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Musk’s Flint meandering

Jul 14, 2018

It’s not news that Flint has been struggling to get clean water into its homes and businesses, except maybe to Elon Musk.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

He’s the visionary behind PayPal, Space X and Tesla. This week Musk tweeted he’s ready to deliver fresh water to the city. But the offer that has Flint officials wondering what, if anything, is next … looks awfully transparent to faithful Musk watchers. Same for people who know just what happened to the city and what it will take to fix it.

Mark Edwards is the Virginia Tech researcher who helped identify the scale of Flint’s problem. He told The Detroit News that Musk should be, quote, “more focused on meeting” his Model 3 production goals.

The good professor is exactly right.

A major investor in Tesla urged Musk to, quote, “just concentrate on the core task. A time of peace and quiet is what is needed to work through these issues.”

Good luck. The words peace and quiet don’t belong in the same sentence as “Elon Musk.” Like the guy who sits in the White House, Musk can’t let a shot pass, can’t let the Twitter app rest, can’t acknowledge when he’s out of his depth.

But Musk is. Despite hitting his quarterly production numbers with a heroic push, Tesla continues to teeter. It’s perhaps the most shorted stock on American exchanges. That’s dollars and cents evidence that a growing number of investors think he’ll likely fail. His push through self-described “production hell” is a lesson in how not to produce a car.

In the real global auto industry, any manufacturing engineer who proposed to reconfigure the assembly line after launch to decommission costly robots only recently purchased to erect a third assembly line in a tent evoking a wartime motor pool would be shown the door.

Yesterday.

Not Musk, in part because he essentially controls Tesla’s board. And because there still are enough investors who, quote, “believe” in him no matter what their lyin’ eyes see.

Tesla still is not profitable. It burns enormous amounts of cash and it sits on a pile that belongs to would-be buyers waiting, waiting, waiting for their Model 3s. Games like these would not be tolerated from any other automaker – and that’s the point, isn’t it?

Look, time is running short for Tesla. If the automaker can’t quicken the pace of Model 3 production, and do it with consistency, it’ll likely be forced to ask investors for yet more capital this year.

Tesla also is on track to be the first American automaker to begin losing the $7,500 federal tax credit for its vehicles. After December 31, the credit will begin to phase out for Tesla buyers because the company will have exceeded the limit allowed by federal legislation. Others like General Motors will be up next. Meantime, Musk will lose an advantage in the marketplace that is particularly important to buyers of lower-priced Model 3s.

What’s not sustainable can’t be sustained. Saying so isn’t hating. It’s reality. Just ask the folks in Flint.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.