Elon Musk is having a terrible February. At the moment, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO is facing scrutiny from three different government agencies, an animal-cruelty scandal, a car recall, a failed satellite launch, and accusations of trivializing the Holocaust. This is the kind of pileup of scandals that it usually takes a resignation to resolve. But anyone who’s followed Musk’s career knows that even all these simultaneous firestorms are likely to leave the executive barely singed.
On Feb. 9, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Tesla over alleged racial discrimination at its Fremont factory after receiving hundreds of complaints and conducting a 32-month investigation. The suit describes abominable treatment of Black workers at the factory, including an alleged practice of segregating them into areas that other employees referred to as “the plantation” and “the slave ship.” Regulators also say that Black workers were subject to slurs and racist graffiti at the plant that the company was slow to erase, and that they were given the most difficult jobs and denied equal promotion and pay opportunities. In a 2017 email that Musk sent to employees that seemed to concern a previous class-action suit related similar issues at the Fremont plant, he wrote that anyone uttering an “unintentional slur” should apologize, and that the victim should “be thick-skinned and accept the apology.” Tesla has claimed that it opposes discrimination and harassment, and asserted that the department was unwisely attacking a company that has “done so much good for California.”
A day later, a nonprofit advocacy group called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a much-publicized complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning experiments by Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink in conjunction with the University of California, Davis. The group says it obtained records indicating that experiments attempting to implant computer chips in the brains of macaque monkeys were plagued with a “pattern of extreme suffering and staff negligence.” Of the 23 monkeys involved in the experiment, 15 reportedly died. According to the group, lab workers used an unapproved substance called “BioGlue” that destroyed parts of some of the monkeys’ brains and also caged the monkeys alone. The workers allegedly did not give the adequate veterinary care to the monkeys, who suffered from seizures and infections as complications from their brain-implant surgeries, and in some cases the test subjects couldn’t even be used in the experiments because they had to be euthanized. Neuralink, which is still conducting similar experiments, has confirmed that monkeys died, but denied the animal-cruelty accusations.
At around the same time, SpaceX discovered that solar flares in a geomagnetic storm knocked out as many as 40 of the 49 satellites it had launched on Feb. 3 as part of its project to provide internet access from space. The incident potentially cost the company up to $100 million. Tesla also announced that it was recalling 578,607 cars after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that the Boombox feature, which allows drivers to play fart and goat sounds on external speakers, was dangerous to pedestrians. (Musk called regulators the “fun police” for the move.) Then, this week, the NHTSA announced that it launched an investigation into Tesla in light of 354 complaints about phantom braking, an apparent glitch that makes the cars abruptly stop even when there are no obstacles present. To top it all off, groups like the American Jewish Committee are calling on Musk to apologize after he tweeted out a meme featuring Adolf Hitler with the text, “Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau. I had a budget,” on Sunday. He deleted the tweet 12 hours later.
The last time that Musk found himself in this much trouble was around 2019, when he was dealing with an entirely different set of disturbing and bizarre scandals that ultimately fizzled out with minimal consequences. NASA was conducting a safety investigation at SpaceX after Musk smoked marijuana on the Joe Rogan Experience, which somehow resulted in the agency paying the company $5 million for employee training and review. The Securities and Exchange Commission had also sued Musk for tweets that he sent about securing funding to take Tesla private, which didn’t actually turn out to be the case. Musk did end up with a $40 million fine and entered a consent decree, which he’s still fighting as of this week, though it doesn’t seem to have had any major impacts on his wealth or success (or, crucially, his tweeting). At the same time, the National Labor Relations Board determined that Tesla was violating labor laws, though the remedy simply involved Musk deleting a tweet and the company hiring back an employee it had fired. Tesla still does not have any unions. Musk also won a defamation lawsuit that legal experts were sure he would lose, and that his advisers wanted him to settle, after he baselessly and publicly called a British cave diver a pedophile.
How does Musk get away with it all? Well, it certainly helps to be the richest person on the planet (a distinction he holds because Jeff Bezos divided his fortune when he got divorced), and fines don’t really seem to sway him. He’s also effective at marshalling his resources to bulldoze over opposition and ensure that his narrative wins out. The New York Times’ Ryan Mac, perhaps the world’s foremost Musk reporter, wrote about this phenomenon in a 2020 Buzzfeed piece about the defamation case, observing that “the weeklong trial showcased Musk’s bending of reality, a skill that’s part of his mythology but rarely seen outside his work. It’s something he uses to convince an engineer to perfect a car part for days on end or push a public relations staffer to disappear a bad story, and it’s often rescued him from the brink of failure.” As one former Tesla executive told Mac, “Elon has an uncanny ability to tell a story he wants to be true, convince himself that it has to be true, and then convince others.” Maybe this time around, one of these messes will stick. Perhaps years of litigation in California, being labeled an animal abuser, and dealing with dozens of defective satellites and thousands of recalled cars will hamper his ambitions and antics, even if it doesn’t cost him his job. But based on his track record, it doesn’t seem likely.
For more on the California racial discrimination lawsuit against Tesla, listen to this recent episode of What Next: TBD.