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Cult of Elon Musk? Billionaire’s Image Shines With Steve Jobs’ Aura

Image: Elon Musk

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveils a new all-wheel-drive version of the Model S electric car in Hawthorne, California, on Thursday night. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

He's been compared to Thomas Edison, to Henry Ford, to Steve Jobs — even to Tony Stark, the high-flying industrialist in Marvel's "Iron Man" comic books and movies. But it's hard to imagine any of those characters saying with a straight face that they're planning to retire on Mars.

Elon Musk has. Repeatedly.

Musk, the 43-year-old CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, says and does the darndest things, and thousands of fans love him for it. He did it again on Thursday night with the unveiling of a dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version of Tesla's all-electric Model S sedan.

He said the all-wheel-drive models — which carry the "D" designation for dual drive — would take Tesla's electric-car technology to the next level with semi-autonomous safety features such as automatic braking and self-parking.

"This car is nuts," he said. "It's like taking off from a carrier deck. It's just bananas."

Thursday's much-hyped event at Hawthorne Airport in California followed through on last week's Twitter tease about the letter "D," which gave a quick boost to Tesla's share price. It also came on the heels of a conference where Musk was in the spotlight for his views on flying cars and the looming robot apocalypse.

Elon Musk's Tesla tease 1:33

Over the years, Musk's showmanship, straight-ahead smarts and far-out ideas have earned him a following that spans the geek spectrum — to the point that some observers see glimmers of the aura that once surrounded Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

"To me, it feels like he's the most obvious inheritor of Steve Jobs' mantle," said Ashlee Vance, a reporter for Bloomberg BusinessWeek who's writing a biography of Musk. That book will be called "Elon Musk" — but for a while, the working title was "The Iron Man."

Like the comic-book Iron Man, Elon Musk has seen his share of ups and downs. It's been nearly two decades since the native South African dropped out of Stanford University's Ph.D. physics program to become an Internet entrepreneur. He started and sold a series of software companies, coming away with $165 million when PayPal was sold in 2002.

Musk nearly went bankrupt when his SpaceX rocket venture struggled through a series of launch failures between 2006 and 2008. But since then, SpaceX's Falcon rockets have notched a string of successes and Tesla electric-car sales have taken off, boosting his fortune to an estimated $9.3 billion today.

Challenging the status quo

Part of Musk's appeal is his eagerness to challenge the status quo. With SpaceX and Tesla, he's taking on Big Aerospace (like Howard Hughes) and Big Auto (like Preston Tucker). And he's getting away with it. Today, SpaceX is sending cargo ships to the space station and is on track to transport astronauts as well. Meanwhile, the Tesla Model S is winning kudos as the best car you can buy today (albeit with an $89,000 price tag).

Another venture that's close to Musk's heart, SolarCity, is aiming for a power paradigm shift by installing (and financing) household solar power systems.

"Obviously, Steve Jobs' products changed the world ... [But] if Elon's right about all these things that he's after, his products should ultimately be more meaningful than what Jobs came up with," Vance told NBC News. "He's the guy doing the most concrete stuff about global warming."

Vance sees parallels to an earlier generation of innovation as well: the generation of Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. "I keep going back to Edison, because there's a level of invention; there's marketing, which Elon is quite good at; there's design, which he's good at," Vance said. "It's sort of like the total package."

Tangles on the high-tech frontier

Like Edison, Musk isn't shy about diving into the technological fray. In 2005, SpaceX filed suit against Boeing and Lockheed Martin, claiming that their plans to create United Launch Alliance would break antitrust laws. That lawsuit was dismissed, but this year, SpaceX sued ULA over government launch contracts.

Tesla Motors has been through similar tangles: In 2008, Tesla sued Fisker Automotive, claiming that Fisker's team stole trade secrets during a short-lived design collaboration. A year later, Musk became enmeshed in a legal dispute with Tesla's CEO over their respective roles in founding the company. (The spat was settled out of court.) Last year, a series of Model S fires put Tesla on the defensive and led to safety upgrades.

Jeff Bezos on plans to launch people into space 1:39

Musk has also had run-ins with a fellow billionaire, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos. Last year, SpaceX vied with Bezos' rocket venture, Blue Origin, over who would be awarded Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. (Musk won.) This year, SpaceX challenged Blue Origin over its patent on a technique for landing rockets at sea. In response, Blue Origin hasn't exactly turned the other cheek: Last month, Bezos teamed up with ULA on a rocket project that takes aim at SpaceX's rising place in the launch industry.

Working at one of Musk's ventures is not always easy. "A six-day work week at all of his companies would be standard, and a seven-day work week would not be frowned on," Vance said. "There are people who get there and they think they're up for it, and within about six weeks they know they're not going to cut it."

But there's also an incredible amount of loyalty. "The ones who believe in the mission, they hang around, and they do suffer through it all," Vance said. "They share a vision with Elon."

Visions of Mars, and more

So what is Musk's vision? What motivates him at the deepest level? "It's his Mars thing," Vance said.

Inspired in part by the novels of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, Musk has come around to the view that humanity's long-term future depends on extending its reach beyond Earth, starting with colonies on Mars. The way he sees it, that's the only way to make sure our species won't fall prey to a killer asteroid strike or some other planetary catastrophe. Getting to Mars would be "an insurance policy on life as we know it," Musk told NBCNews.com several years ago.

Other notables, including physicist Stephen Hawking, have laid out similar scenarios — but Musk is actually doing something to turn those interplanetary dreams into a reality.

SpaceX Unveils New Spacecraft 2:37

At the same time, Musk knows his limits: A year ago, his frustration with California's plan for high-speed rail led him to come up with a pneumatic rapid transit system he calls the Hyperloop. But he said he'd have to leave that project for others to work on while he focused his attention on SpaceX and Tesla.

That's where the "D" could make a difference. Vance thinks that Musk is on the verge of breaking out from geek guru status to a level of mass-market recognition that's truly on a par with the late Steve Jobs. Additions to the Tesla automotive line, plus the multibillion-dollar promise of Tesla's battery-producing "gigafactory" in Nevada, could push Musk over the edge.

"Tesla, as a brand, really does seem to have captured the public's imagination. ... All of a sudden he's got a hip product that looks great, and it's creating jobs," he said. "The next level feels like it's got to be that third-generation, blockbuster mainstream product. The story is not done."