Online videos and articles are very good, but some of us still love good, solid, paper or electronic books, and it’s a bit surprising that there aren’t more books about the most exciting and discussed company of the 21st century.
When I first released a history of Tesla in 2014, I expected to only have this field to myself for a short while, before a “real” book—a hardcover book and celebrity envelopes on the jacket—appeared in airport bookstores. As it turns out, my experience parallels the history of Tesla. As Mark Tarpenning told me, “We thought (quite naively) that once the Roadster came out and people saw that you could make a convincing electric car, all the car companies would jump on the idea.” Fifteen years later, they still really haven’t.
Left: A new book on Tesla by Tim Higgins of the Wall Street Journal (Source: Random House); Right: Tesla CEO Elon Musk (Flickr: Steve Jurvetson)
Yes, Ashley Vance released a very good autobiography of Elon Musk in 2015, but that only included a fairly brief discussion of Tesla, who is of course now six years old. Yes, some hardcover and paperback books have appeared since then, but these either focused on the vehicles themselves (eg, Prepare for the Model 3 by Roger Pressman of EVANNEX), or on their own book’s personal impressions of Tesla. As far as the comprehensive history of the company goes, I’ve had this field to myself so far (it didn’t make me wealthy – too much for a first mover feature).
Tim Higgins, a longtime Wall Street Journal writer, has now 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 is a lot to like about this book. In fact, I would go so far as to describe it as a must-read, because there is a wealth of material here that has not previously appeared in public. Higgins had unprecedented access – he interviewed Tesla founder JB Straubel and dodger Martin Eberhard, along with “hundreds” of former Tesla employees (many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity). He also somehow gained access to copies of emails exchanged by company officials – a treasure trove of first-hand information about the early days, and about several controversial episodes.
There are a number of never-before-seen stories here, and new sides to familiar stories. In many cases, Huygens’ findings revealed interesting new information about events that were widely covered, but not fully elucidated.
We already knew that when the Tesla pioneers designed the Roadster battery pack, they were safety obsessed. Higgins reveals that their caution was inspired by two amazing battery fires that occurred when the team first began fiddling with then-new lithium-ion batteries. It also gives us some hitherto unreported details about the interaction between Martin Eberhard and the AC Propulsion team.
Many people are fascinated by reports that Tesla once considered it a merger with Apple, Google, or both (I don’t share that fascination – it didn’t, so who cares who discussed it and when?). In 2015, Ashley Vance sparked controversy when he wrote that, according to “two people with direct knowledge of the deal,” Elon Musk and Larry Page discussed a deal under which Google would acquire Tesla. Page described the rumor, and Musk said the deal did not go beyond “very informal discussions.”
This shady tale has generated far more media coverage than anything else in Mr. Vance’s book, a fact Mr. Higgins apparently hasn’t lost sight of. His book includes a similar headline-grabbing anecdote, attributed to “people who heard Musk’s version of events,” in which Musk proposed a takeover deal for Apple CEO Tim Cook, on the odd condition that Musk become Apple CEO.
After the book was published, the billionaires stoked the rumor mill with a pair of unconvincing denials. Musk said he had “communicated with Tim Cook to discuss the possibility of Apple’s acquisition of Tesla,” but Cook declined to hold a meeting. Cook claimed, unreasonably, that he “never spoke to Elon”. Speculation will continue – maybe these unknown “knowledgeable people” are aliens…or Elvis?
Above: Author Tim Higgins talks about Power Play and how the book has evolved over the time he started writing it (YouTube: SAE International)
There are plenty of other stories in this book that I find most interesting (and better documented). It seems that Peter Rawlinson (now CEO of Lucid) in the Tesla story was more important than we thought. We knew Rawlinson was one of the lead designers of the Model S. Higgins says, he also played a big role in shaping Tesla’s overall strategy. Rawlinson was hired when the Model S development was in its infancy. A week into his new job, he had the balls to tell Elon Musk he needed to cancel his existing Model S program and start over.
Rawlinson insisted that the Model S needed to be built “from the ground up” as an EV, not stacked together from components of current gas vehicles as the Roadster was (Musque was nowhere near the same view). Tesla has been working with Daimler on a plan to build a Model S on a platform used for the Mercedes E-Class. Rawlinson rejected this proposal, and Model S became his child. The policy of designing the best cars possible, no matter the cost, no matter the tradition of the auto industry, has become one of the cornerstones of Tesla’s corporate ethos.
Another revelation is that the road to the Tesla/Panasonic battery partnership has been much longer and more complex than previously reported. It was JP Straubel’s job to line up a battery supplier for the Roadster, and it tires him. Big companies (then, as now, all based in Asia) didn’t want anything to do with electric vehicles – in their view, the potential sales volume was minimal, and the risk of bad pressure from battery fires was huge.
Kurt Kelty, the CEO of Panasonic, a California native with deep roots in Japan, “was notorious for turning down applications from startups like Tesla.” But somehow, Keelty found out what was wrong, left Panasonic to work for Tesla, and became the company’s secret weapon in its struggle to secure the battery supply. The job took several months, but Keelty finally won, and the rest is history. It’s possible that without Kelty’s connections and deep understanding of Japanese business culture, Tesla might not have started at all.
In 2018, when Elon Musk floated an ill-conceived plan to take Tesla private, it wasn’t clear if the “secured financing” he mentioned existed, or whether it represented a deal that fell apart. Higgins tells us that a week before “hearing the tweet online,” Musk met with representatives of the Saudi sovereign investment fund, and that the Saudis, who had hoped to build a Giga plant in their country, made Musk a vague promise of backing a private deal.
In addition to Rawlinson and Kelty, many other key figures in Tesla history get their due here: Tim Blankenship, who single-handedly created the company’s sales strategy; Rick Avalos, the recruiter who hired some of Tesla’s brightest stars; Gilbert Passin, who helped broker the sweetheart deal under which Tesla bought the Fremont plant from Toyota, and played a key role in setting up Tesla’s manufacturing operations. It’s good to read more about the contributions of these people, who have generally received little attention in the media coverage of Tesla, most of which tends to focus squarely on people who know who.
Speaking of that volatile vision, Mr. Musk doesn’t appear as a very likable man in these pages. Former employees describe a situation of my road or highway, riddled with tantrums and rapid firing. It’s true that claims from former employees (many of whom are less than the trucker) should always be taken with a lithium salt pill, but Musk’s erratic behavior has been reported by many over the years, and a variant of it has often been shown to the public via his Twitter feed. Here is what the man himself had to say about Higgins’ work: “Most, but not all, of what you read in this book is nonsense.”
I have one serious criticism for this book (I am one of those teachers who simply don’t give As). Higgins writes in a very casual conversational style, and more scholarly readers may find his arrogant treatment of English a distraction. Some parts of the book read like Elon Musk’s tweet. Grammar errors, strange sentence combinations, inconsistent style, and questionable word choices abound.
This is far from a rarity in published books, but I was surprised to see it in the work of such a respected and embellished author as Higgins. To be fair, the ultimate responsibility for such shoddy industry lies with the publisher, not the writer. Perhaps sales of this volume will allow Random House to enlist the services of a skilled copy editor for the next edition.
Like many cartoons often directed against Tesla (and electric vehicles in general), Higgins’ stylistic stumbles and secrecy of sources are an area for improvement, not a reason not to buy. I must tip my hat to Higgins, and recommend this book to any follower of the Tesla story.
This article originally appeared on Charged. Author: Charles Morris.