Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, & The Bet Of The Century (New Book)

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Posted on EVANNEX on November 22, 2021, by Charles Morris

Videos and online articles are all very well, but some of us still like a good, solid book, paper or electronic, and it’s a little surprising that there aren’t more books about the 21st century’s most exciting and most widely-discussed company.

When I first released my history of Tesla in 2014, I expected to have the field to myself for only a short time, before a “real” book—one with a hard cover and celebrity blurbs on the jacket—appeared in airport bookstores. As it turned out, my experience paralleled the history of Tesla. As Marc Tarpenning told me, “We believed (quite naively), that once the Roadster was out and people saw that you could make a compelling electric car, all the car companies would jump on this idea.” Fifteen years later, they still really haven’t. 

Yes, Ashlee Vance released a very good biography of Elon Musk in 2015, but this included only a fairly brief discussion of Tesla, and of course, it’s now six years old. Yes, a few hardbacks and paperbacks have appeared since then, but these have either focused on the vehicles themselves (for example, Getting Ready for Model 3 by EVANNEX’s Roger Pressman), or on their writers’ personal impressions of Tesla. As far as a comprehensive history of the company goes, I had the field to myself until now (it hasn’t made me rich—so much for the first-mover advantage).

Now Tim Higgins, a longtime writer for the Wall Street Journal, has released Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century (Random House, 2021, 362 pages).

For true followers of the Tesla story, there’s a lot to like in this book. In fact, I would go so far as to call it a must-read, because there’s a wealth of material here that has never appeared publicly before. Higgins has enjoyed unprecedented access—he interviewed Tesla co-founders JB Straubel and the elusive Martin Eberhard, along with “hundreds” of former Tesla employees (many of whom spoke under condition of anonymity). He also somehow gained access to copies of emails exchanged by company execs—a treasure trove of firsthand information about the early days, and about several controversial episodes.

There are a number of previously untold stories here, and new aspects of familiar stories. In several cases, Higgins’s findings reveal interesting new information about events that had been widely covered, but not fully elucidated.

We already knew that, when the Tesla pioneers designed the Roadster’s battery pack, they were obsessive about safety. Higgins reveals that their caution was inspired by a couple of spectacular battery fires that occurred when the team first started fooling around with the then-new lithium-ion batteries. He also gives us some hitherto-unreported details about the interaction between Martin Eberhard and the AC Propulsion team.

A lot of people are entranced by the reports that Tesla once considered a merger with Apple, or Google, or both (I don’t share the fascination—it didn’t happen, so who cares who discussed it and when?). In 2015, Ashlee Vance caused controversy when he wrote that, according to “two people with direct knowledge of the deal,” Elon Musk and Larry Page discussed a deal in which Google would acquire Tesla. Page called this a rumor, and Musk said that the deal never progressed beyond “very informal discussions.”

This dubious anecdote generated far more media coverage than anything else in Mr. Vance’s book, a fact that apparently was not lost on Mr. Higgins. His book includes a similar headline-grabbing tale, attributed to “people who heard Musk’s version of events,” that Musk proposed an acquisition deal to Apple CEO Tim Cook, with the bizarre condition that Musk would become the CEO of Apple.

Following the book’s publication, the two zillionaires stoked the rumor mill further with a pair of unconvincing denials. Musk said he “reached out to Tim Cook to discuss the possibility of Apple acquiring Tesla,” but that Cook refused a meeting. Cook claimed, implausibly, that he “has never spoken to Elon.” The speculation will continue—perhaps these unidentified “people with knowledge” are aliens…or Elvis?

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