In the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal – not to mention the scandals involving Mitsubishi and Suzuki more recently, regarding falsely reporting fuel efficiency figures – it’s safe to say that the automotive industry is facing a huge trust deficit at present.
So it doesn’t help when a new-age manufacturer like Tesla is seen as behaving like the old guard. Tesla and Elon Musk have earned a massive fan base over the past couple of years. The Silicon Valley carmaker is seen as shaking up the establishment, and it’s celebrated for it. Elon Musk, specifically, is viewed as a visionary and someone who’s working towards a better future for us all. And it’s not just hype, he’s actually delivered – in many more ways than simply making electric cars desirable. His company, Space X, became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into space, and then recover it on re-entry. Musk, as a result, is revered.
But his cloak of invincibility seems to have been dented somewhat over the past couple of weeks. A Tesla Model S in ‘Autopilot’ mode – Tesla’s autonomous driving feature – crashed and killed its driver. The technology is still very much in its Beta phase, and the driver should never have taken his hands off the wheel, or his attention off the road – as he’s reported to have done. We’ve attempted to explain the presumed cause for the accident, the potential repercussions, and some possible solutions elsewhere in this issue, so I won’t get into the details – except to say that Tesla’s real failing in the midst of this incident was not proactively revealing it to the public. They only did so when the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation. In the meantime, drivers were using the Autopilot system as they were before – unaware that there was potentially a major flaw in the system, which they needed to be aware of. There have since been reports of other accidents while using the autonomous driving feature – fortunately without serious injury.
What’s worse is that Tesla sold two billion dollars of stock without notifying investors about the accident – for which they’re under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Sure, we need to await the results of both investigations before passing a verdict or apportioning blame, but this much is clear – Tesla should have immediately informed Model S and Model X owners to be more careful when using the ‘Autopilot’ mode.
It doesn’t help their cause when they claim to be forward-looking or responsible, and then proceed to act more irresponsibly than the establishment that they’re trying to unseat. And it’s unconscionable when the lives of their customers are at risk. Carmakers – new age and otherwise – need to be far more careful in future if they’re ever going to bridge this trust deficit. The industry needs to rewrite its rules of engaging in public disclosure, especially in a crisis – otherwise it risks plunging further into the abyss.