The real lessons of Tesla's PR disaster

Tesla CEO Elon Musk accuses the New York Times of trying to kill the electric car -- but ignores deeper problems

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It's much easier to gloss over problems and give it the old thumbs-up. That's one reason why so many tech reviews are positive. It's not because Reviewer X is a tool of Microsoft who is biased against all things Apple, or Reviewer Y is an Apple fanboy who has hates everything with a Redmond return address. It's because there's very little upside to telling the whole story. It's mostly a lot of grief -- so kudos to Broder for having the guts to tell his story, warts and all, and for sticking to his guns afterward.

Wired's Chelsea Sexton has the right take on this, I think. Electric vehicles are like mobile phones: not a one-to-one replacement for a landline, but mighty useful nonetheless. She writes:

Mobile phones were never premised on delivering the exact same experience as the land-line phones ("gas cars") they replace. They don't have the talk time ("driving range") of hard-wired phones, and aren't expected to. They must be "re-fueled" much more often than home phones -- much like an EV, actually.... Despite these compromises, we've grown downright addicted to our mobile phones, finding a different solution for those marathon conference calls (the "road trip" use case) when we need to make them.

Anyone who's ever used a device based on a lithium battery knows how inexact those power meters are and how wonky these devices can be in general. At the very least, Broder's story does everyone a service by pointing out some basic limitations of the EV technology, especially for folks who live in the Northeast, where there are fewer charging stations, and for those who have to drive in cold weather.

Don't get me wrong. I have tremendous respect for Musk, who is kind of the Henry Ford or the Thomas Edison of our era (and, like Ford and Edison, has his share of highly public personality flaws). I like that he's going full steam ahead with private space exploration. I've been lusting for a Tesla vehicle since I saw a story about Musk in Wired two years ago. Like a lot of people, I've been frustrated by the stupid ideas coming out of Detroit over the past 30 years (gee, let's build yet another SUV) and have been looking forward to the day Silicon Valley takes on the job of bringing cars into the 21st century.

I think we should have ditched the internal combustion engine 20 years ago. Imagine how much cleaner our skies would be and how much cooler the planet might be. Contemplate, for a moment, how losing our dependence on petroleum would change our nation's approach to the rest of the world. Think about having the chance to telling all those oil-rich potentates to sod off.

I'm all in with electric and other non-fossil-fuel technologies. But that doesn't mean we should ignore their flaws or attack those who point them out.

What this incident illustrates isn't merely the immaturity of the technology, which is to be expected. It also points out the immaturity of the company. To me that's far more troubling. Musk, et al. had to have known a negative story was coming, given the number of times Broder had to call the company for help as he was driving. You'd think they'd have a better response prepared than calling the story a fake and Broder a liar. That's playground stuff.

What Musk should have done:

  • Acknowledge the faults of the technology and point out how Broder could have maximized his mileage and improved his experience if he'd only done X, Y, and Z
  • Bring in others who've had better experiences to show that Broder's trip was an anomaly
  • Offer a cash prize for some smart Tesla owner who can drive the furthest on a single charge and share his or her tricks
  • Assure the world that your technology is still young but rapidly improving, and talk about the next cool thing it will do

This isn't rocket science -- it's PR 101. If Tesla can't handle that, how is it going to respond when it has a real crisis on its hands?

Would you buy a Tesla, if you could afford one, warts and all? Post your driving fantasies below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "The real lessons of Tesla's PR disaster," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry withRobert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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