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Reading Between the Lines: Musk's Folly, Trump's Plan

By Rob Enderle
Jul 18, 2016 10:18 AM PT
elon-musk-tesla-autopilot

Something like 90 percent of CEOs are planning to put their companies out of business accidentally, based on a KPMG report I just reviewed. After watching Tesla of late, I think Musk is on the fast track to lead this effort, and since I'm a Tesla fan, and I know a lot of you drive Teslas, I thought that might be an interesting, if scary, topic for this week.

The other story that has been percolating in my poor head is that it increasingly looks as though Trump is planning on losing the election -- but he is in competition with Bill Clinton, who appears to want Hillary to lose. So, this week, I'm giving you a two for one.

I'll close with my product of the week: Tesla Autopilot.

KPMG Survey

KPMG just delivered some really bad news for anyone working at a large company. It appears that most of their CEOs have no idea what they are doing, have no confidence in their firm's ability to execute, believe their customers are about to leave, don't trust what their analytics programs are telling them, and are driven to make massive changes as a result, according to its survey of around 400 large company chiefs.

The analogy would be a driver who can't see, is convinced a fatal accident is just ahead, won't believe the instruments or listen to the passengers (who likely are screaming), and instead makes make major direction changes while pressing on the accelerator. The only likely result is, well, boom. This suggests we should be looking at virtually every CEO more closely than we are at present -- not just Musk.

Tesla's Musk Problem

I've seen this before: A successful CEO surrounded by folks who only offer praise begins to believe that every idea is a good one, and the company tanks. I worked for a guy like that. He was brilliant, and he was amazingly right about 70 percent of the time. However, he thought he was right 100 percent of the time, and he wanted every idea implemented -- the wrong 30 percent killed us. Worse, anyone who pointed out he was wrong was treated as a rival and eliminated. (By the way, I wasn't one of them -- I'm not THAT stupid. I did continue working there, though, so the jury is still out.)

Musk recently made two major errors. First, he made a move to fix a failing firm he controls -- it makes solar panels, a particularly ugly market at the moment -- by having Tesla buy it. That idea makes no more sense than Ford buying Shell Oil. Tesla isn't exactly out of the woods itself, and he wants to saddle it with an entity that seems on the brink of failure in a market that's not only in trouble, but also not even close to recovering. Plus, if the Republicans should win the presidential election, the subsidies that support both solar panels and Tesla cars largely will evaporate -- at least, the federal ones will -- which would hit the new combined firm hard -- perhaps terminally. Musk is smarter than this, but it appears he no longer can tell his good ideas from his really bad ones.

Autopilot is another example. Autopilot is an enhanced cruise control; it isn't, well, an autopilot system. It is very different from the self-driving systems that are coming. They are basically artificial intelligences, and on paper they can drive better than we can. Cruise control, no matter how advanced, isn't smart and it is very limited.

There's been one death, apparently resulting from a driver trusting that autopilot could do what the name implied. Now Consumer Reports, a well-regarded consumer protection firm, wants Tesla to pull the plug on the feature and name. This is the same firm that initially gave Tesla he highest score it had ever given a car (though it drifted negative when it saw the reliability scores).

The easy fix is to rename the feature to suggest something closer to what it actually does and not something that promotes deadly behavior. However, Musk seems to be playing this like GM did with Ralph Nader. (Corvair was really no better or worse than many other cars of that time -- GM just handled Nader badly, and that killed the car.)

Unlike GM, Tesla doesn't have other cars it can fall back on if this debacle plays out the same way. Even Musk's tweets on this appear ill-advised and more like what you'd expect from a kid defending a bad decision than from a smart CEO.

So I think it's very likely that we are watching Musk kill Tesla, because he can't tell the difference between good ideas and bad ideas anymore. Sadly, this is far from uncommon with initially successful CEOs.

Donald Trump vs. Bill Clinton: Who's Better at Losing?

This may be somewhat related: It isn't clear yet whether Trump is executing a losing strategy because he wants to lose, or because he, like Musk, no longer can tell the difference between good and bad ideas. What's more clear is that Bill Clinton doesn't want Hillary Clinton to win, and I'll explain why.

Trump may be a lot of things, but he isn't stupid. If there is one thing that could kill a candidate, it would be drawing a comparison to someone like Saddam Hussein -- and Trump did that to himself. I think, given the timing, that Trump's candidacy death wish likely had to do with his realization that if he won, he would have to turn over his companies to his kids. His firms are likely much of his identity and self-worth, and I'll bet his kids wouldn't give them back when his term as president ended, which I expect he knows. Those second thoughts, given the timing, likely have pushed Trump toward a strategy of wanting to lose, but in a way that wouldn't make it look like he gave up. Thus his current screwy behavior.

As for Bill, I think he realized that if Hillary were to win, his legacy likely would not to be his presidency, which is generally positive, but instead would be his term as the first male First Lady. For Bill, who clearly has an ego and is a tad narcissistic (something harder to see next to Trump), I'll bet this is a frightening outcome. Thus the meeting with the U.S. Attorney General. He had to know it would look incredibly bad, but rather than do it candidly, he did it in an unusual fashion to draw attention to it.

Think about it. Bill is a very competent statesman, and while I do think the U.S. Attorney General did cut a deal to keep her job in order to give Hillary a pass on email, we wouldn't have seen this until after the election had it not been for him hopping from airplane to airplane (who does that?) in public, which resulted in a media firestorm. The premature visibility of that possible deal has done massive damage, with no upside to the campaign.

So I think the interesting thing we aren't chatting about is whether Bill Clinton, a practiced statesman, or Donald Trump, the guy who literally wrote the book on deals, will be better at undoing one. In this case, I think Trump is overmatched, which ironically would mean -- if I'm right and both guys secretly are trying to lose -- he'll win the election, even though he seems to be focused on losing without looking like it. Now I think that is interesting.

Wrapping Up

I think we often get so focused on what we are told about an event that we miss the more interesting back story. So rather than focusing on what Trump said, think about why he said it. Instead of focusing on what Bill Clinton did, think about why he did it the way he did. (Both clearly had other choices.) By doing that, you may begin to see through what folks want you to see and begin to see what is really going on.

I think the world would be a far better place if more folks in power, and people in general, could see what really is going on.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

Now I know this choice may seem strange after giving Musk grief on his handling of Autopilot, but don't mix up the feature with stupid PR. Autopilot is by far the best cruise control currently in market. Name another cruise control that actually lets the car drive out of your garage to meet you at your front door?

The problem isn't that the product underperforms -- the problem is that expectations were set too high. You wouldn't take a nap or watch a movie with the cruise control in your car, and doing that with Autopilot, as we recently saw, can get you killed. However, you are a ton safer with Tesla's Autopilot doing what people often do with normal cruise control engaged -- for example, looking at your phone, talking to someone in the back seat, or rummaging for something on the floor.

The problem with it isn't what it does but what the name makes you think it does. Ironically, it is actually better than real autopilot technology in a plane -- but pilots don't have trucks pulling in front of them, and they do have traffic controllers who watch them and will steer planes around them if they are grabbing a nap. Car drivers don't get that, so until we get true self-driving tech (which has at its heart a thinking AI), no watching movies or napping allowed.

Tesla Autopilot
Tesla Autopilot

Used properly -- and maybe with another name that doesn't promote stupid behavior -- Autopilot is safer and better than any cruise control you are likely to see for a while, and damned if I don't want it on my car.

Even though it falls far short of what self-driving will do, it is the best you can buy, so Tesla Autopilot is my product of the week. Just remember it really isn't an autopilot -- it is a cruise control with benefits. (No you shouldn't do THAT either while on Autopilot, though it is safer with than without.)


Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends. You can connect with him on Google+.


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