He may want to save the world, but the Tesla CEO’s distaste for traffic and clickbait could destroy us all
Elon Musk is a brilliant visionary who works and tweets tirelessly to improve our lives in all sorts of ways. His sleek, silent, S-3-X-y (get it?) Teslas make our sputtering gas-guzzlers look like Model Ts in comparison. He wants to build tunnels under Los Angeles and a Hyperloop that would whisk gentrifiers between L.A. and San Francisco at subsonic speed. And not only does he talk about putting us on Mars, but there’s a decent chance he’ll actually be able pull it off.
All of this scares the shit out of me.
Consider Tesla. In a recent opinion piece, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens claimed that the company’s stock price is inflated, it’s hemorrhaging money, and its first attempt at a mass-market sedan—the Model 3—is a piece of crap. Of course, as a climate change not-quite-denier who likely finds electric cars annoying, Stephens’s critiques were mostly stupid. Say what you will about Tesla’s business practices, but they’re vastly more innovative than the rest of the auto industry, and unlike the Big Three, the government hasn’t had to bail them out. Meanwhile, Ford isn’t even going to make sedans anymore, and unless you’re a conservative crank or a coal-roller, it’s a no-brainer to root for Tesla against the hoary, lumbering SUV-and-truck-obsessed competition
Still, even a clean and efficient electric car you can fix with a firmware update is still a car, and cars suck. Every year, I see more and more Teslas in among the scrum of luxury vehicles picking up kids at the prep school near my home, and I can assure you they snarl traffic just as effectively as their Range Rover, Mercedes G-Class, and chauffer-driven Suburban counterparts. Cars suck so bad that Tesla employees can’t even park at their own headquarters. When the world’s most cutting-edge car company starts paying people to bike to work what does that tell you?
Of course, Elon Musk knows cars suck, which is why he started the Boring Company. Even Elon Musk can’t sell you freedom from traffic. However, he’s currently the only car salesman able to sell you the idea of freedom from traffic without having to give up your car. (The only tangible items he’ll sell you through the Boring Company are hats and flamethrowers.)
In a country that is by turns unwilling and inept when it comes to bold new infrastructure projects, the idea of a charismatic billionaire who will swoop in and fix our broken transport system is undeniably attractive. I don’t even live in California and after reading Musk’s white paper on the L.A./San Francisco Hyperloop, I almost mailed him $100. But when he started zeroing in on urban transport and the car-carrying tunnels he wants to build under L.A., things got weird:
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”
“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
These sounded less like the words of a visionary and more like the sentiments of a billionaire who thinks the poor are icky, and when public transit policy consultant Jarrett Walker called him out on it, Musk replied thoughtfully and articulately with “You’re an idiot.” Since then, Musk has adjusted his tunnel plan to “prioritize pedestrians & cyclists over cars.” However he still sounds all elitist about it, calling it “a matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.” Gee, thanks.
But it’s on the subject of space that Elon Musk is at his most visionary and creepy. SpaceX is doing amazing things, zipping back and forth to the International Space Station with supplies and working toward building reusable rockets. They even shot a Tesla into space, which as car sales gimmicks go, is a lot more impressive than one of those inflatable dancing tube men. But “the ultimate goal” of SpaceX is “enabling people to live on other planets.”
Musk believes that the next phase of human evolution is for us to go multi-planetary. At first, this sounds pretty cool. But why is it cool? Cleveland has air that is more or less breathable, a climate that is arguably survivable, and hundreds of meat vendors, yet good luck convincing someone to move there. So why then would anybody ever want to move to Mars, which has a thin atmosphere consisting of mostly carbon dioxide, planet-wide dust storms that can last for months, and no known meat vendors of any kind?
Prepping Mars for life 10 billion years before our sun is scheduled to die makes no sense—unless you’re Elon Musk, in which case you believe this is necessary for the future of humanity. And do we really want someone undertaking our urban planning projects when he’s already making eyes at Mars from across the table? Clearly he thinks this planet is doomed. Not only that, but he’s also pretty convinced we’re living in a computer simulation, a hypothesis that offers up horrifying theories such as this:
Economist Robin Hanson argues a self-interested high-fidelity Sim should strive to be entertaining and praiseworthy in order to avoid being turned off or being shunted into a non-conscious low-fidelity part of the simulation.
So is Elon Musk a Sim who has managed to avoid being turned off by being entertaining and praiseworthy? Are the boring ones who got shunted those awful people he says you find on public transit? And is the Musk suite of companies some cult wherein an elite few attain the salvation of Mars and the rest of us are doomed to ride the bus for all eternity?
In addition to eliminating traffic congestion, Musk now wants to rank journalists and destroy clickbait, and this is precisely why we must do what the title of this particular piece of clickbait says: place this bold and visionary man into a non-reusable rocket and launch him into the heavens. While he’s gone, maybe people in cities all across the country can turn their full attention back to the countless bike and pedestrian projects so badly in need of our support, push for policies such as congestion pricing and the elimination of mandatory parking minimums, and rehabilitate our existing transit systems.
And obviously if he manages to return, we should immediately make this high-fidelity Sim the President of the Universe. That should go without saying.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich