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A Brief History of Elon Musk’s Master Plans

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk has a vision for “a fully sustainable energy future for Earth,” he announced earlier this month. If you would like to know what that entails, you can tune in for Investor Day, the March 1 event at Tesla’s new Gigafactory in Austin where he will be announcing the planet’s apparent salvation through his Master Plan 3. Musk, in typical grandiose fashion, uses the term “Master Plan” for his bread-crumb-trail-like updates about Tesla’s business strategy. The first came in 2006, as the carmaker turned three. The next came in 2016. Predictably, not everything outlined in these plans has materialized. But beyond providing a living blueprint of how Tesla has evolved as an automaker, the Master Plans do turn out to have mapped the U.S. shift away from fossil fuels, much of which is only really starting to materialize now, and not always via Musk’s companies.

Starting with a series of tweets a year ago, Musk has hinted at what he will reveal March 1. He wrote in March 2022 that the topic of Master Plan 3 would be twofold: “scaling [Tesla] to extreme size, which is needed to shift humanity away from fossil fuels,” and, less specifically, “AI.” (He’ll also, he said, include for the first time updates on two of his other companies, SpaceX and the Boring Company.) It will be much like all of Musk’s events: part investor pep rally and part media spectacle. But surveying the evolution of Musk’s Master Plans, as well as how much they overpromised or underdelivered, is a useful exercise in examining how much Musk’s projections for his own company have ended up shaping the world we live in — for better or for worse.

When Musk published his first plan in 2006, complete with cheeky title — “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me)” — there were virtually no electric vehicles on the road in the U.S. The very first Tesla produced would not be delivered until February 2008, to its new CEO named … Elon Musk. (Despite calling himself a co-founder of Tesla, Musk did not technically join until 2004, a year after it was started.) When the original Tesla Roadster did finally hit the market, it was like nothing else on American streets — and extremely expensive. But Musk’s Master Plan made both potential customers and critics feel good about buying into Tesla’s scheme because they could refer to its noble goals: “Without giving away too much,” Musk wrote in Master Plan 1, “when someone buys the Tesla Roadster sports car, they are actually helping pay for development of the low-cost family car.” Although the truly low-cost Tesla has yet to arrive, that broadening of the product has, to a degree, occurred, and Tesla has single-handedly transformed the electric-vehicle industry by getting wealthy car owners to forgo their gasoline-powered luxury sports cars for Teslas. Traditional automakers have started doing the same, offering “bro-lectrified” options first.

But it’s with his second Master Plan where Musk really gets out of the realm of straightforward corporate strategizing and into something wildly larger. At the very end of Master Plan 1, he hints that an EV is only as efficient as its power source, so in order to make a truly zero-emission car, he’s going to start offering rooftop solar panels by his family’s firm, SolarCity. “If you travel less than 350 miles per week,” Musk writes, “you will therefore be ‘energy positive’ with respect to your personal transportation.” By the time we get to Master Plan, Part Deux, we’ve gone from an “energy positive” car to an entirely new idea of turning the home into a power plant: making not just panels but entire solar roofs, and, even more critically, integrating them with batteries for the home, which allows Tesla to scale battery production of all types. It was, at the time, a fresh way of thinking, far ahead of any other automaker’s, at least as far as the public could see. And then Musk dives into the business of decarbonizing society. “Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better,” he writes. “Here is what we plan to do to make that day come sooner.” He emphasizes the importance of electrified public transit and goods movement, saying he’s making a bus and a semitruck. And then, to increase the capacity of personal EVs, Musk says he’s building autonomous features into Teslas so drivers can let their parked vehicles wander off and operate remotely, giving rides to other people when they’re not using them. We’re no longer talking about just self-driving cars — this is a global, roving fleet of zero-emission robotaxis.

Of course, not much of that has happened. (And global carbon emissions have gone up.) Master Plan, Part Deux, represents both a visionary worldview and Musk’s point of public departure from reality. In 2016, he had just cracked the list of the world’s 100 wealthiest people; five years later, he was regularly jockeying with Jeff Bezos for the No. 1 spot. As he morphed from quirky nerd upending the electric-car market with bad supervillain jokes to actual supervillain, he began to forgo fanciful yet feasible solutions in favor of a darker, more dangerous brand of technofuturism. His assertions that Tesla was “deploying partial autonomy now” and that “as the technology matures, all Tesla vehicles will have the hardware necessary to be fully self-driving with fail-operational capability” came just weeks after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened its first investigation into a death of someone using the existing partial-autonomy tool, an event acknowledged solemnly by Musk, who promised improvements. Yet just a few months later, we saw a demo video of Tesla’s supposed “full self-driving” capabilities — later revealed to be faked — and an “unflinching” push to get the new system onto cars even though it was not safe yet. Also in 2016, he announced his tunneling venture, the Boring Company, as a way to “solve traffic.” As he championed that ludicrously expensive “one Tesla at a time through a neon-lit hole” concept, he was either ignoring or forgetting his own Master Plan sustainable-transportation blueprint. The Tesla Semi was eventually delivered (three years late, with dubious real-world abilities); where is the Tesla Bus? 

When any one of Musk’s tweets can kick off an entire news cycle, it becomes harder to pick out the good ideas amid the 280-character dick jokes and blinkered ruminations of a narcissistic billionaire. Increasingly, he appears better at tossing out Master Plans than actually mastering his plans, as Tesla is losing ground to both upstarts and Establishment players. Last year, the Chinese EV manufacturer BYD outsold Tesla, and has been making electric buses for dozens of U.S. transit agencies. Rivian started selling its popular electric pickup long before Musk’s Cybertruck even began production, and it also makes Amazon’s electric vans. All car manufacturers have experienced supply-chain hiccups, but Tesla’s labor issues have also caused production and delivery delays, and earlier this month many of its cars faced an embarrassing recall. Musk can no longer even claim that all the money he’s making selling electric cars is going into the “low-cost family car” piggy bank that he promised; last year, he sold $23 billion in Tesla shares to buy Twitter instead. Meanwhile, GM says its sub-$30,000 electric compact SUV will be ready this year.

So what awaits us in Master Plan 3? Musk’s been tweeting an awful lot about solar panels again. Tesla’s Twitter account has even shared a few diagrams of a revised “Tesla ecosystem,” showing the integrated solar panel meets garage battery meets electric-vehicle home. “The future is bright!” he tweeted about the March 1 event, which could certainly imply sunlight and, paired with new battery innovation, perhaps hints at an affordable, solar-powered, smart-charging Tesla in every garage at last. Regardless of what you think of Musk as a persona or as a Twitter CEO or even as a list of extremely uneven promises, he has set the agenda for the reality that we’re currently living in — whether delivered by his own hand or by the competitors driven to defeat him. But as we’ve watched his priorities shift, it’s also wise to be extremely apprehensive about whatever it is he’s planning next.

A Brief History of Elon Musk’s Master Plans