My Car Quest

June 12, 2021

Editorial: How Elon Musk Shamed Detroit

Wherein a Native Detroiter Expresses Disillusionment with the auto culture he grew up in…

by Wallace Wyss –

As a child growing up in Detroit, I thought the Big Three automakers (There was still the Little Fourth, American Motors, and even the tiny fifth, Studebaker) could do no wrong.

I thought they were on top of it–that they picked and chose from new technology what they needed and the rest of the world was in awe of us. Then the foreign car invasion came and I saw there were other ways of doing things.

Detroit slowly brought in some foreign ideas–disc brakes, independent rear suspensions, fiberglass bodies (but only for the Corvette) air cooled engines (but only for the Corvair) but it became glaringly obvious that we are building cars that the rest of the world thought wasteful and irrelevant.

Where you could find Mercedes dealerships all over the US, there weren’t, say, Buick dealerships all over Europe. So then 13 years ago, along comes a spoiler, Elon Musk. Out of South Africa via his second country, Canada. I just read a biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance and am stunned by Musk’s ability to approach a field whose leaders have been dead set in their ways, analyze the situation and cut to the chase.

He did it simultaneously in two fields, rocketry and cars. In rocketry one of his big things was reusable rockets–send one out into space and have it come back so you can re-use it. In cars, the Tesla created a market where the Big Three thought there wasn’t one. Detroit rationalized, thinking why bother making a big effort with electric car sales in the US with electric cars being such a tiny percentage of overall sales? But he went for it, pedal to the metal, to dominate that percentage.

He saw it as not just a race for market share in the US but in the whole world and now there’s certain countries where Tesla has the dominant share of electric car sales and Tesla cars are being built in new factories in China and Germany.

Maybe the word “disenchantment” is how I think of Detroit now–where I once thought those executives, who live in fine homes on the water in Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe–were geniuses and deserved their financial rewards. Now, after reading Musk’s life story, I realize how they’ve been dragging their heels, telling us we were “world class” when Detroit’s products were provincial.

And the work ethic–it’s laughable the hours Detroit’s top execs put in compared to Musk, who has been known to go to the factory where a production problem is and sleep on the floor until the problem is solved, sometimes working 48 hours straight! It’s no wonder he is the 3rd richest man in the world (or is it second–Bezos is his target – now Musk is the richest thanks to the recent stock market performance of Tesla).

I think all the colleges in America–yes even the vaunted Harvard Business School – should teach the Musk Business Philosophy. Not the technology – that’s changing constantly – (like moving toward solid state batteries) but the way he approaches a new field (for him) and how, time after time, he sees what the obstacles are, removes them, and simplifies the building of a highly complex product.

On You Tube there is a compilation called Best of Autopilot FSD predicts Crash Compilation 2020 – Teslacam stories #16. Watch it and you see things Detroit can only dream about. Once full autonomy is made legal, Tesla will be way out ahead of any competitors.

Not only about features of cars, but he thinks big. His new factory in Germany was shipped as a put together kit–in other words where Detroit builds each factory bespoke, he now sends a factory with everything you need to a new location, he not only sells cars but sells factories that make cars.

And so it is. The American auto industry moves into a new year with this gadget and that (Detroit bragging about heated seats! 3-way tailgates! Whoopi do!) while Tesla moves in a different world, a more cerebral one. And if Space X makes more money than Tesla, what really hurts is the realization that Tesla is just Elon Musk’s side job! He does better on his side job than all Detroit executives do on their main job.

I hope American high schools and colleges can grasp the Musk approach to a problem – how he studies a field, realizes what needs to be up-dated and cuts to the chase. The universities need to learn how to teach it as a business philosophy. Because Detroit’s way was marginally good for the 20th century but flat isn’t cutting it anymore…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is a native of Detroit where he was writing ads for Chevrolet and Oldsmobile in another century.
 
 
 

Tesla Factory in Fremont, CA

Tesla Factory in Fremont, CA

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Editorial: How Elon Musk Shamed Detroit
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Editorial: How Elon Musk Shamed Detroit
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I think all the colleges in America--yes even the vaunted Harvard Business School - should teach the Musk Business Philosophy.
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Comments

  1. Excellent piece, Wallace.

    Whilst we all know how time flies, iIt seems like no time ago that a Tesla was a converted Lotus Elise…..

  2. When I met Elon Musk in front of the Beach Resort in Monterey many years ago with his battery powered roadster, he elaborated on the virtues of battery powered vehicles, and would be soon in production of a four door model. How wrong I was in doubting his claims, and again later in selling Tesla stock due to what I considered an inflated price.

  3. You forgot to say that Musk did it with OUR MONEY!
    Not only was he funded by tax dollars in the form of loans, grants, and tax credits, his car buyers received huge tax credits, all from our pockets.
    Who asked for self-driving cars, anyway ? Today’s cars have a limited life span due to more and more technology being added each year .That makes them uneconomical to repair after less than 10 years. Autonomous cars saving lives on our highways? More people die from drug overdoses than die on the highways. Ask Musk to tackle that problem, but maybe there is no money to be made there.

    • Wayne Watkins says

      I think you are spot on Tom as global entities like Elon Musk , Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates want to control the world . There is no money to be made in controlling the major drug problem in the world except if you are selling the drugs .

    • Tom is dead on, Tesla, Hyundai , GM , German Fiskar and Solyndra, all received over 500 million USD each from the Obama administration. All in all the US Government gave out 2.4 billion dollars to electric car and battery companies. If that money was used to buy new cars for Americans almost one third of US citizens could have had a new car.

  4. Glenn Krasner says

    I believe that large entrenched organizations get too comfortable with their existing corporate structures and technology, and the executives running them fear that anything new will threaten their jobs. A perfect example was Kodak – the largest photographic company in the world. They invented digital photography, but refused to embrace it and promote it because their whole existence was based on chemical film photography. Now, the company barely exists. The Detroit-based auto companies are the automotive equivalent of Kodak. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  5. Wallace Wyss says

    I too was shocked at how fast Kodak (and film) faded. I used to go to a photo lab in Hollywood that was the creme de la creme as many famous photographers went there. As digital advanced they struggled to survive, combining with another company (La Peer are you out there?) I still meet a young person now and there ho is shooting film with a still camera and ask them why and they launch into hole litany of “quality of light” and sprinkle in mentions of Ansel Adams but if Ansel were alive today he’d have gone digital long ago. I hope we internal combustion guys aren’t like those who once shot with film. I remember with film too many times all I’d have film with an ASA of 64 when I needed 125. Or have 24 pictures on the roll when I needed 36…

    And wasn’t the graphical interface also invented by some company that didn’t know what to do with it and invited those in the industry to view it, among them Steve Jobs who glommed onto it for Apple, and the rest is history….?

  6. What we are witnessing across our once mighty country started in Detroit many years ago. Complacency, greed and ineptitude. Why would a country send a guy like Demming to Japan after WWII and then sit idle and watch Toyota & Honda take over the market. Complete failure of management and government oversight.

  7. Wallace, you are correct – the graphical inte face was invented at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), along with the mouse and other common tools we take for granted on our computer s today. Jobs saw all the most advanced technological tools there, and utilized them, while Xerox never went into the computer business with any success whatsoever, and now makes all their products in China. Another great Rochester, NY-based company like Kodak, run into the ground by bad decision making. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  8. wallace wyss says

    Seems to me that colleges, especially business schools, should be teaching courses in “thinking outside the box” so when business students start their careers they don’t do things the same old hide-bound way. What struck me about Musk , in the Vance biography, is the way he would observe how something is built and think of a new cheaper faster way to do it. His rocket solutions were sometimes 90% less costly than the way it was being done before he arrived on the scene. The only disquieting thing was how personally he took criticism and lambasted colleagues publically if they disagreed with him. But I read Jobs was far worse, Personality wise. I hope being a business genius doesn’t mean you also have to be a SOB….

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