The Tesla S has had three fires and Tesla Founder Elon Musk has gone public with his analysis that more gas cars burn per mile than Teslas do. This “less likely to die” approach to information may work for engineers, but most people don’t think like that and tend to shy away from things that are different. Any discussion on safety should focus on the fact that no-one got killed in a Tesla fire which is far from true of gas fire. Much like Tucker, Tesla represents a very different way to build and sell cars, and much like Tucker, the traditional car companies want Tesla dead. Making PR blunders is certainly not helping the company, which is why Tesla’s stock was falling as I wrote this.
Let’s put the fires in perspective: there are about 266,000 car fires every year resulting in 520 deaths. Tesla has had three, and even though one guy drove through a tree and solid wall, there have been no fire related deaths. By the way, so far, everyone that has had a cooked Tesla wants another one. It may literally be the safest car on the road. But it could still be killed because this isn’t about reality – it is about perception, and Tesla sucks at protecting its image.
Image via Shutterstock
This reminds me a bit of the story of Tucker, although Tesla so far is doing much better. Preston Tucker had a dream to bring to market a better car in the 1940s but Ford, GM and Chrysler saw the threat and worked to kill the company. The car was a rear engine design (like Porsche), and it was arguably safer than any other car on the road and far more advanced. For instance, it had a perimeter guard and a built-in roll bar unique to the time and the center headlight pointed where the wheels were pointed (a feature applied to the headlights in high end cars today). In concept it was even more advanced than the production car with fuel injection, disk brakes, a power design that was actually surprisingly close to the Tesla’s (torque converter for each drive wheel), and a flat six-cylinder Hemi engine with oil driven valves.
The initial car was rolled at 95 miles per hour and the driver was largely unhurt and the car remained drivable. The Tesla might actually do that today, but I doubt any other car could. But Tucker couldn’t maintain the image surrounding the car (and clearly his competitors were working to assure folks saw it as a disaster and moved against him both politically and strategically. Tucker failed, despite it being one hell of a car.
The Tesla is an amazing car, for its time as amazing as the Tucker was. But it is also very disruptive and represents a threat to the traditional car companies who don’t command the same stock multiple in the market and who are embarrassed by Tesla regularly (the Chevy Volt comes to mind). Even the successful Toyota Prius, which dominated the first wave of green cars, pales against the buzz surrounding the Tesla. This embarrasses powerful folks who don’t like to be made fun of and the car companies are now aggressively trying to block the creation of Tesla’s storefront dealer network. To date, for all of its visibility, most Tesla buyers live near me in Silicon Valley, where the cars are nearly as prevalent as Toyotas.
Like with any car, there will be accidents and problems. But if every one of these problems is expanded by folks who are threatened by the cars, and folks really don’t like change much, it is likely Tesla will follow Tucker into obsolescence and someone like me will report 30 or so years from now about how Tesla changed the world of cars but didn’t survive much like Tucker did. It is well past time Tesla should have realized they are in a fight for their lives and stepped up their marketing and PR to make sure the firm isn’t killed by false perceptions or by competitors.
Wrapping Up: Perceptions Are Reality
One of the shortcomings of folks who are engineers at heart like Elon Musk is an inability to realize that perceptions are more important than reality. He tends to overreact when there is a problem, often making the problem worse rather than turning the issue over to people who understand the mechanics of popular opinion and can fix the problem. As a result, Elon Musk is likely both Tesla’s greatest asset and the most likely cause of the firm’s failure, much like Tucker was. If the company fails, I expect he’ll know it was largely his fault, but I also expect that this won’t matter as much as not failing in the first place would.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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