Tesla Recall? Elon Musk Doesn’t Like the ‘R’ Word

Source: JD Lasica (jdlasica) / Flickr

You know you’re on the cutting edge of innovation when the English language can’t provide you with the right vocabulary to describe what it is you’re actually doing. That’s the issue Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk is running into: This past week it was reported that Tesla would be issuing a recall that wasn’t really a recall, but there isn’t an adequate word to describe what it is, really.

An incident in a garage in California in November is what provoked the recent chain of events. A fire within the wall of the garage caught fire while a Tesla Model S was charging in the bay. It was ruled inconclusive as to whether it was the charging adapter or something else that ignited the blaze, but the fact that there was a Tesla in the very vicinity was enough to draw the company’s attention — you’ll remember that this is shortly after three reports of Model S fires were reported while the cars were in operation, so Tesla was keen to stay on top of any public relations flareups.

While the Model S is still under a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe that is looking into whether it was a safety defect that caused the initial vehicle fires, Tesla exercised one of its strongest suits to tackle the potential charging adapter problem: It launched a mostly preventative campaign to ensure that no other owners would experience a fire that could be tied back the company by redesigning the charging units to include a thermal fuse that will kill or lower the juice if the temperatures surpass a certain threshold.

Tesla also initiated an over-the-air software fix and is mailing the new charging units out to Tesla owners. It was this action that was dubbed a “recall” by the NHTSA and thus put Musk in his linguistic predicament.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind in regards to this scenario. First, the garage fire in November was not attributed to the car itself. Aside from some slight smoke damage, the car was perfectly OK. Second — and more important — no units are being called in for any sort of repair work at Tesla’s satellite locations. Owners will merely have to receive the updated charger and install it in place of their existing one.

Musk took to Twitter after the incident, asserting that the word “recall” wasn’t correctly applied in this peculiar instance. “The word ‘recall’ needs to be recalled,” he tweeted,  if somewhat exasperatedly. On that day, despite the “R” word being thrown around by the authorities that be, Tesla’s stock surged more than 15 percent after an expectation-breaking quarterly report.

Tesla Motors has been a niche market player, with small volume vehicles that often run around the six-figure mark. However, Tesla has ambitious plans to go mass market, in which the publicly perceived safety qualifications of a vehicle will play an enormous role in the company’s future.

Some think that Musk’s vocal and public altercations with the NHTSA could ultimately prove harmful to Tesla in the long run, as the agency has the capability to “force costly alterations or fine Tesla millions of dollars for not reporting what it considers safety defects,” Bloomberg reports. Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, agrees.

“This is just the kind of reaction you get from someone who is essentially a rookie in the car business,” he told Bloomberg. “You will not hear a seasoned auto executive knock NHTSA.”

No, it’s likely that you wouldn’t hear that from a seasoned executive. But you don’t see seasoned auto manufacturers pushing the envelope in the way that Tesla does, either. Further, Musk has never been afraid of crossing swords in the public arena, especially with those who he feels are marginalizing the integrity of his brand.

Musk took on a reporter from The New York Times when his review of the Model S shed a particularly unpleasant light on the claims that Tesla was making. Tesla also kicked up a fair amount of dust when the BBC show Top Gear – arguably one of the most well-respected authorities in the auto enthusiast world – aired a similarly disparaging account of its experience with the Tesla Roadster.

During a telephone interview with Bloomberg, Musk took the opportunity to weigh in.

“Because Tesla gets so much attention, NHTSA rides us pretty hard,” he said to the news service. “People are going to think our car has a greater propensity for fire than a gasoline car, which is simply untrue.”

He added: “We’ve now almost 30,000 Tesla vehicles on the road. Fire incidents are one in 10,000. For gasoline cars, it’s one in 1,300. That doesn’t make any sense to us. We should be applauded for how amazing our car is for never catching on fire relative to a gasoline car.”

Even though the NHTSA and Tesla may appear to be at odds in the public arena, the two entities were reportedly able to come together to get the job done in an amicable fashion. The company is doing a good job of communicating with and responding to the agency, according to NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman, who spoke to Bloomberg.

Likewise, Tesla is equally ready for the NHTSA to be done with investigation so that the overhang can pass and the company can move on. “We’re really quite keen to have NHTSA close the investigation or ask us for more information so we can provide it,” Musk said to Bloomberg. “We would really, really like to get this done.”

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