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Elon Musk and Tesla pull few punches defending pioneering car company, even after accidents

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In this Friday March 23, 2018 photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo: AP)
In this Friday March 23, 2018 photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo: AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, don’t take criticism lightly, a stance that has helped rally customers and investors alike during a tumultuous 15-year run.

But while it’s one thing to fire back at critical auto reviewers or skeptical financial analysts, that strident defense can come off as cold when it follows the death of a customer using Autopilot or reports of injury and harassment at a factory.

Tesla workers cheer on the first Tesla Model S cars sold during a rally at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., on June 22, 2012. The factory has been accused of allowing worker discrimination and harassment to go unchecked. (Photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)
Tesla workers cheer on the first Tesla Model S cars sold during a rally at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., on June 22, 2012. The factory has been accused of allowing worker discrimination and harassment to go unchecked. (Photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)

And that could be a problem for a company hoping to shift gears this year from a niche provider of $100,000 techie status symbols to a mainstream manufacturer of $35,000 autos for average Americans.

“You need to show empathy when there’s a consumer-facing product involved,” says Michael Meath, crisis communications expert and visiting professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

“The way Musk carries himself is innovative and unconventional, but he can also be cavalier,” he says. “The price of admission for developing a new tech product is a higher level of care and concern when something doesn’t go right.”

A down-to-earth Musk 2.0 may play better with heartland buyers who increasingly will have electric car options from automakers ranging from General Motors to Volvo, says Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive.

“Elon doesn’t just do his own thing, he revels in throwing it in everyone’s face,” he says. That doesn’t work as well for a large, mature automaker. Musk’s style and his mainstream mission could be on a “collision course,” Brauer says.

Tesla declined to provide Musk for an interview and said it stands by its statements in the wake of past incidents.

Tech’s ‘break things’ culture at play

In this Friday March 23, 2018 photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo: AP)
In this Friday March 23, 2018 photo provided by KTVU, emergency personnel work a the scene where a Tesla electric SUV crashed into a barrier on U.S. Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo: AP)

There are constituents who would likely celebrate Tesla’s demise, namely investors short-selling the stock and established automakers eager for one less competitor.

Tesla’s (TSLA) market value $48 billion — just under General Motors’ value of $53 billion despite Tesla’s relatively low car production — helps generate media scrutiny of its every move.

But even allowing for some understandable defensiveness, Tesla’s responses to criticism contrast with the more contrite public comments many consumer companies take after a fatality or serious problem, whether or not the blame is immediately clear.

Musk and Tesla’s eagerness to defend their position has surfaced in instances such as:

A crash in Florida in May 2016 that killed the Tesla driver when his Model S in Autopilot mode failed to slow as a tractor-trailer cut across its path.

Tesla’s “A Tragic Loss” blog post led with a full-throated defense of Autopilot, noting “this is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.” In the last paragraph, it extended sympathies to the family. Musk later tweeted: “Our condolences for the tragic loss.”

The National Transportation Safety Board later concluded Tesla shared the blame for the crash for allowing the use of Autopilot on a road with frequent intersections. It also faulted the driver for relying on it too much.

This handout photo made available by Tesla Motors in July 2017 shows workers at the Fremont factory in California. (Photo: HANDOUT HANDOUT, EPA)
This handout photo made available by Tesla Motors in July 2017 shows workers at the Fremont factory in California. (Photo: HANDOUT HANDOUT, EPA)

A crash in March 2018 in Mountain View, Calif., that killed driver Walter Huang when his Model X in Autopilot mode slammed into a highway divider.

Tesla’s first blog post on the matter opened with a statement about how the company was “deeply saddened” by the death, then continued with a 500-word explanation of the technology, including Autopilot’s safety record.

After Huang’s family hired lawyers to look into a lawsuit, the company issued a statement saying Huang “was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”

Tesla also issued a second blog post revealing details from the Model X’s computer logs indicating Huang had ignored warnings to resume control of the car. The National Transportation Safety Board scolded Tesla for sharing such details during an ongoing investigation. But Musk tweeted that “to do otherwise would be unsafe.”

Accusations by some workers and reports by media outlets that its factory in Fremont, Calif., has seen incidents of racism, sexism and, most recently, underreported worker injuries. The factory is at the center of Tesla’s output goals and recently announced 24/7 shifts aimed at spurring Model 3 production to 6,000 cars a week.

Three African-American former workers sued Tesla last year claiming they suffered daily harassment, including being called a racial slur. Tesla deflected the claims, noting that the former employees hadn’t brought any claims before and worked there only a short time.

The complaint included comments from Musk in a May 2017 memo to factory employees after previous harassment and discrimination complaints where he advised, “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.”

A lengthy investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal team, anchored to interviews with former Tesla safety engineers, said the company’s injury numbers were improving due to underreporting. Tesla slammed the report as an “ideologically motivated attack by an extremist organization.”

What’s on Musk’s mind is usually only a check of Twitter away, where he is known for missives that range from arch to tart when Tesla’s stumbles are raised.

(Photo: CRAIG BAILEY/FLORIDA TODAY VIA USA TODAY NETWORK)
(Photo: CRAIG BAILEY/FLORIDA TODAY VIA USA TODAY NETWORK)

For example, after Tesla introduced its Model S electric sedan, one reviewer found fault with its battery’s cold-weather performance. Musk’s response was swift. “Article about Model S range is fake,” Musk tweeted in February 2013, inadvertently getting a jump on the ‘fake news’ outcry. “Vehicle logs tell true story.”

There was a smackdown of a transportation consultant who suggested Musk’s views were elitist (“You’re an idiot,” Musk tweeted) and a dismissal of critics questioning the company’s valuation (“Telsa is absurdly overvalued if based on the past, but that’s irrelevant,” Musk tweeted).

Some experts suggest Musk could use a tempered second-in-command to smooth over such matters and bring Tesla out of its growing-pains stage.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Stanford University adjunct professor Steve Blank praised Musk’s pioneering spirit, but — citing visionary but failed General Motors founder William Durant — suggested that perhaps it’s time for a steady hand to execute the comparatively “boring” part of growing a company, much as Alfred Sloan did when he took over GM.

Musk admits ‘humans are underrated’

There is some evidence the company realizes it may need to moderate its famously strident tone.

In the blog post after the deadly Model X crash, Tesla allowed that “in the past … we have been criticized (for bringing up data points), implying that we lack empathy for the tragedy that just occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Musk himself even shocked some observers by walking back statements he had made over the years about how a huge leap in automation would be a hallmark of Tesla’s factories.

After some of the Model 3’s delays were attributed to automation, Musk tweeted: “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

Silicon Valley mindset

PayPal Chief Executive Officer Peter Thiel, left, and founder Elon Musk, right, pose with the PayPal logo at corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., on Oct. 20, 2000. Elon Musk made his fortune off PayPal. (Photo: PAUL SAKUMA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
PayPal Chief Executive Officer Peter Thiel, left, and founder Elon Musk, right, pose with the PayPal logo at corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., on Oct. 20, 2000. Elon Musk made his fortune off PayPal. (Photo: PAUL SAKUMA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Understanding Musk’s approach means acknowledging the “move fast and break things” tech culture that helped create his first fortune at PayPal and has informed some of the brash moves of tech company peers ranging from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Uber’s deposed CEO Travis Kalanick.

But it carries risk. After all, an act-first-ask-questions-later approach got Uber co-founder Kalanick forced out last year over toxic cultural and policy issues and recently landed Zuckerberg in front of Congress over serious privacy concerns.

It remains to be seen if those prove cautionary tales for Musk or whether his larger-than-life personality — and considerable track record at disrupting entrenched industries — will keep him in a defensive crouch.

“Elon’s been known for unfeeling responses that cite data and don’t get to the human aspect of things,” says Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. “But that’s just how his mind works. He’s a brutally logical person.”

Musk, Vance adds, “has definitely reached full-on Steve Jobs status at this point, complete with a following of true believers.”

Those include not only diehard fans and owners of his Tesla automobiles but also admirers of his forays into rocketry (SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have Mars in their sights) and mass transportation (his hyperloop-inspired Boring Company vision calls for a remaking of underground commuting).

It is perhaps that unflagging support of believers, as much as his own personality, that could keep Musk from allowing Tesla to evolve into the kind of mainstream company that is measured and, when necessary, apologetic in the face of criticism and tragedy.

“Musk’s probably created more significant companies than anyone since Edison,” Blank says. “But the problem with visionaries and founders often is once they’re proven right about one thing, they believe every vision they have is correct.”

source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2018/04/30/elon-musk-and-tesla-pull-few-punches-defending-pioneering-car-company-even-after-accidents/548298002/

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