CA DMV Report Sheds New Light On Misleading Tesla Autonomous Drive Video

On October 20th of last year Tesla Motors published an official blog post announcing an important development:

“as of today, all Tesla vehicles produced in our factory – including Model 3 – will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”

Tesla backed up this bold claim with a slick video, set to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” which depicted one of the company’s Model X SUVs driving itself from a home in the Bay Area to the company’s headquarters near the Stanford University campus, apparently with no driver input. In a tweet linking to the video, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk described this demonstration in no uncertain terms:

“Tesla drives itself (no human input at all) thru urban streets to highway to streets, then finds a parking spot”

After months of negative news about Tesla’s Autopilot in the wake of a deadly crash that the system had failed to prevent, the video prompted a return to the fawning, uncritical media coverage that characterized the initial launch of Autopilot. And by advertising a new sensor suite that made all existing Teslas obsolete, the company was able to bolster demand for its cars even as it discontinued the discounts that had driven sales in the third quarter. Like so many of Tesla’s publicity stunts, the video was a masterpiece of viral marketing that drove the company’s image to new heights… but like so many of Tesla’s publicity stunts it also turns out to have been extremely misleading.

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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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The New, New, New Chrysler: Half Time In A Dutch-based UK Tax Domicile

Go ahead... make my tax year.

Go ahead… make my tax year.

Immediately after the US government funded and brokered marriage of Fiat and Chrysler, the company’s advertising took an unmistakable turn towards themes of national identity and patriotism. From the over-saturated sincerity of Chrysler’s “Imported From Detroit” ads, Ram’s “So God Made A Farmer” sermon and Jeep’s  “The Things We Make Make Us” manifesto, to the dripping irony of Dodge’s “Freedom” spot, every brand in the new “Chrysler LLC” played up its American-ness in a different way. And when Fiat’s 500 was introduced to the US market it was marketed almost exclusively in ways that highlighted its Italian-ness, despite the fact that the car has never actually been built outside Poland and Mexico. Clearly Fiat-Chrysler’s Canadian-born CEO Fiat Marchionne and French-born marketing boss Olivier Francois believe quite strongly in the power of national identity as a marketing tool.

This was already a provocative choice, given that these US-based brands had come under the control of an Italian firm, at some cost to the US taxpayer. But with news breaking that the new Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA henceforth) will be based in The Netherlands with a UK tax domicile and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, this patriotic marketing strategy becomes even more of a liability. FCA would love to have its cake and eat it too: benefit from national bailouts and nationalist marketing while enjoying every tax and banking advantage of new transnational corporate structures. The question is: can it?

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The Internet shills: Automotive News confirms GM’s war on words, visits its command center

The war room - Picture courtesy autonews.com

A month after the Daily Kanban broke the story about GM operatives who were systematically, albeit a bit clumsily, subverting the comment section of a large U.S. car blog, GM decided to get, if not in front of the story, then at least behind it. GM gave David Barkholz of Automotive News access to its “social media command center,”  from where GM runs its war on words. [Continue Reading]

As the world spins: The mystery of the missing sales

Inside the truck wars black ops...

Inside the truck wars black ops…

Spend enough time looking at anything, and patterns eventually emerge; stare hard enough at auto industry news, and you can discern the movings of the PR teams who craft the messages that drive 95% of all auto media content. Spend enough time reading and a sweeping drama emerges: one side probes a competitor at a point of perceived weakness, the defender digs in or counter-attacks, a problem appears from nowhere while another problem fades away, yesterday’s non sequitor becomes today’s news.

In the polite world of the auto media, the journalist’s role on this battlefield is to be the straight man: to merely repeat each feint and parry in this informational melee as if they were the weather, or stock prices. Even the combatants themselves will back away from any direct confrontation when pressed, caught between the pull to ruthlessly compete and the inherently conservative culture of all large corporate communications departments.

But the battle for reality is constantly being waged in the auto industry… and the action is always most exciting when the stakes are highest. Which is what makes GM’s new truck launch the perfect case study.

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A week after: GM responds to serial shilling allegations, while car blogs remain silent

We see, hear, write, do nothing  - actually, we aren't really here

A week after we broke the story about GM’s serial shilling, the media writes, GM answers, but the blogosphere looks the other way. Over the years, more than 3,000 anonymous comments were left on Thetruthaboutcars.com from what looked like GM computers. When I started researching the story half a year ago, PR professionals and seasoned experts of the social media business assured me that I was onto “the holy grail” of the business. They predicted that the story would trigger a fire storm. They were right and wrong. The story was picked up by Drudge and Instapundit, both good for an avalanche of attention. The story was discussed on Edmunds. As far as the auto blogosphere goes, the story does not exist. Instead of being righteously outraged, the blogosphere is embarrassed, and it sheepishly looks the other way. [Continue Reading]

Former TTAC moderator comes forward, says he witnessed on-line shilling by GM, other OEMs

Picture courtesy Tanzania Central Bank

Summer 2009 was a heady time for auto blogs and their readers. Michigan auto and parts companies were falling faster than their share prices. The termites of foreign and domestic competition, intransigent executive management, careless lending, and poor product ate away the foundations of General Motors, Chrysler, and, to a lesser-extent, Ford, until the debt crisis bubble pop brought these mighty corporations tumbling down.

Understandably, playing defense against their myriad opponents—former customers put off by shoddy quality, PR minions of crosstown- or cross-state rivals, bloggers who had a voice and found an audience for some hard truths, and lowly trolls who infect any story with a comments section with their barely-literate ramblings—beleaguered employees started fighting back in the comments sections of various auto blogs, including The Truth About Cars. [Continue Reading]