Monday, February 11, 2013

Bluster as a substitute for execution

Cross posted from the Cleantech Business blog.

In the ongoing search for electric car nirvana, the Tesla Motor Company has enjoyed an unusually charmed existence. Perhaps it’s the Silicon Valley mystique, perhaps it’s the Midas touch attributed to its co-founder Elon Musk — who became a centimillionaire from selling PayPal to eBay, and then used his funds to start a car company, a rocket company and a solar company.

After discontinuing its $100k niche toy, the Tesla Roadster, the future of the company depends on producing and selling its $60-100k Model S sedan in volume. The latter effort was dealt a major blow Sunday when the NY Times reported the very real problems in an actual test drive:

Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway

Washington — Having established a fast-charging foothold in California for its electric cars, Tesla Motors has brought its formula east, opening two ultrafast charging stations in December that would, in theory, allow a speedy electric-car road trip between here and Boston.

But as I discovered on a recent test drive of the company’s high-performance Model S sedan, theory can be trumped by reality, especially when Northeast temperatures plunge.
The problem was that — after several close calls — the car ran out of power shy of the next charging station, requiring a complex and time-consuming flatbed tow. Perhaps it was the effect of cold upon the battery life, perhaps it was the power consumed by the heater, perhaps it was bugs in the software or hardware.

Still, there’s no reason to think that the problems didn’t actually happen. In response, one would presume that Tesla would both improve its products and add additional charging stations to enable long-distance recharging.

Instead, the notoriously thin-skinned Musk tried to smear the messenger, both on a CNBC interview and on his twitter account:
@elonmusk: NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.
In responses to major media outlets, the NYT stood by its story:
The Times's February 10 article recounting a reporter's test drive in a Tesla Model S was completely factual, describing the trip in detail exactly as it occurred. Any suggestion that the account was "fake" is, of course, flatly untrue.

Our reporter followed the instructions he was given in multiple conversations with Tesla personnel. He described the entire drive in the story; there was no unreported detour. And he was never told to plug the car in overnight in cold weather, despite repeated contact with Tesla.
Apparently the attack was an effort to prop up the stock price, which fell 4% in response to the NYT story. (That’s about $175 million in market cap — more than any of us mere mortals will ever see in a lifetime).

Despite the stress on the company and its stock, this is a textbook example of how not to handle a PR crisis. But it appears that within a NASDAQ-traded public company, no one can tell the emperor of Tesla to put his clothes on, or to listen to professional advice. As The Atlantic summarized its media report: “Elon Musk's Crusade Against The New York Times Isn't Helping Tesla.” The WSJ wonders whether this sort of concerted effort to intimidate reviewers will discourage coverage in the future.

Of course, this happened the same week that Musk — an expert in all things everywhere — was offering advice on Boeing 787 batteries. As Seeking Alpha dryly put it:
Tesla has burned through $1.25B in free cash flows in order to develop the company, and we expect that terrifying test-drives of electric vehicles from Tesla Motors will continue. We find it amusing that Elon Musk is willing to help out Boeing's Dreamliner due to the battery issue. We would like to remind Elon Musk and his team that they need to first fix their problems with their products before trying to be a superhero with the products of other companies.
Cruising range is an inherent limitation of the current generation of electric cars, and thus “range anxiety” will be a major obstacle to adoption. Musk has done himself — and the industry — no favors by helping to call attention to the article, rather than (as his employees apparently were trying to do) work with the reviewer to understand and correct the problems.

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