PHOTO: Austin, Texas, may be the place where Elon Musk’s visions for cars, outer space and tunnels all come together. Clockwise from top left: Patrick Pleul – Pool/Getty Images (Musk); Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr (SpaceX); Robyn Beck-Pool/Getty Images (Tesla); Jeff Roberts/YouTube (Gigafactory)
AUSTIN, Texas — For more than 600 days now, Jeff Roberts has parked on the shoulder of a highway just outside city limits and flown his drone over a vast and restless construction site.
He starts by circling a building three-quarters of a mile long, which from satellite view is shaped like a luxury sedan. This is Giga Texas, where Tesla Inc. is starting to crank out what eventually could be millions of electric SUVs, semitrucks and pickup trucks. Roberts has watched its transformation from dirt lot to its “Cyber Rodeo” opening party in less than two years.
Roberts, a 56-year-old devotee of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, doesn’t look up as he steers the drone. What started out as one man’s obsession with surveying the progress of Musk’s mega factory is today a thriving YouTube channel that generates enough viewers and income to pay Roberts’ monthly mortgage bill.
And while the completed auto factory would seem to spell the end, Roberts thinks it’s just the beginning.
Musk is many things — an auto magnate, a space pioneer, a founder-of-other-stuff and, if he cages Twitter, a media mogul — and one thing the world knows about a Musk project is that it always grows in scope. Now he is centering his unrelenting vision on Texas, a state that also sees itself as boundless.
But even in this early day, there are signs of conflict between Musk’s vision and that of Texans. Is this construction site where their visions begin to clash?
Giga Texas is only a small patch of the 3,100 acres of real estate that Musk’s companies have bought on either side of State Highway 130, on the far eastern edge of Austin by the airport. So much is going on that it takes Roberts almost eight minutes to survey it all. On one patch, pile drivers are pounding dirt for a second Tesla factory that will make cathodes, a crucial part of the battery. Elsewhere, land that is being cleared and flattened for unknown purposes.
What Musk’s plan is for the rest of sprawling site is anyone’s guess. Roberts said, “He’s not buying it to have a nice backyard.”
Meanwhile, the hayfields that stretch into the distance have skyrocketed in value. Some are slated to become housing tracts or offices, while others are being bid up by speculators who, like Roberts, think Musk is laying the foundation for some sort of empire.
Austin has given a rousing welcome to Elon, as everyone seems to call him. He is an independent thinker who has promised to create lots of jobs. He has said he’ll help make Austin “the biggest boomtown that America has seen in 50 years.” And to top it off, he’s building electric cars, erecting a clean-energy halo over a state synonymous with oil and gas.
But Austin’s relationship with the mercurial entrepreneur has begun without knowing his master plan, or how his dreams could alter life on the Texas plains.
Even at this early stage, Musk is altering the physical footprint of the metropolis — the beginnings of what some think could be a facelift of central Texas. He is setting projects into motion with little input from some of those who will feel the effects the most. Austin’s poorest residents likely will see their rents skyrocket; those who escaped to the countryside for peace and quiet are finding industry rising out the front window. Even the local river is coming under pressure.
Depending on how the world’s richest man conducts himself, any one of them could be the fount of tomorrow’s success, or tomorrow’s disenchantment.
It says a lot about Musk’s momentum that what he has already promised — 10,000 jobs, one of the country’s largest auto plants, leadership in electric vehicles, fleets of weird-looking pickup trucks — could be just a first stake in the ground.
What business and government leaders are sure about is the auto factory, and they could not be happier.
From breakup to romance
In July 2020, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced that Austin had won out over other cities vying for Tesla’s $1 billion new factory. He tweeted a photo of him and Musk grinning and holding their index and pinkie fingers up like longhorns. In December, Musk took the relationship deeper by moving Tesla’s headquarters to Austin.
“To have the leading electric vehicle maker in the world establish a headquarters in your backyard, to be confident that for decades. we’re going to be a major player in the space?” said Ed Latson, the head of the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association.”That’s really different.”
Less prominent in the public mind is Musk’s troubled relationship with California, where his and Tesla’s reputation had begun to tarnish.
From its founding in 2003, the state endowed Tesla with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks. Californians who believed in the company’s low-carbon ethic were the crucial first customers. But in Covid-19 pandemic times, the relationship between Musk and California turned sour. He called county officials “fascist” for their stay-at-home orders. A state legislator cursed Musk as an ungrateful bully who disregards worker safety. In March, the state’s employment agency accused Tesla of “rampant racism” against its Black employees.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment on its history with California or its plans for Austin.
In Texas, Musk is more of blank slate, and what a big slate it is.
Dirk Mateer, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, sees admiration for Musk among the thousands of undergraduates in his economics classes. “They are incredibly captivated, because they’re young and they’re ambitious,” Mateer said. “They think he is the future.”
“This is where we think the Starlink factory is going to be built,” Roberts said, as his drone surveyed the west side of the complex.
Starlink is another of Musk’s projects. It has the modest goal of establishing a space-based internet, and has launched more than 2,000 satellites, with plans to deploy at least 10,000 more. The goal is modest relative only to SpaceX, its parent company, which was founded by Musk. SpaceX is also part of Texas. Its factory and launch site are five hours’ drive south of Austin, on the coast by Brownsville. There, SpaceX is assembling Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket. SpaceX’s eventual goal is to enable a colony on Mars.
How does Roberts know what could be built where? He and other Musk watchers study and debate. “Over time,” he said, “you just get inklings.”
His hypothesis is that all of Musk’s enterprises will have a presence here — a theory that is borne out by the hiring.
Neuralink is Musk’s startup that aims to create an interface between brains and machines. It is based in California but is hiring in Austin. Ditto for SpaceX, which is looking in Austin for land and construction specialists. The Boring Co., which wants to make tunneling faster and cheaper to transport people and goods underground, has moved its headquarters to an Austin suburb 20 miles north.
All are part of Musk’s boundless hunger for new projects. Last month, the CEO added to his overflowing plate a bid to buy the social media platform Twitter, using some of his Tesla stock as collateral. Tesla’s stock price since has dropped by $200, as investors worry that Musk is tying up his Tesla investment — and his precious time — in a new distraction.
While it’s too early to know whether Twitter is now part of Musk’s plan for Texas — the sale hasn’t even been approved yet — some Texans are scrambling to make it happen.
“Bring Twitter to Texas to join Tesla, SpaceX & the Boring company,” tweeted Abbott, the governor, in a direct plea to Musk. There’s even somewhere to put it: A rancher north of Austin offered Musk 100 free acres.
Stumbling in execution is what could temper his plans in Texas.
While Musk has by age 50 turned Tesla into the world’s most valuable automaker and transformed the space race with SpaceX, he has sometimes failed at more prosaic goals, like making solar roof shingles commonplace or drilling a tunnel from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.
Roberts acknowledges that he doesn’t have Musk’s “big brain” but believes they share a tireless work ethic. The YouTube channel is just a sideline; his day job is running an equipment rental business with 30 employees. Like Musk, he came from California and finds Texas a relief. When he wanted something from the government in Texas, “I could talk to a human being who was down to earth and would treat you like a person,” Roberts said. In California, he felt “like just another annoying caller,” he continued. “That was kind of the attitude in California.”
Then there are taxes.
California has a 12 percent tax on high earners and a capital gains tax, which are used for, among other things, rebates for electric cars. Texas has no such taxes. This was likely of benefit to Musk, who last year sold an estimated $16 billion of Tesla stock, most of it to pay his federal tax bill.
Tesla, being a Musk company, is about a lot more than cars. It makes batteries to power homes and the electric grid, and installs solar panels, and pioneers self-driving cars, and Musk says a humanoid robot named Optimus may appear as soon as next year.
The Tesla trophy
It is narrowly the electric car portion of that vision that persuaded officials in Travis County, in which Austin sits, to shower Musk’s land purchase with almost $14 million in tax rebates. State officials are delighted that they grabbed this prize of EV innovation away from California.
“This is different because it plants the flag in the electric vehicle market, for which we’re very excited and proud,” said Adriana Cruz, Abbott’s director of economic development. The city’s Chamber of Commerce declined interview requests.
Tesla is heating up what was already a decent-size automotive economy in Texas. Two Tesla suppliers — CelLink Corp., a maker of automotive electrical wiring, and Plastikon Industries Inc., a plastic parts maker — are building new factories in the Austin area that could create over 1,000 jobs. Others are “looking all over the state,” Cruz said.
Tesla’s arrival also endows Texas with a whole new set of bragging rights.
If Giga Texas produces at the levels that Musk promises, the Lone Star State could be not just the center of the oil and gas industry, or the country’s leading producer of wind power, or a surging adopter of solar power. “It’s at the point where we can do the same with the electric vehicle industry,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a longtime Texas renewable energy activist who now heads the nonprofit Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance.
Musk’s mark on Austin is becoming apparent to Roberts with his view from the drone.
At the end of the flight path, he hovers the machine over Giga Texas’ enormous roof. Workers are installing a pattern of solar panels. Recently, it has dawned on Roberts and other Musk devotees that the gaps between the panels are starting to spell out something. From the perspective of a satellite, perhaps one of Musk’s, it will declare Austin’s identity like a brand on a steer.
“T-e-s-l-a,” Roberts said.
Guitar to greed
Matt Holm drives down Austin’s South Congress Avenue and looks at the storefronts with a mixture of excitement and dismay.
“We have an Equinox gym, a Soho House and a Hermès coming in,” he said. This is the heart of Austin’s legendary music scene. Tourists in their flip-flops shuffle past famous joints like Jo’s Coffee and the Continental Club. The view toward downtown perfectly frames the Texas Capitol dome.
“We went straight from keepin’ it weird to keepin’ it wealthy,” he declared.
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