In Depth

Elon Musk: is he falling from grace?

The South African entrepreneur is no overnight success story

Elon Musk is a name that regularly crops up in headlines, with a glut of stories about his outlandish tech ideas and rocket launches.

He is best known as a key player in electric car company Tesla and aerospace firm SpaceX. These investments have helped him build a multibillion-dollar fortune over the past couple of decades.  

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the inventor and entrepreneur. A number of missteps and feuds in recent months have angered his many fans, along with investors in his companies. 

Why is he controversial?

Musk may have built a loyal fanbase in recent years, highlighted by over 22m followers on Twitter, but 2018 has proved to be a controversial year for the billionaire. 

His most recent fracas came in the wake of the youth football team rescue from a flooded cave in northern Thailand. In a series of tweets, which have since been deleted, Musk called diving expert Vern Unsworth a “paedo” and implied that it was “sus” [suspect] for a British ex-pat to be living in Thailand.

The comments came after Unsworth called Musk’s mini-submarine designed to help rescue the stranded youth’s and their coach a “PR stunt” during an interview with US broadcaster CNN. The Tesla chief later apologised on Twitter “to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader”, adding that his “words were spoken in anger.”

Meanwhile, in May, Musk cut off analysts during a Tesla earnings conference call after he deemed them too “boring” and “dry”. This resulted in the company’s stocks dropping “seemingly at the same time that analysts’ questions were waved off”, says Bloomberg

This was followed by Musk engaging in numerous arguments with journalists on Twitter after he claimed the press focuses on deaths in Tesla vehicles, Metro says. 

He has since “offered a solution for fighting back against the negative press coverage”, the news site says, which takes the form of a media-rating website called Pravda. This would allow users to rate the legitimacy of articles, journalists and publications in a bid to avoid fake news. 

Considering Musk’s tunnelling firm the Boring Company was supposedly spawned from an idea posted on Twitter, there is a chance that the so-called Pravda site may become a real service. 

Who is Elon Musk? 

Elon Musk is a 46-year-old South African billionaire who has founded and invested in multiple high-tech companies. He was born and raised in South Africa until the age of 18, says Forbes, before moving to the US “as a transfer student at the University of Pennsylvania”.

He went on to co-found the online payment service PayPal and has since built up a net worth of $21bn (£16bn). This makes Musk the 80th richest person in the world. 

How did he become a billionaire?

Musk’s long road to billionaire status began with his ability to use money resourcefully from a young age, says Time. From creating his own video game at the age of 12 to converting his university house into a nightclub to pay rent, says the site, Musk's path to riches was “far from an overnight success story”.

After dropping out of university in 1995 to co-found the online directory firm Zip2 with his brother, says Business Insider, Musk became one of the leading investors in the online payment company now known as PayPal. Despite being fired from the board, he remained a shareholder and made around $182m (£140m) when the company was sold to eBay in 2002. 

He used the money from the deal to found SpaceX and invest in Tesla. Thanks to the growth of these two firms, among other investments, Forbes says, Musk’s wealth jumped from $680m (£525m) in October 2011 to $2bn (£1.5bn) less than six months later. 

What does he do now?

SpaceX and Tesla are the best-known companies in which Musk is a key player.

SpaceX aims to reduce the cost of space travel dramatically by reusing rockets. Previously, most US government-backed rockets at Nasa were restricted to a single flight, because it was easier to let them burn up when reentering the atmosphere than to reuse them.

Since 2007, Musk’s aerospace firm has successfully landed and relaunched several rockets, which the company says moves them closer to their goal of transforming space exploration by slashing running costs. 

Then there’s Tesla, the electric vehicle firm aiming to shake up the motoring industry. All of the company’s cars are powered by batteries and electric motors, substantially lowering their carbon footprint. 

Tesla recently launched a cheaper product called the Model 3 to help more car owners buy a vehicle powered by electricity. It costs from around $35,000 (£27,000), but the large number of pre-orders means many customers won’t receive their car until next year. 

What's next?

Musk is involved with a growing number of companies and projects, many of which focus on improving public transport or developing personal technology. 

One of his most recent ventures is The Boring Company, which, according to Tech Crunch, is developing “an underground railway system for vehicles”. The aim is to relieve congestion in cities by transporting people through a series of underground tubes. 

Musk is also the co-founder of OpenAI, a company that “focuses on long-term research” into the benefits and dangers of AI technology. The firm publishes open-source software to accelerate AI research. 

He also sits on the board of SolarCity, a company that specialises in developing solar panels to work with renewable energy storage systems offered by Tesla.

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