Friday, February 15, 2013

Sell the car, not the Kool-Aid

As promised, on Thursday Tesla CEO Elon Musk posted the logs from the disastrous NY Times long-distance test drive of his Model S sedan. Late Thursday, Broder himself posted his own attempt to reconcile his experience with the data.

At first, I was puzzled by Musk’s quixotic attempt to pit his famous money-losing startup against the country’s oldest and most valuable media brand. Yes, as a former engineer-entrepreneur, I get that engineers will scream “user error” at the top of their lungs rather than even consider that there might be problems with their baby.

There’s also the common sight of the rich egomaniacal founder — in this case, the highest profile multi-industry entrepreneur since Howard Hughes — assuming that a few business successes meant that he possesses the Midas touch, papal infallibility, or genius worthy of a Nobel prize.

Then I read the comment logs on some of these stories. Yes, the polarization seems worthy of a political campaign, but what surprised me was the vituperation against the NY Times reporter, in effect accusing him of being part of the evil Big Oil conspiracy to kill little ol’ Elon. Even one of my normally rational (except on politics) former co-workers has been tweeting that with a NYT reporter “you wouldn’t think guy would lie” and that the reporter was “unethical.”

The tactics being used by Tesla are straight out of a political campaign: Musk is not trying to convince the general public, he’s trying to protect his base, the true believers who’ll pay $80k or $100k for a car that makes them feel good about saving the planet but provides transportation equivalent (or sometimes inferior) to a $30k Toyota.

Psychologists tell us such an approach works due to “confirmation bias”: if you’ve plunked down a $5k-$40k deposit to get on the Model S waiting list, you will tune out messages that might suggest you’re getting a lemon. (I wonder how these buyers of this 400+ hp car will feel reading Tesla’s advice to avoid rapid acceleration and keep the speed under 60 on long-distance trips, let alone turning off the heater in the winter).

Perhaps Tesla’s near term goal is to keep those intended buyers from demanding their deposits back, since the company has been spending that money to keep the doors open. Or (as with a political campaign), perhaps Musk really believes what fawning reporters say within the Silicon Valley echo chamber. As was Steve Jobs in the Job I era, he’s likely surrounded by a staff who drink the Kool-Aid.

As with any product failure or business dispute, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Some more neutral parties, such as Slate, Business Insider, Wired and particularly the Atlantic attempted to reconcile the new data with the original article by John Broder. And Broder himself wonders if some of the speed data was thrown off by using smaller wheels than normal.

If this were an actual court case, then Musk would lose — and lose badly — for two reasons. First, Broder is a more credible witness. He was there when the car was being driven, has witnesses and some of his explanations (like driving around a parking lot looking for the charger) disarm Musk’ accusations. He concedes that a caption (usually written by an editor) was misleading. In the end he’s willing to admit that if his sole goal was to maximize battery life, there are things he would have done differently.

The second problem is that, as Perry Mason or Matlock would be quick to point out, there’s no motive. Why would a NYT reporter who since 2009 has been “the Washington bureau reporter responsible for coverage of energy, environment and climate change” try to destroy America’s most famous electric car company here. We’re not talking Fox News or even the Wall Street Journal here. Meanwhile, with the survival of his company riding on this one product, Musk’s motives to present the data in the best possible light are quite clear.

Under other circumstances, Musk might able to win support from pro-business conservatives who distrust the NYT after years of editorializing on its news pages. (Some have compared Musk’s war against the press to that of Richard Nixon 40 years ago). But this audience is (for once) ready to believe the NY Times over a crony capitalist who sought $700 million in Federal loan guarantees (and won $465m) to keep his cleantech startup going.

The Model S is not the first cutting-edge product to fail a product review: this sort of thing has been happening for PCs, software and smartphones for decades. Sometimes, it’s because the rough edges are still showing: Broder was clearly misled by the onboard computer’s range estimates. In other case, the reviewers (again like real customers) use the product in ways that the engineer would not or would not even imagine.

In the end, Tesla will have to recognize that they made a mistake in providing their car in the middle of winter to an independent reporter, and telling him that he could drive up the Eastern seaboard using only the company’s “Supercharger” stations. The company will need better software, an onboard charging station locator, and 7/24 tech support equipped with better scripts for dealing with range anxiety in cold weather and other adverse conditions.

As with anything else in life, we learn most from our mistakes. Tesla will have a much better product (and make Elon Musk even richer) if they make a Model S that anyone can use rather than trying to sell the Kool-Aid to true believers.

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