2020 has been a bummer of a year for many people, but it’s been a banner year for Elon Musk. His companies have gone from strength to strength, significantly advancing his goals of cleaning up the world’s transportation and energy systems and making humanity a multiplanetary species, as his personal wealth has soared to new heights.
Tesla reached so many milestones in 2020 that it’s impossible to list them all: the first Model Y deliveries; the start of construction on the German Gigafactory; the announcement of Austin, Texas as the site of Cybertruck production; the wonders of Battery Day; Tesla’s coronation as the world’s most valuable automaker and its addition to the S&P 500 stock index. The list goes on.
SpaceX provided two of the most inspirational moments of an otherwise dismal year. In August, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley (Bob and Doug) safely splashed down near Pensacola, Florida, after making a test flight to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule—the first manned space mission in history to be operated by a private company, and the first manned mission launched from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program. In November, SpaceX duplicated its spectacular feat, launching a four-person crew—the most diverse in NASA history—to the ISS.
Institutions and individuals awarded accolades and admiration to Elon in 2020. Elon was honored as an Automotive News All Star as the 2020 Industry Newsmaker of the Year. A German publisher honored him with the 2020 Axel Springer Award (scroll below for video footage). And Fortune named him Businessperson of the Year.
Of course, Elon’s trophy room is already stuffed with awards and prizes, but 2020 also brought him an honor that few people have ever earned during their lifetimes. A loose-knit group of followers and fans declared April 20 the first annual Elon Musk Day, and thousands of admirers (including EVannex) posted online messages about how the Iron Man had influenced their careers and lives.
Of course, awards are nice, but one needs to pay the bills, too. Elon Musk’s Tesla pay packet is linked not only to the TSLA stock price, but to operational goals such as getting new models to market—his contract calls for 10% of Musk’s stock options to vest every time Tesla adds $4 billion in stock market value, but only if the company also meets certain sales milestones. A few years ago, when the compensation plan was set up, these milestones seemed wildly optimistic—the deal was cited as evidence of Musk’s altruism, as few expected that he would end up collecting much money.
So far, however, Tesla has blown through every one of the performance milestones like a Ludicrous Model S on a test track. Elon earned an estimated $120 billion in 2020, bringing his net worth to some $148 billion and making him the world’s second-richest person. (The pandemic year has been very good to billionaires in general—top dog Jeff Bezos added $68 billion to his giant money bin, and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, rich boys #3 and #4, also pocketed tens of billions.)
Elon’s personal life also gave him a reason for great joy—he and his partner, the Canadian musician Grimes, celebrated the birth of their son X AE A-Xii in May. The young lad, Elon’s sixth son, may be a budding artist.
The global pandemic may have wreaked havoc in the global automotive industry, but it has barely touched Tesla—by at least one reckoning, the California carmaker is the only global brand that saw its sales grow this year. That’s incredibly ironic, considering the unseemly fuss Musk made in the spring, during the first California lockdown, when state officials asked Tesla to delay the reopening of its Fremont factory (production was suspended in Fremont for about seven weeks, and in Shanghai for less than two).
In the end, the coronavirus chaos barely tapped the brakes on Tesla’s phenomenal progress, but Elon’s reaction to it did some damage to his personal reputation. Some supporters reacted with shock and disappointment as Musk spread misinformation about the virus, flying in the face of the progressive, pro-science stance for which he is so widely admired.
All in all, it was a tremendous year for Tesla, and for its controversial CEO. The greatest triumph of all may be the growing perception that a tipping point for electrification has now been reached, and that the end of the Oil Age is in sight (there was also loads of non-Tesla EV news this year, from California’s proposal for an eventual ICE ban to VW’s and GM’s announcements of major electric investments).
As the United States muddles through one of the most troubled times in its history, Tesla and SpaceX are enormous sources of national pride, proof that we can still do great things, and that we haven’t abandoned our position of influence in the world. But Elon Musk and his world-changing companies don’t belong to the US alone. As Tesla expands its reach through Asia and Europe, it provides an example of what humans can accomplish when we set really ambitious goals and stay focused on them.
Written by: Charles Morris