U.S. Markets closed

Tesla investors spooked by revelations in tearful Elon Musk interview

Harriet Alexander
Elon Musk has given a tearful interview to the New York Times - REUTERS

Tesla shares plunged on Friday as investors reacted to an interview in which its chief executive Elon Musk admitted taking the sleeping pill Ambien, working 120 hours a week and described how exhaustion was taking its toll.

He broke down at times as he told the New York Times he was suffering the most painful year of his career, while company executives said they were worried his erratic tweeting and unpredictable behaviour could be caused by his use of sedatives to sleep.

By the end of trading, shares in his company were down almost nine percent - wiping more than $5 billion off its value

Mr Musk has long delighted in his reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s brashest entrepreneurs but admitted struggling to cope with exhausting production deadlines.

“It’s not been great, actually,” he said. “I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”

During recent months, Mr Musk has berated analysts for asking “boring, boneheaded” questions during an earnings conference call, and accused a British diver who helped rescue a Thai football team trapped underground of being a paedophile.

Last week he published a tweet claiming he had secured funding to take Tesla private, sparking a rollercoaster ride for shareholders that is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Company insiders told the paper that Mr Musk’s use of the drug was also causing concern.

He said he was working a 120-hour week to try and reach the company’s production targets, and admitted: “It is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien.”

Mr Musk has previously raised eyebrows with his praise for the sleeping pills. In June last year he tweeted: “A little red wine, vintage record, some Ambien ... and magic!”

Yet seven months earlier, in November 2016, he acknowledged that “tweeting on Ambien isn’t wise.”

Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who was fired after tweeting racist tropes at the African American former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, blamed her own twitter rant earlier this year on Ambien. The pharmaceutical company that makes the drug, Sanofi, replied that “racism is not a known side effect” of Ambien.

Sean Penn blamed his strange March appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on the drug, while President Donald Trump’s doctor Ronny Jackson said he occasionally took the sleeping tablets. Some have speculated that the president’s famous “covefe” tweet was a side-effect of taking the pill. Ambien also was one of the drugs found in Tiger Woods’ system after police found him asleep in his car in the middle of a highway last August.

Profile | Elon Musk

Mr Musk also used the New York Times interview to try and explain his tweet about taking his company private – remarks which roiled the company.

He said he fired off the message while on his way to the airport and it was based on offering shareholders a 20 per cent premium, which would have made the figure $419.

“It seemed like better karma at $420 than at $419,” he said in the interview. Commentators pointed out that the 420 number is used as code for marijuana.

“But I was not on weed, to be clear. Weed is not helpful for productivity. There’s a reason for the word ‘stoned.’ You just sit there like a stone on weed.”

The New York Times reported that Tesla executives had launched a search for a deputy to ease the burden on its South African-born founder, who admitted he almost missed his brother’s wedding this summer and had not taken time off since contracting malaria in 2001.

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” he said.

“This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”

His interview came days after the rapper Azealia Banks posted a series of now-deleted messages on her Instagram, where she accused Mr Musk of being “too stupid to know not to go on Twitter while on acid”.

Banks said she was invited to Mr Musk’s home by his girlfriend, the Canadian singer Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, and with whom she had intended to collaborate.

Banks told Business Insider: “I saw him in the kitchen tucking his tail in between his legs scrounging for investors to cover his ass after that tweet.

“He was stressed and red in the face. He’s not cute at all in person.”

Mr Musk, however, maintained that he does not know Banks, telling Gizmodo that he “has never even met [Banks] or communicated with her in any way.”A spokesperson for Tesla added that Banks’s claims were “complete nonsense.”

In quotes | Elon Musk

Mr Musk was married to Justine Musk for eight years, until 2008, and the couple have five children. He then married, divorced, remarried and divorced British actress Talulah Riley. He was in an on-off relationship with actress Amber Heard from the spring of 2017, shortly after she divorced Johnny Depp.

Mr Musk and Grimes were confirmed to be dating when they appeared together at the Met Gala in May this year.

Tesla, in response to questions from the New York Times, provided a statement that it attributed to its board, excluding Mr Musk. 

“There have been many false and irresponsible rumors in the press about the discussions of the Tesla board,” the statement said. 

“We would like to make clear that Elon’s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious.

"Over the past 15 years, Elon’s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.”