Editorials

Elon Musk is a genius, but his flamethrower is stupid

Elon Musk, left, CEO of Tesla, and Steve Davis, operations head of The Boring Company, hold an event in Los Angeles.
Elon Musk, left, CEO of Tesla, and Steve Davis, operations head of The Boring Company, hold an event in Los Angeles. Bloomberg

It’s great for California to have billionaire visionaries like Elon Musk creating next-generation technology.

But even geniuses can have bad ideas. And selling flamethrowers in a time of record wildfires in California is a really bad idea.

Even geniuses can have bad ideas. And selling flamethrowers in a time of record wildfires in California is a really bad idea.

After state legislators whiffed on common-sense restrictions, about 20,000 of these devices – which look like air rifles but can spit flames two feet long – are about to show up in neighborhoods, maybe one near you. Because of restrictions on mailing propane, Musk is planning parties to hand them out to customers who paid $500 a pop, the first one June 9 in Los Angeles.

Musk has been treating them as a gimmick; he posted a video of himself holding one and saying: “I want to be clear that a flamethrower is a super terrible idea. Definitely don’t buy one. Unless you like fun.”

Assemblyman Manuel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat, isn’t laughing. He called them “incredibly insensitive, dangerous, and most definitely not funny.”

Santiago followed up with a bill to restrict sales of these kinds of flamethrowers without a permit from the state fire marshal. As reported by Robbie Short of CALMatters, firefighters backed the bill, but the gun lobby, of course, objected.

Santiago watered down the bill just to require a safety label. But even that measure died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on May 25.

The flamethrower is being sold by The Boring Company, which wants to build a high-speed underground transportation system for pedestrians and is working on a 2.7-mile test tunnel in Los Angeles. This system could eventually lead to the Hyperloop – Musk’s futuristic idea of a tunnel that could transport pods of travelers at 700 mph between cities and powered, apparently, by the screams of its passengers.

Surely someone as brilliant as Musk can figure out a safer promotional tool than flamethrowers.

Besides, it’s not as if Musk doesn’t have more significant things to worry about. In February, his SpaceX venture successfully launched Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket. He talks about a manned mission to Mars.

And it looks like his core business – Tesla electric cars – could use more of his attention. The company is still struggling with production of its mass market Model 3. The first ones off the assembly line in Fremont had flaws, including long braking distances. Consumer Reports waited until the glitches were fixed to recommend the Model 3 last week.

Tesla is producing about 2,000 a week, but needs to make 5,000 a week so it can finally become profitable. At the same time, the company is facing a grievance from workers who are trying to form a union and complain they were harassed or fired.

The success of the Model 3 will have a lot to say about whether California gets anywhere close to its goal of 1.5 million electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2025, part of the state’s far-reaching climate change strategy.

That’s far more important to society – and more befitting someone as gifted as Musk – than flamethrowers financing tunnels to nowhere in L.A.

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