Elon Take The Wheel

tesla-elon-musk-picture courtesy Forbes

If Tesla Motors has a single greatest asset, it’s not a factory or battery chemistry but the immense public trust that its CEO Elon Musk inspires. Faith in Musk’s abilities and good intentions underlies Tesla’s, passionate fan base, perceived technology leadership and high-flying valuation, and excuses its multitude of shortcomings in quality and customer service. Nothing exemplifies the power of this faith like Tesla’s ability to convince the public to trust its Autopilot system to navigate them through a landscape that kills more than 30,000 Americans each year. So as the number of Autopilot-related crashes begins to pile up and Tesla belatedly reveals that one of its customers died while using the system, it’s not surprising that faith in Musk and Tesla is taking a hit.

In my latest post at The Daily Beast, I teamed up with Nick Lum to investigate why so many Tesla owners appear to believe that Autopilot is more capable than it actually is and our findings are deeply troubling. From the very first announcement Musk and Tesla have misrepresented Autopilot’s capabilities in hopes of maintaining Tesla’s image as Silicon Valley’s most high-tech auto play in the face of Google’s far more serious autonomous drive program. Now, even after the first fatal crash, they are trying to maintain misperceptions of Autopilot’s capabilities by touting junk statistics that purport to demonstrate an Autopilot safety record that is superior to the average human driver. As Nick and I discovered, the deeply disingenuous nature of Tesla’s representations erode Tesla and Musk’s credibility on a fundamental level: either they do not understand the auto safety data or they are intentionally misleading the public. Either way, they refuse to acknowledge that either incompetence or deception has created a situation that has put the public at risk and continue to stand by safety claims that don’t hold up to even the slightest critical analysis.

As it turns out, there’s almost no end to the ways in which Tesla and Musk’s claims about Autopilot safety fall apart under scrutiny. In addition to the analysis presented in The Daily Beast, here are a few more ways in which to think critically about Tesla’s Autopilot claims.

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GM’s “Award-Winning” PR Strategy

Cui bono?

Cui bono?

For as long as General Motors has been losing market share in the United States, Detroit’s largest automaker has looked beyond mere success on the market to craft a winning PR narrative. This has been no easy task; after all, nothing succeeds like success. But luckily for GM there is an alternative to actual success: awards. Offered by countess media outlets, professional associations and industry groups, these awards may not actually substitute for (let alone drive) consumer demand for GM’s products, but they do allow the Ren Cen’s merry spinmeisters to craft an appearance of success for the company, no matter how at odds with reality it is.

History is littered with embarrassing legacies of this strategy, perhaps most notably the time when GM won Motor Trend’s 1971 Car Of The Year award for its hapless Chevrolet Vega. But GM’s awards-centric strategy is hardly a thing of the past: just last week, CEO Mary Barra claimed that recent awards prove that GM is indeed a new company and that “we are there to win.” Barra’s statement was deeply ironic, as touting award wins as a sign of success is precisely the kind of “leadership” that allowed GM to ignore its failures on the market for decades. In fact, under Barra’s leadership GM is not simply falling back on awards to burnish its underperforming vehicles, it’s relying on awards to polish Barra’s image as well. Worst of all, it appears many of these awards are effectively bought and paid for.

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