… THE ATTEMPT
our days after Elon Musk recorded an episode of a comedian’s podcast during which he was filmed taking a puff on a joint, two men stood on the floor of the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, examining a piece of aluminium. It was as yet unpainted and trapezoidal and would soon become the hood of a Tesla Model 3, the car company’s most recent release and the source (like most of Tesla’s previous releases) of great excitement, derision, hype, and misunderstanding. The men wore gloves and safety goggles, and they took turns running their hands around the edges of the aluminium, again and again, slowly, like a lock picker feeling for a click. You couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other over the factory din, but one was trying to show something to the other, and finally they both nodded. They finished their brief conference, pointed to a stack of identical stamped bonnets next to them, and hurried back to their stations on the line.
In the weeks before, Musk had tweeted that he was thinking of maybe taking Tesla private, prompting an SEC investigation, rumours that he was on drugs, and a 31 per cent drop in the stock price. He gave a tearful interview to The New York Times about being overworked, and weathered a social media storm instigated by a friend of his girlfriend’s, who suggested that he was unhinged. And yet here was his 464 000-square-metre car factory, in which massive dies stamped bonnet after bonnet after bonnet. Robot arms welded doors on to bodies in seconds – some of the robots were as tall as the palm trees outside, but they moved so swiftly and busily that they looked like squirrels scampering around building a nest.
Guys powered through foil-wrapped tacos from the on-site taco truck, finishing their breaks, before jumping back on the forklifts. Hydraulic Schuler lifts raised half-built Model S sedans way up high, so close to the rafters you winced, on their way to the next station on the line. A woman pressed floor panels into Model Xs neat and tight, faster than your eyes could follow her hands.
It was, in other words, a mundane Tuesday morning at 11:15 there on Fremont Boulevard, in the factory that used to churn out cars for GM and Toyota until that stopped and Tesla bought it, rehired many of its previous workers, applied tankards of crisp white and red paint everywhere, and began making electric cars. I asked one of the employees about all the Musk stuff going on. She smiled and shrugged. It was an off-topic question, a media question. It was not a question about the business of this place. Have there been production issues? Yes, there have. That’s one thing Elon Musk didn’t invent. It happens, especially when you’re
inventing something. So what are they doing about it? They are troubleshooting. A robot hits a snag, a bottleneck happens – they troubleshoot, until the trouble stops.
There is a sales office at the factory where you can buy a car. Out front is a small lot stocked with cars. I had driven the Model 3, but not the new Performance model, with the dual electric motors. I took one out, up and down the boulevard, on a stretch of the 880 freeway, to the drive-through at In-n-out. I accelerated so quickly I made my stomach fly, like when a roller coaster drops straight down. It was fantastic.
The car was built inside the factory. That may seem an unremarkable statement. Obvious. It might do nothing to satiate Tesla’s investors, who aren’t wrong to be concerned about the tweeting and the joint puffing. Or that he seems particularly erratic lately. Musk himself probably prompted the latest round of Tesla naysaying by promising specific production goals. But that’s what the guy does, and it’s not about pumping up the stock price for this quarter. Musk, desirous of everything at the same time, says: We’re going to do this impossible thing. And then sometimes he does it – he and the thousands of people working for him, using the engineering accomplishments and the inventions of generations of thinkers who came before them. And when they do it, when Musk’s promises come true, like Dean Moriarty he burns like a fabulous yellow Roman candle exploding across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centre light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww,’ while the rest of us just shamble on after him.
And when he doesn’t do it – when the employees of Tesla or Spacex set out to do some task he said they could do, but they make only 4 000 cars a week instead of 5 000, or the massive rocket doesn’t quite land on the tiny barge in the middle of the sea – Elon Musk can say the one thing no one else can:
I tried. – Ryan D’agostino