; if not, don't. The people that have bought FSD are overwhelmingly satisfied with it. And, yes, right now FSD is just a driver assist system because it is in Beta. Yes, the people that are using it, are beta testing it because they want to. They are even willing to pay to use and test it. That's their prerogative. With the new subscription option, you could try it for a month or two and they decide if you want to buy it or not (or continue subscribing). 
     
  • Wild Claims - Musk has big ambitions. He wants to move humanity to sustainable energy production and consumption. He wants to make life multi-planetary... He leads with Moonshot asperations. He is forthright with these goals. He puts them out there for scrutiny and feedback. So yeah, Musk often misses timeline estimates. If you don't fail occasionally, you are not thinking big enough.

Apparently, my friend is not the only one to draw a comparison between Musk and Milton. Forbes claimed that the indictment of Milton was a "veiled warning" to Musk. Although I didn't see anything in the article to support this claim.

Certainly, Musk does not need my little blog coming to his defense, but if you wind up in a similar conversation where someone equates Musk and Milton because they read something in Forbes or the like, now you understand how they are fundamentally different.

Disclosure: I'm long TSLA

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