When will people wake up to the truth about Elon Musk?

He’s a PT Barnum. He’s a know-nothing. His latest: Musk thinks he knows more than transit experts.

The fracas began when Wired on Thursday published comments made by Musk at an artificial intelligence conference earlier this month. Musk said that public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end?

Musk further said that using public transit meant rubbing shoulders with like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer. . . that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.

In other words, he rejects society, which requires you to cooperate with other people, that sometimes demands that you make compromises with others. And that’s the motivation behind his absurd proposal to rip up existing infrastructure in cities and replace it with a network of tubes to deliver his cars to places without him ever having to get out and see another human being.

I guess when you get a billion dollars you are expected to automatically become intelligent.

OK, I still think he’s a fraud, but I’m going to back off on the comparison to PT Barnum, since Barnum was a truly horrible, awful person.

He basically bought an elderly black woman.

Growing up in the antebellum North, Barnum took his first real dip into showmanship at age 25 when he purchased the right to “rent” an aged black woman by the name of Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington.

You think that’s bad? How about this:

When she died in February 1836, rather than let her go in peace, Barnum had one more act up his sleeve: he drummed up a final public spectacle, hosting a live autopsy in a New York Saloon. There, 1500 spectators paid 50 cents to see the dead woman cut up, “revealing” that she was likely half her purported age.

I don’t think Musk is quite that bad.


  1. says

    I think I understand Musk’s dislike of public transportation, but as more of a psychological tic than a rejection of society. Since he’s wealthy enough to make a fetish of personal space, he’s taken the unjustified further step of making its maximization an ideal goal toward which all should strive (or which he will graciously bestow). During the regular work week I deal constantly with swarms of students and colleagues, which is cumulatively exhausting. It turns the car trip home into a restorative interval for catching a breath (lucky I don’t live in a killer commute region). I can go an entire weekend without speaking a word before plunging back into the Monday tumult. I’m not Musk, so I can’t get away with portraying my intervals of self-isolation as a great virtue or universal desideratum. Or maybe I could — but no one would feel obligated to believe me.

  2. hemidactylus says

    He didn’t hold back from recently tweeting his cell # to random strangers:


    Maybe his tweet feed is an insular hamster tube? He is unaware of others in his midst reading his unrivaled bits of wisdom?

    The ultimate in solipsistic transport would be teleportation. But that carries the swampman baggage of 1st person ontological continuity. But though my qualia would be snuffed out and replaced by another in stead, I wouldn’t have to rub shoulders with people.

  3. blf says

    Apropos of PT Barman, there was an opinion column recently, No, Trump Is Not PT Barnum, by Stephen Mihm, “an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, a regular contributor to Bloomberg View and the editor of The Life of PT Barnum.” The opinion column briefly mentions part of what is probably the Joice Heft episode (“an elderly slave masquerading as George Washington’s nursemaid”), but later waves it away:

    [PT Barnum] was not a saint — far from it. He shared his contemporaries’ casual racism and profited from it, staging exhibits that played off prejudice. He also owned slaves briefly during a tour of the antebellum South. But Barnum gradually changed his mind on the subject of race and slavery. He voted for Lincoln in 1860 and later ran for the Connecticut State Legislature. He took office in 1865 and gave an impassioned speech calling for the extension of voting rights to blacks.

    According to Ye Pffft! of All Knowledge, Ms Heft “was toward the end of her life, blind and almost completely paralyzed (she could talk, and had some ability to move her right arm) when Barnum started to exhibit her”.

  4. says

    Self-driving cars and electric cars are both useful ideas that will find application. I suppose if we’re going to have cars they should be electric. But both ideas seem like failures of imagination, as if cities as they are today are the only way they could be. They seem like answers to the postulate: “Given that cities will be car-centric and that people will not actually live in them and must constantly commute by car, what improvements could you make to the car?

    Somewhere I read that a truly developed country isn’t one where poor people have cars, but one in which the rich ride public transportation. Been turning that one over in my head for a couple weeks, it makes a lot of sense.

  5. OptimalCynic says

    The public is the the worst part of public transport though. If everyone adhered to basic standards of personal space and hygiene then buses and trains would be a far more tolerable experience.

  6. Zeppelin says

    Americans in general seem to be really down on public transport? It’s one of those culturally jarring American Things I first noticed watching the Simpsons as a child, where I suddenly couldn’t follow the plot and/or jokes anymore because I clearly wasn’t sharing the premises of the intended audience.

  7. says

    It isn’t just decorum, personal hygiene, etc. I took my brother-in-law’s teenage son for a bus ride to show him how to ride the bus. What he learned from the experience is that there are black people on the bus so he never wants to ride the bus again. Uh…

  8. says

    Public transport is a vital part of functioning society. I preferred it over driving myself. However I must say that since I ceased to use it, I have fewer colds and pulmonary infections in winter than I used to have when I had to ride a bus twice a day. Being crammed an enclosed space with total strangers for an hour makes wonders for the propagation of air borne diseases.

    Social bonding in public transpotation never seemed to be a big thing ever, although there were good memorable moments, like when I encountered a group of jolly Dutch vacationers who were pleasant keen on conversation. There were also bad memorable moments of drunks and assholes of all shapes and degrees.

    Elon Musk is a millionaire and an American. It is part and parcel of American culture to think that having more money equals being better at everything than “lessers”.

  9. Demeisen says

    Musk’s vision of personally-owned cars being whisked in and out of city centers in specialized tunnels is quite absurd, but there’s considerable merit in the vehicle technology itself if it’s used in a different way; namely as a multimode “personal rapid transit” system using existing infrastructure. Self-driving cars, especially with vehicle-to-vehicle communication, are better used to increase the flexibility and scalability of public transport — think the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit without the need for specialized track. Cars can leave and rejoin the “train” at either exact destinations or existing stops, depending on level of demand, without disrupting the travel of users not stopping at that location. Circulation can be cut to “demand mode” at late hours, only releasing cars as needed, allowing availability to be expanded without the need to operate empty or mostly-empty vehicles. Self-driving cars can’t fully replace, say, light rail for rapidly traversing a metro area (and the whole “cars on skateboards in tunnels” is an absurdly inefficient, space-wise, concept,) but it would certainly offer a number of interesting advantages for local transit. Things will probably head that way organically, regardless of Musk’s intentions.

  10. Helen Huntingdon says

    “In other words, he rejects society, which requires you to cooperate with other people, that sometimes demands that you make compromises with others.”

    WTF? Is there lithium in your coffee this morning? Rejecting forms of public transportation that are rife with assault and stalking doesn’t mean that anyone who does it is “rejecting society”. How many beatings do you think I’m supposed to take, exactly? How about you take them for me instead?

    Now I agree that a better solution *might* be to adequately police existing public transport, but that’s going to be expensive.

  11. jazzlet says

    georgewiman @6
    Absolutely right, it is surprising how few people see to be able to get beyond the idea that cities and whole countries must be designed with for mass car ownership and use. If we want truly liveable cities then we need to make them as car-free as possible, and we need to be making the deisions that get us there now.

  12. TheGyre says

    Public transport. Now there’s an interesting notion. Oh, we have something that calls itself that, but from what I’ve seen it’s slow and erratic. I drive by a bus stop, see a handful of people waiting out in the open (no bench or shelter), drive by again a half hour later and the same people are still standing there. Not my idea of the ideal way of getting around. Down here in southeast Virginia a car is basic necessity. I view it as an appliance on wheels, as necessary as a toilet or a refrigerator. There are times when you have to go somewhere on a moment’s notice, day or night, and you can’t wait on somebody else’s schedule. I’ve lived in Germany and know what excellent public transport is. If we hadn’t torn out our streetcar tracks and starved the rail system perhaps we’d be able to leave that car in the garage and only take it out on the weekends. I’d love that.

    As for Elon Musk, who cares? I have no strong opinions about the man. I know he’s rich, but I couldn’t tell you how he made his money or why his opinions matter more than anyone else’s. He’s not Henry Ford, though I gather he’s trying hard to match Ford’s transformative legacy. If he manages that I’ll start paying attention.

  13. jrkrideau says

    #10 Charly

    Elon Musk is a … an American.

    Well yes but….

    I believe he has or had both South African and Canadian citizenship as well. He was born in and spent his childhood in South Africa before moving to Canada in his middle or late teens.

    From vague memories, I do not think he arrived in the USA until his early twenties. Most of his education would have been received outside of the USA.

    So while he is an American citizen, his background is not the typical American one—assuming there is such a thing.

  14. says

    hemidactylus@4, whenever I hear hypertube mentioned I think of the travel tubes on Moonbase Alpha.

    As far as Elon Musk goes the thought came to mind that naming his company Tesla might be prophetic. Nikola Tesla made some important contributions to the early development of electricity and radio. But many of his ideas were impractical with the technology available, and remain so today, and some were simply wrong. Some of Musk’s ideas, like sending a manned mission to Mars within a decade, seem the same. I can only wonder if 50 years from now some people will treat some of them like they treat some of the more outlandish Tesla ideas, as things that would have happened if “they” hadn’t stopped them. On the other hand Musk probably won’t end up in questionable financial straits as Tesla did.

  15. unclefrogy says

    I do not see how his idea of a hyper-loop is in any way very different from any other train system. It has a start point and end points presumably just like any every other train from which and to which the “passenger” must move. Unless it has the ability to move to your present location and then take you to your desired destination. I would have thought that Musk would have heard of personal limo’s by now?

  16. robro says

    I don’t know if the comparison of Husk to Barnum is that far off. Do we have to wonder who he is referring to with “… a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer”? It may not be racism per se…yet it may…but it is certainly classism.

    And like Barnum, Husk is a huckster. He’s pitching big ideas to get big money behind him. And he will because he’s had some success and investors are bad at assessing risk.

    Interesting that Husk spouted this “at an artificial intelligence conference”. What’s he doing there if he’s afraid of AI taking over the world?

  17. says

    Musk just sees his toys as ways to market “not catching poor peoples’ diseases” to middle class Americans. And as an immigrant, he’s as American as any other locally born privileged person, having money is far better than a certain type of birth certificate.

  18. jrkrideau says

    Has anyone ever heard of compressed air delivery systems. In the late 19th C some cities had underground tunnels that were used for goods delivery.

    Apparently one loaded some kind of container, stuck it in a tube, and gave it a blast of compressed air. And, all going well, the goods arrived at the right address.

    Reportedly Chicago had an extensive network.

    Does this sound familiar in concept?

  19. sundiver says

    @20. The tube systems work great IF the person using has the brains to punch in the correct 3-digit address. You would not believe the number of people who punch in the wrong address and then blame the maintenance crew for the carrier not reaching the intended destination.

  20. jrkrideau says

    @ 21 blf
    Thanks. I had only read about them in passing as I was, at the time, reading up on bicycle history but it seemed an interesting way to get traffic off the streets. And it sounds like Musk.

  21. gijoel says

    Why would anyone want to be trapped in a tiny man made cave,built on the presumption that none of the electric carts that carry one’s car won’t malfunction nor other cars will burst into flames.

    Our last mayor built two tunnel toll roads, claiming that they will be self funding and they would relieve traffic congestion. Five years layer and the tunnels are going broke and traffic is just as bad. People don’t value their time that much

  22. says

    “He rejects society, which requires you to cooperate with other people”. Really? From a distance Musk’s superpower seems to be commandeering other peoples’ enthusiasm and talents (and money) to accomplish ambitious ends. Some have even been accomplished; some may fail (Tesla?), and if they do Musk is amongst the biggest loosers. These are not the acts of a con-man or someone who fails to appreciate the virtue of collaboration.
    As for “He’s a know-nothing”: true, he makes judgements in areas he is not an acknowledged expert, but then so do you. Looking at his record Musk was not a rocket nor automotive engineer yet managed to stir both industries, so he’s more than some twittering blow-hard. Do you still stand by he’s a know _nothing_?

  23. =8)-DX says

    Cheap, available public transport is far superior to cars in almost all cases. Spending hours cooped up alone, with my smelly old self, having to pay attention every second of the way and still risk instant death or dismemberment, is not effective. Driving into a city centre is just a nightmare, and finding parking a bore. Add to that the expense, inability to drink alcohol and vehicle maintenance, when I could be sitting cosily daydreaming or reading a book, and public transport wins out every time.
    (Conversely sucky public transport – 1/2 connections a day, miles from the destination, yeah availability and ability to move large cargo are the only advantages).

  24. DanDare says

    I don’t know why everyone is focussed on self driving commuter vehicles. The most obvious application is long haul trucking.

  25. says

    Dan Dare, self driving commuter vehicles can pack more tightly when both being used and parked, and can be used by sequential users. This reduces congestion and frees up valuable space currently provided for human drivers doing the parking. Road accidents will go down, reducing health care costs. Making cities more livable is not a trivial goal.

  26. says

    How is not wanting to sit next to a Serial Killer who is singing to himself who hasn’t had a shower since Moses with his feet on a seat in any way “rejecting society.” I have never met the man, but he is very, very well traveled. Somebody wrote this after Mr. Musk made his comments about Public Transport, “In other words, he rejects society, which requires you to cooperate with other people, that sometimes demands that you make compromises with others.” Generally speaking, American public transportation is filthy. People have never traveled on the Public Transportation Systems of other nations do not know that. In addition to that, yes, other countries have Public Transportation Systems that are even more filthy than ours. The opposite of what this person is true. The person who does not want to stand next to a person who does not bathe, is talking to themselves so loud the next car over can hear it, is bullying other passengers, who is “f-bombing” the other person on his cell, and who is also trying to pick a physical confrontation with you, the person who does not want to ride Public Transportation with that is not the one who is “antisocial.” It is the other way around – the people who are doing all that are the ones who are antisocial. We do not have to compromise one iota with career criminal misfits. Furthermore, it isn’t our “social responsibility” to wait for a late train, or to get on bus with foul graffiti written all over it with needles on the floor, and to board that train, bus or Public Rickshaw in Pasadena, CA to exit the bus in downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. One the other hand, it is the Commissar system planner and the Hoi Polloi who support that Godzilla that they built who are the ones rejecting our society if they think that it is our social duty to be picked up as “paying customer” in Portland, Ore to have them sit next to a thug with his feet on a seat, to then be drop off in the Mare Boreum on Mars. I do not know Mr. Musk, but the person who called Mr. Musk “antisocial” because of his comments on Public Transportation has not researched the percentage of the people who work for the public transportation systems in the USA and who use that same system they have designed to get to their own office. Being stabbed is not a compromise, and the designers seem to know that, lol.

  27. says

    Speaking of Public Transportation, isolationist ideology is moving America nowhere. I love my country, but when I need to get to my office in Alaska I take a train to it in my mind in Denmark. Thus, a few nights ago I closed my eyes and I prayed for the Souls of the Japanese Kamikaze. Yet suddenly a voice came back from the dark, and in very formal Japanese. In translation the voice said, “No sir, we were but humble warriors doing our duty to our brave nation. But our nation remembers us. It is we who are praying for you because we have seen you riding your bicycle on public roads in America.” Then the voices sang for me! “Isoroku ore to…wa! Do .. oki no sakura ….!” They encouraged me. So this morning when I got on my road bike my Italian chain ring looked to me more like the propeller of a Japanese Mitsubishi!

  28. says

    I will take public transportation again when the Sharia Law on physical assault on another citizen is posted on the Boarding Platform. “Oh, that would be terrible!” That would be an odd reply if the system is so “safe.” Put a beheading stage in every train station in the USA and I will buy tickets even to take me nowhere. You don’t like that statement because it is “unAmerican”? Oh, everybody likes to quote Thomas Jefferson, but they leave out the part where he said later in his life that his part in the writing of the Declaration of Independence did little more than create a mob. The Public Train or the Public Electric Car that will belong to the public will belong to nobody, and if it belongs to nobody, nobody will take care of it. How are all those public restrooms and those public bicycle programs around the world working out? If it only “sometimes” works for a bike, what makes you think it will always work for a car?
    Right. Then they are going to design it and then bill you for it.