Oct 4, 2022 - Economy

Elon Musk's empire of risk

Illustration of a pair of hands juggling bombs.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Elon Musk may be forced by a court to go through with his purchase of Twitter, raising questions about how his approach to risk-taking in business might play out on the platform.

Why it matters: Musk's high tolerance for risk at his companies, including Tesla and SpaceX, has reshaped industries and intersected with a vast number of employees and consumers.

Driving the news: Newly public texts between Musk and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey give us a glimpse into Musk's potential vision for Twitter.

  • Across several messages, Musk made clear he wanted to reshape Twitter by hiring chiefly engineers and coders.
  • That approach has worked for him at Tesla and SpaceX. But Twitter isn't a hardware company. Its product is human communication itself.
  • And risks taken on the platform have consequences for everyone who touches the public square.

Risk on the roads

What's happening: Local news stories about Tesla crashes bubbled up as the carmaker rolled out its self-driving features.

  • These are a patchwork of driving assistance features that are currently in beta mode and available to about 160,000 Tesla drivers around the U.S. and Canada.

"Most other companies that are developing self-driving technology are testing their cars on public roads too, but they're doing it with trained safety drivers behind the wheel, ready to take over in case there's a problem," Axios transportation reporter Joann Muller notes.

  • "But in the case of Tesla, this is just software that's downloaded into your car overnight and you get no special training. So you don't know when someone is driving a Tesla by you, whether that software is engaged or who's driving the car. And so that really puts everyone at risk."

Where it stands: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) released data this summer identifying 392 reported accidents as of May 2022 involving cars operating with assisted driving features.

  • 273, or roughly 69%, involved Teslas.

In 2021, the agency opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system and expanded that investigation nearly a year later.

  • It’s digging into whether Tesla’s driver assistance systems increase the risk of car accidents. And if NHTSA finds they do, the next step would be a recall to correct the problem.
  • NHTSA said it cannot comment on an open investigation, and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Risk on the factory floor

The culture of risk at Tesla reportedly seeps into the factories, too.

  • A 2019 Forbes investigation looked at California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations at major automakers from 2014 to 2018.
  • Forbes reported Tesla had accumulated three times as many violations as its 10 largest competitors combined in that period. The violations were for incidents like major factory floor injuries ranging from severe bone fractures to severed fingertips.

Tesla’s autoworkers are not unionized. Unions in auto plants are historically an important lever for workers to use to guarantee safety. It’s been widely reported that Tesla has quashed several unionization efforts in their plants.

Risk in space

SpaceX builds risk into the way it builds its rockets, testing them and learning from failed tests and explosions to make better rockets.

  • "What SpaceX has been able to do is normalize experimentation, normalize failures in a controlled way," says Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society and a longtime SpaceX watcher.

Why it matters: NASA is relying on SpaceX to get people to the Moon. That means "it's tacitly endorsing its risk-taking behavior in the industry," Axios Space reporter Miriam Kramer says.

  • "SpaceX's Starship is key to NASA's Artemis program to deliver people to the surface of the Moon. The rocket hasn't been to orbit yet, but SpaceX already has a contract with NASA to use Starship as a lunar lander."
  • "Industry experts aren't convinced it'll work, particularly before 2025, when the first landing is expected."

What to watch

The stakes are high when it comes to who will own and run Twitter. As long as the platform functions as a global public square, engineering it comes close to engineering society. Risks gone wrong there could have consequences for everyone who touches Twitter — which includes governments, activists, journalists, and millions of everyday people.

Go deeper: Listen to the new season of How It Happened: Elon Musk vs. Twitter.

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