A fatal crash, a federal safety probe, weak production and sales, and a major acquisition that has soured many long-time proponents. Just when things were starting to look bad for Tesla Motor Co., it now appears they could get worse.
A third crash possibly linked to the maker’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system has occurred in Montana while, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly looking into Tesla’s decision to delay the announcement of the first, fatal Autopilot crash until after a $2 billion stock offering.
Tesla investors, already riding a roller-coaster in recent months, began selling off shares, though many appear to be waiting to hear what Tesla CEO Elon Musk has in store after issuing a tweet last weekend that said the company is set to reveal its “Top Secret Tesla Masterplan, Part 2” some time this week.
The SEC is reportedly looking at why Tesla waited nearly two months to publicly reveal the May 7 Florida crash that killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown. The former Navy SEAL was operating his Model S in Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot mode and the company has since acknowledged that the system failed to detect a semi-truck that made a left turn into the sedan’s path.
Tesla did advise the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the crash within nine days — triggering an initial investigation by that agency. But it waited eight weeks before going public with the news, a delay that took it past a new public stock offering that Tesla had said was critical to funding the final development of its upcoming Model 3 sedan.
That has triggered criticism of the car maker, despite Musk’s tweet that the news of the crash was “not material to the value of Tesla.” Whether that’s accurate could be up to the SEC to decide.
The agency has not commented on the reported probe and, for its part, a Tesla spokesperson said the maker “has not received any communications from the SEC regarding this issue.”
While it’s unclear where any SEC investigation might go, Tesla now faces the prospect NHTSA may ramp up its probe into the safety of the Autopilot system – which is designed to allow owners of the Models S and X to operate briefly in hands-free mode. Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board has also stepped in and is seeking answers to questions in a nine-page letter sent to Tesla this week. Tesla officials are also being asked to meet with a Senate committee.
Since the first fatal crash was revealed there have been two others blamed on Autopilot: On July 1, Detroit art gallery owner Albert Scaglione’s Model X struck a guardrail on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and rolled over. He claims to have just activated the Autopilot system.
The latest incident came on July 10, shortly after a Tesla vehicle exited Interstate 90 near Whitehall, Montana. There were no injuries, and other details were not released. The driver claimed to have been using the Autopilot system, though Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Jade Schope told the Associated Press, “I have no way of verifying whether it was or wasn’t” in use.
For its part, Tesla is not yet commenting on the Montana crash, though it says it has “no data to suggest that Autopilot was engaged at the time of the incident” in Pennsylvania, and has launched its own investigation.
Telsa has said that the Autopilot system is in “beta,” or development stage, and warned drivers they must be ready to immediately regain control of their vehicles if they malfunction. But critics say that isn’t good enough.
“You are in effect using your customers as human guinea pigs,” Jamie Court, President of California-based Consumer Watchdog, wrote to Musk in a letter this week, asking that Tesla shut off the technology — which it can do wirelessly.
The influential Consumer Reports magazine has likewise asked Tesla to switch off the system until it can make updates to improve its reliability – and then make it clear to owners what the limits of the technology are.
For his part, CEO Musk says there are no plans to disable Autopilot.
Tesla has heavily promoted Autopilot as another indication of the maker’s technological prowess, so such a move could be seen as an embarrassing failure.
Tesla has been falling short elsewhere. Though it reported a sharp increase in production and sales for the second quarter, the numbers fell short of the company’s stated goals.
Adding to Tesla’s headaches, it's been hammered by criticism of its plans to acquire SolarCity, with even some traditional ardent supporters pointing to Musk's personal relationship with the solar power company. For his part, Musk contends there will be significant synergies linking Tesla’s automotive and back-up power businesses with SolarCity’s renewable energy operations. But the deal is now undergoing an internal review.
A real test of support for the fiercely independent automaker could come later this week when it releases Musk’s “Top Secret Tesla Masterplan, Part 2.” The original “masterplan,” revealed in 2006, outlined the company’s intent to launch a high-end battery sedan that became the Model S, as well as a more mainstream offering that will be known as the Model 3.
The carmaker’s goal is to launch that vehicle during the second half of 2017, a move it contends will boost its output to 500,000 vehicles in 2018, or about 10 times its total production last year.
The new plan will need to lay out a path to get past Tesla’s current problems and showcase ways it will finally start delivering the profits that have so far proved elusive for the company.