For generations, the US innovation system has delivered progress for the world. While it no doubt takes a team effort and effective federal policy, technological transformation hinges on a handful of generational protagonists. At the center of the nation’s current innovation story is Elon Musk: the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, the current owner of Twitter, and an engineer at early PayPal.
Musk’s choice to elicit controversy at nearly every turn is affecting his ability to sell cars, solar panels, and advertisements on Twitter. This tendency toward chaos holds back innovations at his companies, as his actions become a distraction from loftier goals to change the way we live.
Musk is an example of how innovation can be more than what’s formulated by engineers, written in a patent description, and assembled in factories. It’s also a story about how reputation, branding, and keeping the public’s trust can impact technological progress. Musk’s words reverberate throughout the globe and have the power to impact change—for good, or for ill.
Elon the Innovator
There is little debate that Musk’s Tesla has been innovative. In recent years, Tesla vehicles have become easier to purchase, putting green electric vehicle (EV) technology in the hands of more consumers. It’s the first of many steps to a more sustainable, eco-friendly future—but it’s a big one. The impact has been transformative, with other car companies following suit. Ford and GM have ended old product lines in favor of new investments in electric vehicles. The recently passed Build Back Better legislation carves out billions for electric vehicle infrastructure and has arguably inspired additional focus on the obtainability of a greener future.
Musk’s Telsa has also pursued advancements in solar power technology with benefits in both residential and industrial settings. Tesla’s solar panels are relatively inexpensive and can be used in tandem with powerful yet sustainable solar battery technology. Advanced battery technology is key to the future of solar and can store excess energy capacity during low sunlight days and when the conventional energy grid fails. Tesla has also joined a large real estate project in Texas to outfit newly-constructed homes with built-in solar roofs.
Musk also owns SpaceX, a space transportation and aerospace manufacturer with momentous achievements. SpaceX is the first private company to send a shuttle to the International Space Station and the first reuse, reflight, and landing of an orbital first stage craft. The company did so with the help of 72 patents, along with an additional 18 under Musk’s name. SpaceX also holds dozens of patents for its Starlink technologies. This system for space-based broadband internet includes patents in cutting edge satellite technology like transmission systems, antennas, and printed circuits. With the help of these patents, SpaceX has sent 600 satellites to space.
Outside of automotive innovation, Tesla and SpaceX patents are clustered around battery technologies, semi-conductor structure and application, and computational systems. Solar technology seems to focus on roofs and solar cells.
Musk made a top-dollar bid to buy the social media company Twitter in April 2022. The legendary inventor and businessman later attempted to withdraw from the deal, claiming that Twitter misrepresented its user numbers. He has since purchased the company at the original price of $54.20 a share in October 2022.
While his innovative record at Twitter is just being established, Musk’s proposals to improve the company and boost revenue have been met with mixed reviews. But even critics have conceded that some of his ideas, including adding an ‘edit button,’ developing user-centric approaches to content moderation, and banking features, could prove popular if implemented properly.
Elon the De-Innovator?
Problems at Twitter
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was fraught with public drama that threatens to impact his stated goal of transforming it into a fun and more universally used platform. But advertisers are leaving the platform in droves, as are Twitter’s verified “blue check” users that comprise the backbone of Twitter’s content.
Musk has made public statements to quell concerns. He insists that Twitter would not “become a free for all hellscape,” despite his position as a “free speech absolutist.” He is also on record stating that there would be a “thermonuclear name & shame” campaign against big companies that pull ad dollars.
Twitter and its features live and die by users’ (including advertisers) perception of them. If the “move fast and break things” mantra now applies to Twitter, it would behoove Musk to be more cautious with his words. Diminishing Twitter’s brand reputation prior to making radical changes is a recipe for reducing user numbers, regardless of their experience on the platform.
Issues at Tesla
Musk’s problems are not limited to Twitter. Though his companies’ innovations have generally been well received by consumers and the general public, some have not met expectations. Of the approximately $9 billion dollar solar market, Tesla only accounts for a measly two percent of total industry revenue. Tesla’s solar products have also seen their share of PR-related challenges, including claims that panels are a fire hazard. With sales lagging and customer frustrations mounting, Tesla faces an uphill climb to regain its relevancy in solar markets.
Musk’s Overall Impact
Throughout this cycle of struggle and triumph, Musk was (and is) active publicly. He’s courted controversy by taking on labor unions, the Biden administration, and critics of all political persuasions. While his viewpoints are questionable to some, his methods are offensive to many.
In the last year, public ire toward Musk has grown. Controversies include a spat with the White House that resulted in Musk being denied a literal seat at the table when pro-EV legislation was being drafted—with little to no discernable upside for Musk.
Sustained innovation over the long term means bringing people along with you. These lessons hold true for the entrepreneur in their garage and in the boardroom. Musk’s story is one of mixed success and the ongoing struggle that can be part and parcel with innovation; the evidence is mounting that he’s stymying his own progress—and ours.