2018 in review: Elon Musk’s very strange year

Early in the year, coverage of Musk was dominated by the question of whether he would leave Tesla to concentrate on SpaceX and other ventures.

Partly motivated by a desire to end this speculation and lock up its iconoclast leader long-term, the company signed off on a 10-year stock performance package for Musk which could see him awarded up to 20.3 million Tesla stock options, or 12% of the company’s current shares.

Meanwhile, SpaceX continued to make strides towards its goal of colonising Mars and in February it successfully launched a Falcon Heavy Rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The super rocket carried a Tesla Roadster as a mock payload.

Tesla’s profile continued to outstrip its profitability and in July, he survived an attempt by an investor to oust him as Chair. There had been a school of thought that Musk should not continue in the dual roles. After the vote, Musk’s voice cracked with emotion as he told the audience he had endured the “most excruciating, hellish several months I’ve ever had.“

Musk continued to rage against Tesla short sellers on Twitter and mulled over plans to take the company private. By mid-year he was meeting with financiers and in August he tweeted: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” The tweet alarmed industry experts who saw his decision to announce such a move on Twitter as “chaotic”. It proved to be both an exaggeration (discussions around funding the move were only preliminary) and his donwfall.

The axe eventually fell on Musk after the Securities and Exchanges Commission took action against him for securities fraud. Despite initially talking tough on the issue, he soon accepted a plea deal that meant he had to relinquish his role as Chair.

At his final earnings heading Tesla’s Board of Directors, Musk announced the company had enjoyed its most profitable quarter ever on the back of efficiency gains on the production of the company’s Model 3 vehicles. After James Murdoch was said to be the frontrunner to replace him, Musk was eventually succeeded in the role by Australian Robyn Denholm.

Musk also made headlines when he tried to intervene in the Thai cave rescue that gripped the world by supplying a “kid-size” submarine to rescue authorities. But the rescuers said it was impractical and declined to use it. This prompted a Twitter tantrum from Musk, who labelled Vernon Unsworth, a British diver British who was involved in the rescue a “pedo guy”. He also implied on Twitter that Unsworth was involved in child sex trafficking.

Musk also made unsubstantiated claims to Buzzfeed News that Unsworth was a “child rapist” and had married a 12-year-old child bride. Unsworth was outraged by the claims and in September, he sued Musk for libel. The whole episode also led some investors to questions Musk’s temperament and demand he apologise.

Yet another company he founded and runs, Boring Company, enjoyed strong progress in 2018 and announced in December it was set to open its first tunnel in Los Angeles. The tunnel is said to be the first step towards a high-speed underground transit network which will help alleviate Los Angeles’ infamous traffic jams.

By year’s end, Musk still enjoyed significant support from his employees. Staff at Tesla and SpaceX voted him into 19th place on Comparably’s list of the best-performed CEOs for 2018. His personal wealth stood at more than US$22 billion, which made him the 35th wealthiest individual in the world.

Musk’s pop culture prominence was such that he was even referenced in cult NBC comedy The Good Place. “Reach for the stars, as I said to my good friend Elon Musk,” the show’s Tahani Al-Jamil said. “And then he shot his car in space! What a weird creep, why was I friends with him!?”

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