By Dan Neil
On or about May 1, 2009, Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of the electric car maker Tesla Motors, fired off an angry email to me regarding a story I had written in the pages of my then-employer.
I no longer have these emails, but as I recall, at issue was my public skepticism that a car such as the Model S could be built, within the technical specifications Mr. Musk laid out, before the end of 2012.
After many years writing about the car business, I have come to appreciate how difficult it is for an established manufacturer to build any car, even a conventional automobile relying on incumbent technologies.
Mr. Musk’s Model S was a radically different automotive vision — a premium sedan with an all-electric powertrain, potential seven-passenger seating, and a battery back that would serve as a stressed, that is, a load-bearing member of the chassis, and yet would be easily removed and replaced. That such a car should come in three years from a company that at the time didn’t even have an assembly hall seemed an impossible boast.
Mr. Musk then bet me $1 million that he would do it and, graciously acknowledging our rather different financial situations – he’s wealthy and I’m not – said the bet would be only $1,000 to me. In either case, he wrote, the winnings would go to the charity Doctors Without Borders. Seeing this as a rare opportunity to facilitate a $1 million donation to a worthy cause, I accepted.
Last week, Tesla Motors began customer deliveries of the Model S built at its facility in Fremont, Ca., a little over three years after our bet and a mere two years after Tesla bought the former GM/Toyota assembly hall. The new Model S is exactly the car he described, delivered six months before the end of 2012.
This morning I made a donation of $1,000 to Doctors Without Borders.
The Wall Street Journal, which I joined in February 2010, does not permit its journalists to engage in this kind of wagering, regardless of subject or beneficiary — even by critics and columnists like me who are paid to have and express their opinions. And that’s perfectly reasonable: You wouldn’t want a theater critic betting a play will succeed or fail. Moreover, it’s better for journalists to write about the story than to somehow become part of the story. However, since I undertook this obligation before my tenure at the WSJ, and since the outcome is a charitable contribution, the Journal allowed me to follow through.
So, I lost, and happily so. As a proponent of electric mobility, I have said many times that I wanted to lose the bet; in other words, I wanted Tesla to succeed. As a critic, I’ll reserve judgment on the Model S until I get a chance to drive it. Regardless, Mr. Musk and Tesla’s achievement – birthing a radically different kind of car, and essentially a brand-new car company, in three years – is nothing short of astonishing. And I congratulate him.
By Dan Neil