BAY AREA, California: Petaluma software engineer Dave Huntley admires Tesla CEO Elon Musk – the man who upended the auto industry and brought electric vehicles into the mainstream.
But Twitter CEO Musk gives him pause – not least when Musk retweeted a link to strange lies about the brutal attack on US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband.
“It’s disgusting,” Huntley said. “I’m fed up with him as a man now.”
ALSO READ: Elon Musk’s antics turn owners and would-be buyers against Tesla
With erratic, sometimes juvenile tweets, Musk is testing the tolerance of drivers in one of Tesla’s most concentrated markets. Across California, Tesla accounts for 73% of new electric vehicle sales, though competition from other automakers is rising. The company has a factory in Fremont and was based in Palo Alto until Musk moved the headquarters to Texas last year after citing high costs and frustration with pandemic policies.
The Bay Area, along with the world, is watching how Musk will wield his newfound power at the helm of Twitter. A clue came Nov 7, the morning before the midterm elections, when Musk tweeted to his 115 million followers that Americans should choose Republicans for Congress to balance out the Democratic president.
Some local Tesla drivers aren’t paying close attention to Musk’s antics – they just care about the car.
Taylor Benz, an airline pilot, who was charging his Tesla at Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa on Monday, said he’s bought the vehicle a few months ago because it seemed like a great car. As for Musk, “I couldn’t tell you a thing about the guy.”
Dan Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board and founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, believes that Tesla will keep its loyal following, both because of the reverence felt by climate-conscious buyers and also because the company continues to innovate in ways that could help the industry at large.
“The more likely outcome of all of this is people will give up on Twitter rather than on Tesla,” said Sperling, who drives a nine-year-old Model S.
Mike Evans, a Tesla driver who pulled up at a Supercharger station in Petaluma on Nov 9, said he deleted his Twitter account as soon as Musk took over the company because of the CEO’s behaviour on the platform.
“I appreciate that Elon Musk is an alternative energy and environmental visionary, but socially and politically, he’s nuclear,” said Evans, who is considering shopping for a different brand of electric vehicle next year.
Musk says he is defending free speech while rescuing Twitter from financial turmoil and special interests.
Kathryn Phillips, former director of Sierra Club California, said her anxiety about climate change outweighs any concern about a “jerk” of a CEO. Her zero-emissions Tesla Model Y “is a good car”, she said.
“Musk is repulsive, but he fits in with the history of automakers,” said Phillips, who noted that other auto industry leaders have used their clout to influence politics, sometimes to ill effect. Ford Motor Co founder Henry Ford, for example, promoted antisemitic propaganda.
Phillips and others praised Tesla’s broad and reliable network of charging stations – often a contrast to other public stations, which often don’t work.
Driving an electric vehicle to Vegas on a whim? “Then you have to get a Tesla,” said Marc Geller, a San Francisco Tesla Model S driver who hasn’t owned a gasoline-powered vehicle in more than two decades.
Making electric vehicles ubiquitous is essential to curbing climate change, said Geller, vice president and co-founder of EV nonprofit Plug In America.
“Don’t not get a Tesla because Elon Musk is an (expletive),” Geller said. He has tempered any associations with the Tesla brand with the bumper sticker, “AOC speaks for me,” referring to left-leaning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York.
For others, Musk’s apparent disregard for the scourge of misinformation vexing United States politics has destroyed the appeal of Tesla.
“I feel like I have a moral obligation” to avoid buying a Tesla, said Jeff Leslie, a Greenbrae resident.
Leslie has been debating whether to drive his 20-year-old Jeep Cherokee into the ground or buy an electric vehicle. Either way, he won’t buy a Tesla, even though he’s familiar with arguments that the brand’s charging is superior.
On Nov 10, Emeryville’s mayor announced he had cancelled his planned tour of Tesla’s Fremont factory, criticising Musk for using Twitter “to censor free speech” and for using his “immense privilege” for “largely self-gratifying purposes”.
Hovig Tchalian, an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said Musk is at heart a businessman. He suspects Musk is using his social media platform in a purposeful way.
“Most of what he does, even if it seems to us as counterintuitive, is deliberate and strategic,” Tchalian said. “He’s a market maker and a market mover.”
Despite his disgust, Huntley, the Petaluma software engineer, is keeping his Tesla. Musk “will remain my hero in many ways” for helping to break open the electric vehicle sector.
“He did something really special,” he said. – The San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service