Tesla is fighting fire with video.
Reports of its electric cars igniting and burning are plaguing the company and its renegade CEO, Elon Musk.
A video—as yet not verified—of one of its Model S electric cars erupting in flames in a Shanghai car park has gone viral, first on Chinese social media and then globally on Twitter.
Tesla responded both on Chinese social media and in statements to news outlets covering the incident.
In an emailed statement to news outlets, a Tesla China spokesperson said, “We immediately sent a team onsite and we’re supporting local authorities to establish the facts. From what we know now, no one was harmed.” It should be noted that the video has yet to be verified as authentic. However, last week a parked Tesla in Pennsylvania caught fire in the garage of an owner’s home.
An alleged aftermath video of the Shanghai explosion has also appeared on social media showing not only the Tesla completely destroyed but the cars parked near it fully consumed by the fire.
It’s not an isolated incident. Tesla faces increasing pressure to offer sober, concrete answers.
The car and electric infrastructure company has been an industry leader in grabbing headlines and making a splash online. Musk has captivated readers and reporters alike with jokes, bold visions and the occasional run-in with the SEC. That’s not calming consumers, however.
Tesla continues to tout its future, betting heavily on automation. Perhaps to deflect attention from the spontaneous fires, the company released an online video of a driverless car navigating city streets.
Tesla demonstrated Full Self Driving pic.twitter.com/6lexWBy5Zf
— Enlargeyournerd (@Enlargeyournerd) April 23, 2019
On Monday, Mr. Musk said the company was on the cusp of making cars that could drive themselves safely on any road. He also promised that the company would begin operating a fleet of driverless “robo taxis” by the end of next year.
“I’m very convinced,” Mr. Musk said in a presentation to analysts at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. “In the future, people will want to outlaw people driving their own cars because they’ll be unsafe” compared with autonomous vehicles.
Many auto executives and analysts think Mr. Musk is being wildly optimistic and say cars that can drive themselves at all times are at least several years away.
However, these diversions—and Musk’s antics—might come back to haunt the company amid the mounting reports of cars igniting.
Sunday’s incident is the latest involving a Tesla catching fire. In June, a Model S burst into flames while driving in Los Angeles. The driver’s wife posted a video of the car with fire and smoke coming from underneath it, CNN reported. “This is what happened to my husband and his car today,” she wrote. “No accident, out of the blue, in traffic on Santa Monica Blvd. Thank you to the kind couple who flagged him down and told him to pull over.”
In February, a Tesla driver in south Florida was killed after the vehicle swerved through traffic, hit a median and trees, then burst into flames. According to the Sun-Sentinel, the car’s battery reignited at least three times while the car was in the impound lot.
A separate wreck in south Florida last year led the family of one passenger to sue Tesla on allegations the car’s battery pack is defective. According to the law firm representing the family, there have been at least a dozen cases of Tesla Model S batteries catching fire after a collision or while stationary, in recent years. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fatal 2018 crash, as well as others involving the Palo Alto, Calif.-based carmaker.
Tesla, which has more than 500,000 vehicles on the road, maintains that its cars are 10 times less likely to catch fire than gasoline-powered ones. But experts say that battery fires can be harder to extinguish, because heat tends to build up in the lithium-ion battery systems.
Tesla also has to work to educate the public on the safety of electric cars. According to experts, the electric vehicle shouldn’t be any more flammable than a regular car, but a battery fire can be difficult to put out.
Electric vehicles should in theory be no less safe than gasoline powered vehicles, which often drive around carrying gallons of highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons on board. (Indeed, I’ve seen more than one parked car on fire in Washington, DC over the past few years, none of which were electric cars.)
While EV fires are rare, when batteries do ignite, the fire can be difficult to extinguish and the battery can often reignite in the following hours or days. That happened to the Rimac hypercar that The Grand Tour‘s Richard Hammond crashed, and it was also the case with a damaged Tesla in Pittsburgh earlier this month.
The incidents come at a difficult time for the pioneering carmaker—and they illustrate why it can be better to have your CEO keep a low profile.
The Washington Post continued:
Sunday’s incident comes at a sensitive time for the company. Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said in a note to clients Monday that he is expecting a “train wreck quarter” when Tesla reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday because of its weak delivery numbers and cost trajectory.
Earlier this month, Tesla shares dropped more than 8 percent after the company announced lower-than-expected vehicle deliveries. Ives said the stock continues to remain under pressure as investors worry that Tesla’s lackluster performance will extend into the second half of the year.
…Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been at the center of a legal battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, after he tweeted last year that he had secured funding to take the company private. The SEC sued Musk, accusing him of lying to investors about the effort. The parties eventually settled, but the agency recently claimed that Musk violated the agreement by continuing to tweet about the company’s finances without getting approval from the board, a condition of the settlement.
The episode underscores what some Tesla investors say is Musk’s impulsiveness and irresponsible leadership, which could provoke serious consequences for a company already facing doubts over demand, rising debt and stiff competition.
Your CEO is crucial to your crisis response, so your organization must protect his or her credibility and power.
If you use your CEO every time something goes wrong, it will reduce his or her impact. These top bosses are a brand’s prized spokesperson, the public face of the organization, and there is a strong case for holding them back for really big announcements and when things go catastrophically wrong.
There’s also an argument that using the CEO to front the response can send the wrong message, perhaps suggesting that the situation is worse than it actually is. It can raise the stakes.
CEOs shouldn’t be distant or detached during a crisis media management incident. They do need to be visible, they just don’t need to be in the media firing line from the start.
How would you advise Tesla to respond to the crisis, Ragan/PR Daily readers?