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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

It takes audacity and ambition to change the world

It is unclear how history will remember Elon Musk but he is already leaving his mark

Elon Musk's audacity and confrontational approach have aroused both passionate support and furious criticism. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Elon Musk's audacity and confrontational approach have aroused both passionate support and furious criticism. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

“When Henry Ford made cheap, reliable cars, people said: 'What’s wrong with a horse?’ That was a huge bet he made and it worked.”

So said Elon Musk, the billionaire businessman and innovator, in an interview in 2003. Its implication was clear: that Mr Musk sees himself among the great cohort of inventors, from Thomas Edison to Leonardo da Vinci, whose creations altered the course of history.

It is that perceived arrogance that has fuelled Mr Musk’s many detractors. The scattergun approach that underpins his genius – Mr Musk is working simultaneously on electric cars, the hyperloop and space exploration – is perhaps most maddening for his shareholders, who are right to demand some say in the direction of the companies into which they have deposited their money.

But revelations this week that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund could help fund a deal to take Tesla private – with the involvement of Goldman Sachs and others – could lend him legitimacy on international markets. It is unclear how history will remember Mr Musk but should mass uptake in electric cars arise, we will most likely have him to thank.

But it is Mr Musk’s spirit that sets him apart. His is a style not unfamiliar to residents of the UAE, where bold, aspirational projects – from the Burj Khalifa to the Emirates Mars Mission – are the norm. Mr Musk plans to reduce travel time from New York City to Washington DC to 29 minutes and make man a multi-planetary species by colonising Mars. On both, he can already point to discernible technical progress.

In the UAE and elsewhere, his Tesla vehicles are already a familiar sight. But he is not a pioneer without principles: last year he called for a ban on the use of autonomous weapons in war.

In the coming years, Mr Musk’s projects will require billions in funding. Securing it will require him to improve the way he deals with investors.

Meanwhile his detractors will need to recognise that greatness cannot be realised without occasional failure – and that it takes a healthy dose of audacity and ambition to change the world for the better.

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