Elon Musk’s road to Twitter is paved with broken promises

Musk says he’ll remake Twitter and save free speech. But his track record is a mix of wild successes and many unfulfilled pledges.

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(Washington Post illustration; AP photo)

Elon Musk wants to use his billions to remake Twitter as a “platform for free speech around the globe.” He says he’ll stop it from censoring speech, ban annoying bots and make tweets editable.

But as Earth’s richest person adds the social media industry to his conquests, keep one thing in mind: Musk’s promises often need an edit button of their own.

His track record is a mix of wild successes and many, many, many broken promises.

I’ve lived it: In 2019, my family leased a Tesla Model 3 and paid thousands of dollars extra for its full self-driving” capability. When we returned the lease a few months ago, we still hadn’t received it. (There was no refund, either — we asked.)

It’s the fundamental paradox of Musk: He’s both our Thomas Edison and that kid in school who made up fantastical stories about what he did on summer vacation. Last fall, Musk actually announced plans for a humanoid robot at an event by using a real human dancing in a robot suit. He says so many zany things that some of his critics, who are often financially invested in his failure, catalogue them on sites including Elon’s Broken Promises and Elon Musk Today.

So much of what Musk utters is just wishful thinking or trolling, egged on by the temptations baked into his favorite communication medium, Twitter. Yet you’d be a fool to dismiss him completely. He’s rich and powerful enough that you have to take all of it seriously.

Some of Musk’s biggest, wildest promises — reigniting the U.S. space program and making electric cars cool — have actually happened and really are changing the world. I mean, the man made a giant rocket called the Falcon Heavy that can launch into orbit and then stick its landing. His Starlink satellite Internet service is helping people stay online during the war in Ukraine. Closer to home, my family still drives a Tesla. We just changed models and declined to pay for full self-driving.

If Musk does end up running Twitter or some other social media company, his past suggests he’ll bring a unique form of chaos. He loves testing ideas, and isn’t afraid to make us be the guinea pigs in a way you’d never expect from a fully baked Apple product. But make no mistake: The problems Twitter faces are just as complicated as manufacturing an affordable electric car — and quite possibly more, because everybody seems to have a different definition of “free speech.”

During an interview at the TED conference shortly after announcing a hostile bid for Twitter on Thursday, Musk acknowledged he often expresses ambitious timelines. “I don’t want to blow your mind, but I’m not always right,” he said about his missed promises on self-driving.

Musk loves free speech, but it comes with accountability — including for himself. As he sets out to change a communication tool used by more than 200 million people, the question is: What will be different about his promises this time?

Here’s a short history of promises that Musk never delivered or we’re still waiting to arrive.

March 2016: The Tesla Model 3 will cost $35,000

What he said: When Musk unveiled Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, he said the standard model would cost $35,000.

What happened: Tesla did briefly sell the Model 3 for that price in 2019, but the low price never played the role Musk suggested in making electric vehicles common. Then Tesla got rid of the $35,000 models entirely in 2020. Now Tesla lists the starting price of its rear-drive Standard Range Plus model at $46,990.

January 2017: Full self-driving Tesla cars ready in 6 months

What he said: Answering a question on Twitter about when “full self-driving” features would exceed “enhanced autopilot” features (like cruise control), Musk said: “3 months maybe, 6 months definitely.” That was five years ago.

What happened: In September 2021, Tesla began letting select owners request “full self-driving” software upgrades. Video from beta testers revealed deep flaws.

The Post asked experts to analyze videos of Tesla beta software, and reporters Faiz Siddiqui and Reed Albergotti test the car's performance firsthand. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

March 2017: Brain implants

What he said: Musk revealed that he founded a company called Neuralink to connect brains to computers. It would enable people with spinal cord injuries to walk or eventually permit human-to-human telepathy, he suggested. In 2019, Musk predicted the technology would be implanted in a human skull by 2020.

What happened: Neuralink has implanted chips in the brains of a monkey and a pig, and in December 2021, Musk tweeted that “progress will accelerate when we have devices in humans … next year.” But as of January, only two of the eight scientists Musk brought in to help him create Neuralink remain at the company.

July 2017: A tunnel will speed travel between New York and Washington

What he said: Musk founded the Boring Company to speed up digging tunnels that could be used for speedy transportation in busy urban corridors. “Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins,” Musk tweeted.

What happened: Today, the Hyperloop tunnel project between Washington and New York is no longer listed on the company’s website. The company demonstrated a California test tunnel in 2018 and opened a 1.7-mile tunnel at the Las Vegas Convention Center in April 2021.

November 2017: A Tesla Semi truck will arrive by 2019

What he said: Musk announced a large truck with an ambitious range of 500 miles and an even more ambitious production timeline of 2019.

What happened: Tesla has taken Semi orders and prototypes have been seen in testing, and Musk has now committed to delivering some in 2023.

July 2018: Musk offers a submarine to rescue soccer team trapped in a cave

What he said: When 12 soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand made global headlines, Musk offered to help by developing a submarine to extract them. “Mini-sub arriving in about 17 hours. Hopefully useful. If not, perhaps it will be in a future situation,” he tweeted.

What happened: The boys were rescued by divers who carried them through the cave on stretchers and did not use Musk’s submarine. Some rescuers said the tech wasn’t practical.

April 2019: 1 million robotaxis on the road by 2020

What he said: I feel very confident predicting autonomous robotaxis for Tesla next year,” Musk said in 2019 at an investor event. (He also warned: “Sometimes I am not on time, but I get it done.”) He also predicted that within two years, Tesla would be making cars with no pedals or steering wheels.

What happened: Tesla’s self-driving technology is still limited to tests with selected car owners, not autonomous taxis. In April 2022, Musk said that Tesla would build a vehicle dedicated for use as a robotaxi and that it will “look quite futuristic.”

November 2019: Tesla Cybertruck to begin production in 2021

What he said: Musk unveiled a futuristic electric pickup with a steel “exoskeleton” and sharp angles. Production was supposed to begin in late 2021 with a release date in 2022.

What happened: During a demonstration of the strength of the car’s new unbreakable windows, Musk asked one of the people onstage to try to break the glass — and it shattered. As of April, the Cybertruck’s release has been pushed to 2023.

May 2020: Tesla workers told it’s ok to stay home during covid-19

What he said: When Musk defied local covid-19 orders and reopened Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., he told employees they could stay home. If “you feel uncomfortable coming back to work at this time, please do not feel obligated to do so,” he wrote in an email.

What happened: Several employees said they received termination notices for “failure to return to work” after they took unpaid leave to protect themselves.

April 2022: Tesla’s humanoid robot will be ready for production in 2023

What he said: In August 2021, Musk unveiled plans for a “friendly” humanoid robot called Optimus or Tesla Bot that could “navigate through a world built for humans and eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks.” In April, Musk said, “We have a shot of being in production for version one of Optimus hopefully next year.”

What happened: To date, Tesla has not shown a working prototype.