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Will Elon Musk step down as CEO of Tesla?

Musk's goal was the Model 3. So now what?


Phillip Tracy


Posted on Aug 29, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 7:04 pm CDT

More than a decade ago, Elon Musk penned part 1 of the Tesla Master Plan to transition the automotive industry to renewable energy: First come the high-priced boutique cars, then you transition to more affordable electric vehicles.

With that goal achieved, what’s next for Musk at Tesla? Is there a chance he actually departs from the company like he’s said he would? Amid message board speculation this month, let’s look at some of the reasons Musk would leave his position as CEO of Tesla, and why he might want to stay.

Reasons Musk will leave Tesla

The Model 3 is (almost) ready

Musk’s primary goal for Tesla has always been to create an affordable, high-volume electric car.

He first presented the objective in his 2006 “The Secret Tesla Master Plan,” where he wrote, “The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.” In doing so, Tesla would move the auto industry from burning hydrocarbons to a more sustainable solar solution.

The Model 3 completes his vision and all that’s left is getting keys in customers’ hands. Tesla should be on autopilot once production ramps up and more Gigafactories open. This could buy Musk time to work on other ambitious projects, and could even compel him to leave his position as CEO altogether.

He’s got a few other things going on

Musk’s first true love is space, and he has shown that through his other company, SpaceX, successfully launching rocket after rocket with the eventual goal of nuking and colonizing Mars. But managing two giants isn’t easy, and it’s taking a toll.

“In the case of Elon, running two companies is beyond exhausting,” said Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, according to Mashable. “Musk is deeply, deeply involved [sic] every move of both SpaceX and Tesla. This includes the brutal logistics of having to split his life between L.A. and Silicon Valley on a weekly basis. It’s a lifestyle that I doubt very many people could maintain and that takes a huge toll on Musk.”

Unless Musk quietly found a way to clone himself, things have only gotten more difficult. Along with his work at SpaceX and Tesla, Musk now runs Neuralink, a mysterious company reportedly creating implantable brain-computer interfaces. He is also a chairman at solar energy company SolarCity and artificial intelligence non-profit OpenAI. Not to mention the new tunneling company he created while sitting in a traffic jam, and his continued interest in building the first commercial hyperloop.

Many question how he can effectively run so many companies at once. If Tesla is really on its way to becoming profitable and scalable, it might be time to say goodbye.

Because he said he would, twice

Musk first spoke of departing Tesla in a 2013 interview with Reuters. He reportedly said he’d “stay with the automaker through the successful launch of the Model 3.”

Soon after, Musk gave a more precise timeline for when he plans to leave. At a shareholders meeting in 2014 (6:55 in the video below), he committed to staying CEO of the Tesla for at least four to five years through the production of the Model 3 and then “I’ll have to see, you know, how things are going at that point, and whether it’s manageable to do that on a personal level without getting burnt out essentially. Then I’ll keep doing it, otherwise, I’ll have to find someone else.”

He also revealed, “Nobody is CEO of a company forever. Eventually they carry you out. In my case, it is quite difficult being CEO of two companies. It was never my intention to be CEO. I tried to actually not be CEO quite hard, and eventually it was either that or the company wasn’t going to make it.”

His most recent update on the production of the Model 3 is that it will go through six months of “production hell” before ramping up to 500,000 produced annually by the end of 2018. That puts Musk’s “four to five years” prediction right on schedule, and means he could leave his role as soon as next year.

Reasons Musk won’t leave Tesla

Because he said he wouldn’t

OK, so Musk also said he wouldn’t leave Tesla.

In an interview at the TED 2017 Conference in Vancouver, Musk said “I intend to stay with Tesla as far into the future as I can imagine.” He then goes on to name several projects the company is still working on.

His statement (13:30 in the above video) sounds pretty cut and dried, but you wouldn’t expect a CEO of his caliber to spontaneously announce his resignation to the public. It’s also important to note that Musk never specifically mentioned his position as CEO like he did in the previous statements about him leaving. Musk would most likely stay on Tesla’s board if he ever stepped down from his chief position.

Musk similarly said in a 2016 shareholder call (page 2) that he “expects to remain with Tesla essentially forever” unless someone kicks him out. Again, Musk didn’t specify if that meant as CEO or in a different position.

There’s more work to do

The mass-market electric vehicle may complete part one of Musk’s Master Plan, but there is plenty left to do in the part 2 he penned last year.

Many consider the Model 3 to be Tesla’s iPhone. If that’s true, we should expect to see an iPad and Apple TV come along soon after. Those appear to be an electric pickup and semi-truck. Along with a bus-like urban transport vehicle, these will help Tesla reach all major segments.

Musk is also hard at work developing level five, full-autonomous driving by the end of the decade, and is seeing out the launch of Tesla’s solar panel roof tiles.

Tesla needs Musk

Musk is more than just a leader at Tesla. For many, he is a symbol of hope for electric vehicles and the future of sustainable energy—a visionary who reinvigorated a dormant car class and got his competitors to jump on board.

If Tesla is the Apple of automotive, then Musk is its Steve Jobs—a figure whose value is immeasurable. But unlike Apple, Tesla doesn’t have a Tim Cook—someone who was already well respected at the company when he took over.

And Tesla needs every bit of Musk magic it can squeeze out of him. After 14 years, the company is still bleeding money, despite seeing its stock rise above traditional car manufacturers Ford and GM.

The company is also at a pivotal moment in terms of ramping up production, with one Gigafactory under construction and two or three more in the pipeline. Needless to say, the next few years will be very important for Tesla, and it could use as much Elon Musk Halo Effect as it can get.

So… will Musk leave Tesla?

Definitely not this year, and probably not before things settle down with the Model 3, which could take another 12-24 months. Even then, Musk is an integral piece to many ongoing Tesla projects.

For its part, Tesla did not comment or provide a direct answer from Musk when asked by the Daily Dot whether or not he was seriously mulling over an exit strategy.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Musk stepped down early next decade if all goes well for Tesla between now and then. Musk won’t get caught up on something for too long before he shifts focus to one of his other ambitious projects—see PayPal and Zip2. Between saving the world from killer AI, building a high-speed underground transit network, shipping us all off to Mars, and developing a brain-machine interface, the business mogul will need every spare moment he can get.

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*First Published: Aug 29, 2017, 6:30 am CDT