Over the weekend, journalists and analysts wrote about the fact that The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is taking a look at a complaint claiming that Tesla's vehicles have a problem with 'sudden unintended acceleration.' I was one of them.  

Now, however, Tesla has issued a forceful response in the form of a blog post, stating its position that in no case has any of its vehicles ever suffered from any kind of malfunction that would lead to unintended acceleration. And the company has even stronger words for the person who originally filed the petition asking the NHTSA to get involved stating:

This petition is completely false and was brought by a Tesla short-seller. We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle's data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed. 

And, according to CNBC, the individual who filed the original petition is an investor who has shorted Tesla's stock, which is certainly a reason to question his motivation. It doesn't, however, negate the fact that the petition includes 127 actual complaints about vehicles accelerating without the driver pressing the accelerator, many resulting in crashes or injuries.  

Tesla's response, in this case, is an interesting lesson in managing a crisis. Arguably, how you respond when you face attack, is not only important, but it is a telling indicator of what a company values, and how it sees both its competition and its customers.

You can certainly understand why Tesla would respond so strongly. Tesla is essentially defending its reputation against someone who is claiming that its cars aren't safe and are prone to a dangerous flaw. In fact, there are two reasons the company has to make it clear that it believes its cars are safe and operate normally.

The first is that Tesla is already trying to overcome the perception that electric vehicles (EVs) aren't as reliable or convenient as internal combustion-powered cars. Even though Tesla builds incredible good cars, the general perception is that they are expensive and that EVs are less convenient because they can't drive as far without having to be charged.

It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, the perception is already baked in, and people tend to look for what already confirms what they believe. In this case, reports that Tesla's vehicles might suddenly accelerate through the back of your garage into your family room, don't do much to change public perception in a good way. 

The second is that it was only 10 years ago that Toyota had its own acceleration-related scandal that resulted in millions of vehicles being recalled in 2009 and 2010. In the end, the accidents and fatalities, in that case, were attributed to driver error, but by then it didn't matter. The damage was already done to Toyota's reputation, resulting in a 16 percent decline in sales.

Tesla has only recently reported a profit and has delivered a record number of 112,000 of its vehicles last quarter. A massive recall or decline in sales due to a loss of confidence would be hugely damaging not only to the company but to the cause of converting the world to electric vehicles and solar energy.

That's why Tesla likely had no choice but to forcefully defend its vehicles as safe and reliable. It clearly established in its response that its own investigations show there hasn't been an instance of unintended acceleration and that it cooperates with the NHTSA with every complaint. While the individual incidents involved deserve third-party investigation before they are dismissed entirely, Tesla has made it clear that it stands behind its vehicles as safe and reliable.

Interestingly, the company's outspoken CEO, Elon Musk, hasn't made a statement on Twitter. That alone tells you that Tesla thinks these claims are a big deal. Musk regularly engages with fans and critics online and the absence of a comment here is a show of remarkable restraint.

Which, by the way, is another lesson in handling an existential threat. Sometimes returning punches isn't the best move. Sometimes it's best to make your case instead of making news. Sometimes it's best to let your message stand for itself without the drama and distraction. Especially when the future of your company depends on it.

Published on: Jan 21, 2020
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