New book—Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century
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?
Above: Author Tim Higgins talks about Power Play and how the book evolved over the time he started writing it (YouTube: SAE International)
There are a lot of other stories in this book that I find more interesting (and better documented). The role of Peter Rawlinson (now the CEO of Lucid) in the Tesla story appears to have been even more important than we thought. We knew that Rawlinson was one of the main designers of Model S. As Higgins tells it, he also played a large role in forming Tesla’s overall strategy. Rawlinson was hired when the development of Model S was in its early stages. A week into his new job, he had the balls to tell Elon Musk that he needed to scrap the existing Model S program and start over. Rawlinson insisted that Model S needed to be built “from the ground up” as an EV, not cobbled together from components of existing gas vehicles as the Roadster had been (Musk was coming around to the same view). Tesla was working with Daimler on a plan to build Model S on a platform used for the Mercedes E-Class. Rawlinson shot that proposal down, and Model S became his baby. The policy of designing the best vehicles possible, regardless of cost, and regardless of auto industry tradition, became one of the cornerstones of Tesla’s corporate ethos.
Another revelation is that the road to the Tesla/Panasonic battery partnership was far longer and rockier than previously reported. It was JB Straubel’s job to line up a battery supplier for the Roadster, and it was wearing him out. The big companies (then, as now, all based in Asia) wanted nothing to do with EVs—in their view, the potential sales volume was tiny, and the risk of bad press from battery fires was huge. Panasonic exec Kurt Kelty, a Californian with deep roots in Japan, “was known for rejecting requests from startups like Tesla.” But somehow, Kelty caught the bug, quit Panasonic to work for Tesla, and became the company’s secret weapon in its struggle to secure a battery supply. The quest lasted many months, but Kelty finally prevailed, and the rest is history. It’s possible that, without Kelty’s connections, and deep understanding of Japanese business culture, Tesla might never have gotten off the ground.
In 2018, when Elon Musk floated an ill-considered plan to take Tesla private, it wasn’t clear whether the “funding secured” that he had mentioned had ever existed, or if it represented a deal that fell apart. Higgins tells us that, a week before “the tweet heard round the internet,” Musk had met with representatives of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund, and that the Saudis, who were hoping for a Gigafactory to be built in their country, had made Musk a vague promise of support for a going-private deal.
In addition to Rawlinson and Kelty, several other key figures in Tesla’s history get their due here: Tim Blankenship, who almost single-handedly devised the company’s sales strategy; Rik Avalos, a recruiter who hired some of Tesla’s brightest stars; Gilbert Passin, who helped to broker the sweetheart deal under which Tesla bought its Fremont factory from Toyota, and played a major role in setting up Tesla’s manufacturing operations. It’s good to read more about the contributions of these folks, who have generally gotten short shrift in media coverage of Tesla, most of which tends to focus squarely on you-know-who.
Speaking of that volatile visionary, Mr. Musk doesn’t come off as a very likable guy in these pages. Former employees describe a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, complete with temper tantrums and summary firings. True, allegations by former employees (many of them less than gruntled) always need to be taken with a grain of lithium salt, but Musk’s erratic behavior has been reported by many over the years, and a variant thereof has often been on public display via his Twitter feed. Here’s what the man himself had to say about Higgins’s work: “Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense.”
I do have one serious criticism of this book (I’m one of those teachers who simply don’t give As). Higgins writes in an extremely casual, conversational style, and more scholarly readers may find his cavalier treatment of the English language to be a distraction. Some parts of the book read like an Elon Musk tweet. Grammatical errors, bizarre sentence constructions, inconsistent style and dubious word choices abound. This is far from rare in published books, but I was surprised to see it in a work by such a venerable and decorated author as Higgins. To be fair, the ultimate responsibility for such shoddy workmanship rests with the publisher, not the writer. Perhaps the sales of this volume will allow Random House to engage the services of a skilled copy editor for the next edition.
Like many of the animadversions so often levelled against Tesla (and EVs in general), Higgins’s stylistic stumbles and secrecy about sources represent room for improvement, not a reason not to buy. I have to hoist my hat high to Higgins, and recommend this book to any follower of the Tesla story.