Tesla Raises Bar for Safety, Candor

A fire in a Model S Tesla served as a spark to a candid, detailed and reputation-enhancing e-letter from CEO Elon Musk.Tesla has established a new high bar for the performance, appearance and safety of all-electric cars. Now Tesla founder Elon Musk is establishing an equally high bar for managing any car company's reputation. Musk was candid, detailed and bullish.

A Model S drove over a metal object, which penetrated the heavily reinforced underbelly of the vehicle, struck the car's battery module and ignited a fire. The car's onboard alert system instructed the stunned driver to pull over and exit the vehicle, which he did without injury. The fire was contained in the front section of the car by internal firewalls designed for that purpose.

We know this and more because of an October 4 newsletter sent under the byline of Musk, listed as chairman, product architect and CEO and signed as Elon. The detailed explanation of what happened, as well as the actual exchange between company officials and the driver, are an excellent example of transparency. It also is an outstanding example of reputation management.

With electric cars — and Tesla — still in their infancy, this kind of open dialogue is important to reassure motorists, especially potential Tesla buyers, that the car is safe.

In his newsletter, Musk said a curved part that fell off a truck "appears to be the culprit." "The geometry of the object caused a powerful level action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons," he explained.

Musk didn't lapse into a defensive posture or equivocation. He stood up for his brand in describing the fire in his car and the potential of fires in gas-powered vehicles.

"At no point did the fire enter the passenger compartment," he said. "Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank."

"For consumers concerned about fire risk," Musk concluded, "there should be absolutely zero doubt it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid."

To back up these claims, Tesla included the exchange between the driver, Rob Carlson, and a company vice president, Jerome Guillen.

Guillen sent email to Carlson two days after the incident. In the email he said, "We are following this case extremely closely and we have sent a team of experts to review your vehicle. All indications are that your Model S drove over a large, oddly shaped metal object, which impacted the leading edge of the vehicle's undercarriage and rotated into the underside of the vehicle. This is a highly uncommon occurrence. Based on our review this far, we believe the Model S performed as designed by limiting the resulting fire to the affected zones only."

Carlson wrote, "Thanks for the support. I completely agree with the assessment to date. I guess you can test for everything, but some other celestial bullet comes along and challenges your design. I agree that the car performed well under such an extreme test. The batteries went through a controlled burn, which Internet images really exaggerate.... I was thinking this was bound to happen, just not to me, But now it is out there and probably gets a sigh of relief as a test and risk issue. This doomsday event has now been tested, and the design and engineering works."

Tesla offered Carlson a white Model S loaner. He declined, saying he would wait for his correctly colored replacement.

It is hard to pay for testimonials like that. What it cost Tesla was candor.