Elon Musk is as much scientist as CEO, and customers are his lab rats

We may not like the way he sells his vision, but one day we will all live in his world

FILE PHOTO: SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk looks at his mobile phone during a post-launch news conference to discuss the  SpaceX Crew Dragon astronaut capsule in-flight abort test at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo
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Elon Musk tweeted out an advertisement last week from a Kansas newspaper in 1915 titled "Horse vs Automobile". The ad attempted to persuade consumers that buying a car was potentially a far more expensive decision than sticking with their tried and tested horse for transportation.

“Come in and get a new harness instead of a new car and remember that Dobbin will take you through snow and mud as well as on good roads and that his carburetor is never out of order.”

Mr Musk commented on the ad that “Horses are even self-driving!”. Later in a reply, he also said: “There was still a surprisingly high usage of horses in 1940, but the trend was obvious.” And further down the thread he confirmed that he agreed with another Twitter user’s statement that buying anything other than a car with full self-driving capabilities right now was the equivalent of buying a horse one hundred years ago.

It is usually hard to know for certain what Mr Musk is thinking or aiming to achieve with his prolific social media activity. We can assume much without ever being definitively sure if he is being serious, playful or just seeing how far he can go.

Previous tweets have landed him in hot water with market regulators. He has even opened himself up to defamation law suits. Often his tweets also make him richer. However, his fortune fluctuates depending on the price of shares in Tesla, which soared 743 per cent last year.

FILE PHOTO: Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk walks next to a screen showing an image of Tesla Model 3 car during an opening ceremony for Tesla China-made Model Y program in Shanghai, China, January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
For a chief executive, Elon Musk has enormous influence beyond his own companies, including Tesla. That is a precious commodity. Reuters

More recently, the chief executive of the electric car maker lost $27 billion of his wealth in a single week amid a sell-off of technology stocks. At the end the same week, his $156.9bn net worth still had him at number two, almost $20bn behind Jeff Bezos, who once again became the world's richest person. Whether Mr Musk is first, second, third or otherwise on the global money charts on any given day is beside the point. His business goals, should they come to fruition, will bestow on him a kind of immortality that money alone cannot convey on an individual.

Hence, interested observers must tread carefully whenever analysing Mr Musk’s comments about anything, let alone cars and horses – this particular tweet getting more than 140,000 likes and being retweeted over 13,000 times at the time of writing this article.

A few days after he posted it, on Sunday, Mr Musk also announced that he was offering Tesla owners who wanted it, self-driving software for their vehicles, as part of a pilot programme that began in October.

The idea of testing this technology among the general public has made many nervous. Equally, those who defend the project say humans have shown themselves to be far more dangerous behind the wheel than any autopilot. It stirred a lot of conversation.

Mr Musk is always pushing boundaries as he pursues his objectives in transportation, space and satellite communications.

Whether he succeeds in fulfilling his many ambitions, his legacy is likely to endure in the corporate world. By involving customers in Tesla’s R&D efforts and directly engaging with them on a wide range of subjects, issues and even service complaints, he is changing the expectations of consumers everywhere. They will want the same level of engagement from brands that impact their day-to-day lives, whether it is the car they drive, the food they eat or the clothes they wear.

You can see this trend already playing out in the way corporate accounts on Twitter have adopted more personal and casual tones.

Beyond the motor industry, which will have to emulate Tesla to beat it in the growing market for electric cars, other sectors and businesses will see the brand loyalty that Tesla commands and also follow suit.

A new era of more transparent and direct corporate communications will be part of Mr Musk’s legacy.

Also, he is challenging conceptions around corporate leadership.

Culturally and socially, so much is already changing, and the generations coming through have their own ideas of what a CEO should be like. Mr Musk can be a divisive figure. He is, for example, adored by millennials. While he may be less beloved by those older and younger, they still know who he is.

For a chief executive, he has enormous influence beyond his own companies. That is a precious commodity. It is also a responsibility, one that Mr Musk can be flippant about. Perhaps because he does not want it.

His horse and car ad tweet highlights this. Back in the early 20th century, there were sensible reasons why people were still buying horses decades after the invention of the car, and similarly there will be those justifiably hesitant to embrace AI as their driver today.

Mr Musk is effectively dismissing you though, if you are not already on board with a future of self-driving cars. Putting a negative spin on those who disagree with you would seem like corporate suicide. You are upsetting potential customers, a cardinal sin for any business. However, not for Mr Musk. Rather, it endears him even more to those who already are or who want to be Tesla owners. Mr Musk’s approach is a form of tribal leadership, conscious or otherwise.

Instead of creating a singular rivalry, Musk seemingly seeks to exclude

Instead of creating a singular rivalry, such as Coke vs Pepsi, or say Tesla vs Ford, which often stirs cultural and sometimes even political debate about how and what you choose to consume but overall remains inclusive, Mr Musk seemingly seeks to exclude.

As this remarkable period of technological advancement slows over the coming decades, it is likely that we will have fewer transcending characters such as Mr Musk but he will not be gone. By then he would have influenced generations of CEOs who will either seek to emulate or negate his way of doing things. So, however it happens, we will all one day live in Mr Musk’s world. This will probably please him more than anything else.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National