Were the late Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner still with us today, Tesla Motors might look to her character Emily Litella for its latest public relations campaign to address overheating and fires with its Model S charging systems.
“Never mind,” the Weekend Update commentator would say.
That’s was also essentially the response from Tesla on Friday when the company announced – after it had vehemently denied any culpability about overheating systems or power cords just three weeks earlier – that it would send all Model S owners new cords to replace the defective old ones. This followed a garage fire in Irvine, Calif., which local authorities blamed on either “a high resistance connection at the wall socket or the Universal Mobile Connector from the Tesla charging system.” New charger connectors will be mailed in the next two weeks, according to a Bloomberg report.
“These are very rare events, but occasionally the wiring isn’t done right,” said CEO Elon Musk. “We want people to have absolute comfort, so we’re going to be providing them with an upgraded adapter.”
That is a stark contrast to the corporate attitude in late December after the California fire, which occurred on Nov. 15 and was kept secret for over a month. That followed a series of three fires in the Model S vehicles while they were in use – two after they allegedly struck road debris in Washington state and Tennessee, and another following a crash in Mexico. The rapid succession of dangerous incidents put Musk and Tesla officials in crisis defense mode, aggressively defending the safety performance of the Model S.
After each of the on-road fires, Tesla pointed out that the drivers’ lives were never endangered thanks to the vehicle’s safety warning features. The company emphasized that the Model S’s only caught fire after undergoing unusual collisions, and called attention to the far greater number of fires in gasoline-powered automobiles. In the case of the California garage fire, Tesla again – without reservation or caveat – absolved itself of blame.
“We looked into the incident,” said company spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean to Reuters. “We can say it absolutely was not the car, the battery or the charging electronics…. The cable was fine on the vehicle side. All the damage was on the wall side.
“A review of the car’s logs showed that the battery had been charging normally, and there were no fluctuations in temperature or malfunctions within the battery or the charge electronics.”
That was a nice non-denial denial. As anyone with even a minimal understanding of electricity knows, power and heat move, and just because a cord or unit don’t show any damage themselves doesn’t mean they didn’t have a role in an incident. But Tesla’s response to the California garage fire didn’t stop at the refutation – they attacked Reuters as an organization for a “misleading” report.
“It appears that their objective was simply to find some way to put the words ‘fire’ and ‘Tesla’ in the same headline,” the company statement said, as reported by the San Jose Mercury-News. “The journalists and editors who created the story have patently ignored hundreds of deaths and thousands of serious injuries unequivocally caused by gasoline car fires, instead choosing to write about a garage fire where there were no injuries and the cause was clearly not the car.”
So now that Tesla – heavily subsidized by taxpayers and the subject of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation for its road fires – is mailing out replacement charger connectors, will they apologize to Reuters for maligning their journalism? Is a mea culpa near?
Doesn’t look like it: In Friday’s announcement Tesla said “we do not believe the improved adapter is required to address the issue,” adding that they informed NHTSA about their “proactive measures.” With Elon Musk, “proactive” must only follow “reactive,” “knee-jerk,” and “deflect blame” in his public relations manual.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.