Elon Musk’s ‘Westworld for cars’ has gone horribly wrong

"Humans are underrated": After touting robots, Musk now blames them for Tesla production woes.

Tesla's Elon Musk. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
Tesla's Elon Musk. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

“I’m definitely under stress,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk told CBS last week, “so if I seem like I’m not under stress then I’m gonna be clear. I’m definitely under stress.”

Days later, the billionaire entrepreneur suspended production of his signature Model 3 Tesla, which had smashed records for pre-production sales since its 2016 launch.

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Yet despite telling CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King that he’s been sleeping on the factory floor in recent days — and bragging that the assembly line was like “Westworld for cars” — Musk has been unable to solve Tesla’s production woes.

In recent weeks, Musk and his electric vehicle company have been dealt multiple setbacks. Musk issued a voluntary recall of 123,000 Model S Teslas because of faulty power steering. Also, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating last month’s fatal crash by a Model X in Mountain View, California. And just last week the NTSB removed Tesla from its involvement in the investigation.

In late March, Moody’s downgraded Tesla’s credit status, citing “the significant shortfall in the production rate of the company’s Model 3 electric vehicle.” So Model 3 woes pose an existential threat to Tesla.

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A stunning half a million people paid $1,000 to reserve the vehicle after it was launched two years ago. The high demand has now led to increased stress on production.

Indeed, many analysts doubted Tesla could shift from a low-volume producer of high-end electric sports cars into a mass producer of a family vehicle. Musk himself told employees last July that ramping up output would require at least six months of “production hell.”

After all, in 2016, the company produced 80,000 cars, but Musk claimed they’d build a stunning 500,000 in 2018, which would require making more than 40,000 a month.

But the company isn’t close to meeting such a target, reporting earlier this month that in the first quarter it had produced only 34,494 vehicles. Indeed, Musk himself  then quickly announced he would personally take over Model 3 production from his senior VP of engineering.

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Despite these woes, Musk still gave CBS a factory floor tour last Tuesday (aired last Friday). And while he admitted to being stressed and having production problems, he bragged that the fancy high-tech facility was “Westworld for Cars.”

Of course, Westworld is famous from both the movie and TV series as a place where things go terribly wrong with the robots — so perhaps it wasn’t the best analogy to use.

Indeed, just days later, Musk was forced to suspend production of the Model 3, an admission indicating he was simply incapable of solving the problem while the  production line was still running.

“Traditional automakers adjust bottlenecks on the fly during a launch,” as auto analyst Dave Sullivan told the L.A. Times. “This is totally out of the ordinary.”

Musk admitted in a tweet that he had made a miscalculation by putting in too many robots and too much automation. “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he tweeted. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

Hopefully Musk’s statement that “Humans are underrated” will not prove an epitaph for his entire company.