Commentary: Elon Musk, Teslas mad genius, is defying US lockdown – and people love it

SAN FRANCISCO: Of course it was going to be Elon Musk.

This week, the Tesla chief executive thrust himself to the forefront of Americas anti-lockdown movement by threatening to “immediately” relocate the electric car groups California headquarters to Texas or Nevada; filing a lawsuit; and then restarting production at the companys Fremont plant in defiance of authorities.

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Mr Musk may be one of the worlds loudest clean energy advocates, having almost single-handedly jump-started the market for electric cars.

But he has long displayed the same hatred of being told what to do that fuels the gun-toting protesters who stormed Michigans state house to protest anti-coronavirus measures.

READ: Protests, court rulings: Anti-lockdown push turns partisan in US

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Mr Musk has repeatedly tangled with US securities regulators about what he can and cannot tweet about his publicly traded company. His 2016 decision to have Tesla acquire a lossmaking solar energy company that he helped start was roundly criticised.

And he embroiled himself in a defamation lawsuit with an online verbal assault on a British diver who had accused Mr Musk of grandstanding during the 2018 rescue of 12 boys trapped in a Thailand cave. Mr Musk eventually prevailed in the case.

READ: Tesla, California county reach deal to reopen US plant next week

RELOCATING TESLA HEADQUARTERS

This time, Mr Musks stand-off with California bureaucrats, which included a taunt to arrest him if they so dared, was largely theatrical.

By the time he threatened to leave the state, local officials had already said he could probably reopen the factory the following week, with new safety precautions in place.

But it also won him new fans in Americas heartland and the White House. US president Donald Trump tweeted that “California should let Musk open the plant, NOW”.

FILE PHOTO: A view of Tesla Inc's U.S. vehicle factory in Fremont, California, U.S., March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Alex Epstein, a critic of electric cars and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, says “Tesla now stands for freedom, versus just green”.

Mr Musks stand-off is a deliberate, brilliant marketing ploy, argues Mario Herger, an electric vehicle advocate and author. Tesla is looking for a production site for the Cybertruck, its Blade Runner-inspired answer to the Ford F-150, Americas best-selling vehicle for the past 38 years.

“With the cars hes building now, and the Cybertruck, they arent aiming any more at the Silicon Valley freaks and geeks, they are aiming at the regular Joe, the red necks, the country boys, the contractors. Moving a factory to Texas brings them closer to this audience,” Mr Herger says.

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Mr Musk may also have had sound financial reasons to act out. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel estimates that Tesla is foregoing upwards of US$500 million in revenues a week amid the shutdown, money that a company that has never had a profitable year can ill-afford to forego.

Scott Painter, founder of Fair, a car-subscription service, says Mr Musks approach has not changed.

“Theres no politics behind it at all. This is pragmatism and survival,” he says, describing his friend of nearly two decades as a “very libertarian, free-market type” who has “never wavered on that stuff”.

READ: Commentary: The biggest question about lifting COVID-19 lockdowns is generating huge debate

ECCENTRICITY AND A WILLINGNESS TO DEFY CONVENTION

The South African-born entrepreneur, aged 48, has been railing against the pandemic response for months, tweeting in early March, that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and predicting that new cases in the US would fall to “close to zero” by late April.

He also called shelter-in-place policies “fascist” on a Tesla earnings call in late April.

FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk speaks at an opening ceremony for Tesla China-made Model Y program in Shanghai, China January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Mr Musk attended university in both Canada and the US before dropping out of graduate school at Stanford after only a few days. He made his first fortune as one of the founders of PayPal, the payments company, and then launched both SpaceX, his rocket company, and Tesla in the early 2000s.

His other ventures include a high speed transport company, Hyperloop, and Neuralink, which seeks to integrate artificial intelligence with the human brain.

READ: Commentary: Car-making just doesnt quite gel with future trends

His dogged persistence, soaring visions and confrontational nature have won him legions of fans – and rabid detractors.

“Often, in personalities this gifted, there is an offsetting, manifest, almost incomprehensible eccentricity and willingness to defy convention,” says Bob Lutz, a former GM executive who worked with him on a documentary.

“Musk will fight anyone, or any institution, regardless of size or power, or political orientation, if he perceives a real threat to the companys viability.”

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