This story was published in partnership with ulyces.co
On Saturday, July 7, Elon Musk announced he was designing a mini submarine to rescue the children who’d been stranded with their soccer coach in a cave in northern Thailand. It would be an extremely dangerous venture, since the only way to extract them was by winding down a narrow, four-kilometer passage that had already cost a former Thai Navy diver his life.
On Sunday, July 8, the famous Tesla and SpaceX head presented a prototype and tested it in a pool in Los Angeles. Designed from the tubes used to carry liquid oxygen into SpaceX rockets, the mini submarine was a watertight tube connected to oxygen tanks small enough to reach the cave but big enough to carry a child with their arms folded across their chest. It had to be carried by divers since there was no engine.
Dubbed “Wild Boar” after the name of the soccer team trapped in the cave, the mini submarine flew to Thailand on Monday, July 9. But it was not used by rescuers who successfully completed their mission the next day. Elon Musk’s generous act got mixed reviews around the world.
While a spokesperson for the Thai Prime Minister called it “highly appreciated,” others saw it as opportunistic. “Isn’t there something disgusting about a man using trapped children to advertise his rocket-shaped contraptions?” a reporter for The Australian asked.
The rescuers themselves were split. British speleologist Vernon Unsworth told CNN that “it had absolutely no chance of succeeding.” The American billionaire “had no idea what the passage of the cave was like,” he said before concluding that “the submarine, I believe, was about 1.60 m long and rigid so it would not have been able to pass through corners or around obstacles. It would not have gone further than the first 50 meters of the cave.”
Unsworth agrees the initiative was a simple publicity stunt. Twitter – Elon Musk’s favorite communication platform – made fun of it with the hashtag #FixEverythingElon, urging him to solve anything from the Fukushima nuclear power plant to climate change, as well as pollution, marital problems and ingrown nails.
Not long after, on Wednesday, July 11, Musk took on a new challenge: the contaminated water of the city of Flint, Michigan. “Please consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels,” he replied to a user questioned him on the subject. “No kidding.”
In December 2016, Musk planned on solving Los Angeles’ traffic problem by establishing The Boring Company to dig a tunnel; and do it quickly, increasing the TBM rate from 500 to 1 000%. It was enough to make him pass for a “quack” in the eyes of some experts, such as Maurice Guillaud, the French Association of Tunnels and Underground Space (AFTES).
Building a tunnel requires a series of careful preliminary steps: geological studies to determine the composition of the soil and the type of machine to be used; an environmental impact study to estimate the consequences of such an undertaking; as well as a public utility study to attest to the viability of the project. “After that, it takes at least a year to build a tunnel boring machine, so a massive project is unlikely to start before five or six years.”
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and plunged the island’s population into the dark. Tesla then supplied hundreds of batteries for free and dispatched a team of engineers. In the process, the company’s boss said he would like to participate in the reconstruction of the island’s electricity grid by relying on these batteries – Powerwall batteries – as well as its Powerpack storage solutions, and solar panel farms.
“While we know that Puerto Rico’s network is badly damaged, we still do not know how bad it is, what is recoverable and what needs to be replaced,” Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele worried. “Before we rush to give an entity the authority to rebuild the network, should not we have a better understanding of its current state? Tesla’s offer may be the right one for Puerto Rico, but it may not be, and there are other challenges to take into account to fully power an island with solar energy.”
This offer was a great way for the company to showcase itself and its subsidiary SolarCity, which had already carried out this type of installation on Hawaiian and Samoan islands to improve their production and storage of solar energy to power homes even on sunless days. It was looking to develop such projects on a larger scale.
Then, last May, Musk wanted to settle the ethical issues facing the media by creating a professional rating platform called Pravda. It was very badly received by key stakeholders such as Bijan Stephen from The Verge. “Pravda is a very, very bad idea for the simple reason that it will not work,” he wrote.
“By ignoring the reality of how truth is manipulated, degraded and propagated in online spaces, it will tell us little about journalistic truth or fundamental truth and all that the most zealous crowds feel as truth. Starting an organization dedicated to letting people believe the reality is what they say is maybe nice, and maybe even generous, but there is an ulterior motive here. Musk, like the President, may not like the way the media makes him feel exposed, or victimized, or misunderstood. Nobody likes this! But you cannot legislate truth and reality, or put it to the vote, and expect something other than dystopia.”
A signed dollar
The platform’s very name evoked dystopia. Because if the word “pravda” means “truth” in Russian, it also designated the official press organ of the Communist Party at the time of the Soviet Union. The whole proposal sounded like a disgruntled CEO’s response to a slew of articles reporting the difficulties he was having with his Model 3, the vehicle that was supposed to make Tesla a mass producer. Journalists began to wonder about the potentially angry character of the billionaire.
Again in May, he refused to answer questions from two analysts during a conference call, saying they were “boring” and “ridiculous.” In June, he accused one of his employees of “sabotage” in an internal mail: “I was dismayed to learn this weekend that a Tesla employee committed a major act of sabotage that could harm our operations. This includes pure and simple code changes to the Tesla manufacturing system, borrowing fake usernames, and exporting tons of ultra sensitive information to unknown third parties.”
But the employee in question says he was a whistleblower who wanted to prevent security issues. And if Elon Musk has admitted that it was “stupid” to ignore analysts’ questions, a public apology is probably not enough to ease this latest outburst. Then on Sunday, July 15, Musk called the Thai cave rescuer Vernon Unsworth a “pedophile” on Twitter, adding he’d “bet a signed dollar that’s true.”
These outrageous outbursts provoked a torrent of criticism on the social network and this time raised questions about the mental stability of the billionaire. According to analyst Roger Kay, “it’s the most harmful thing in terms of branding that Elon Musk has ever done.” And his attitude can now be likened to that of Donald Trump, who swung no less than 289 insults at his opponents, celebrities, media, foreign countries and television programs on Twitter during the presidential campaign.
Tesla lost 2.75% on Wall Street on Monday, July 16th. And a judicial sanction is possible. Indeed, when Agence France-Presse asked him if he was going to sue, Vernon Unsworth replied, “If that’s what I think, yes.” He added that he would make a decision upon returning to the United Kingdom and warned that the story was “not over.”
His decision is likely to sway public opinion since he is considered a hero, having helped rescue the Thai players. He played a crucial role connecting Thai authorities and British experts, and sharing his knowledge of the cave with the other rescue workers.
“I had to go to the cave anyway on June 24,” he told CNN. “I was preparing all my gear and going on a solo trip just to see the water levels. I was called at 2:00 AM Sunday, and I was there for 17 days. It was a race against the clock. They needed first class divers, and that’s what we got.”
Tesla and SpaceX, on the other hand, seem to be short on first-class leaders.