Tesla's Elon Musk: "I've Been Accused of Being an Idiot, a Charlatan"

Elon Musk - P 2014
AP Images

Elon Musk - P 2014

The outspoken billionaire entrepreneur talked electric cars and trips to Mars in Detroit on Tuesday afternoon.

In his first appearance in Detroit in two years, Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk said he was encouraged by the efforts of the mainstream auto industry to develop electric cars but that "it's clearly not front and center ... I would strongly recommend making significant investments in electric cars."

Speaking to the Automotive News World Congress while the mainstream auto industry that he alternately mocks and goads convened just blocks away at the Detroit auto show, Tesla's success, Musk said, depended upon "the speed at which we force other companies to improve their electric vehicles."

On Monday General Motors CEO Mary Barra unveiled the Chevrolet Bolt, a concept electric car she claimed would have a range of 200 miles and cost $30,000 when it goes into production in 2017, around the time Tesla has announced it will begin selling the Model 3, a similarly priced electric car aimed at a mainstream audience. 

The Bolt was widely received as a shot across Musk's bows and a potential "Tesla killer," given GM's size and resources.

But Musk has always maintained that the electric car needs traditional manufactures like GM to step in if it is to reach critical mass and support a viable support network of charging stations and other infrastructure. Last year, Musk offered Tesla's patents free to any competitor that wanted them to speed the adoption of electric-car technology, he said.

During Musk's remarks and at a subsequent press conference, the 43-year-old billionaire told reporters that Tesla and his Space X venture, which manufacturers commercial space vehicles, nearly faltered in 2008 and that he invested $20 million of his own money to save them. "I've been accused of being an idiot, a charlatan ... not even a good charlatan," the Detroit Free Press quoted Musk as saying.

Musk also shrugged off the lateness of Tesla's Model X crossover SUV, which was supposed to debut two years ago: "I have an issue with punctuality." He pledged that the Model X will arrive this summer, that Tesla would become profitable by 2020 thanks to the high-volume Model 3 and that the company would sell  "a few million cars a year by 2025." Last year, Tesla sold an estimated 33,000 of the Model S, currently its only car.

Musk said he hoped to travel to Mars within his lifetime and that "all transport, with the ironic exception of rockets, will go fully electric." He also lamented his celebrity — "It's getting harder for me to just out and have a drink at a bar" — and took a dig a bipartisan bill, signed last month by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, that bans Tesla from selling cars directly to consumers.

Asked if Tesla would build cars in Michigan, he said it was possible but that "maybe Michigan shouldn't stop us from selling cars here. That would be a nice gesture."