Elon Musk, the billionaire co-founder of electric carmaker Tesla is now sniping over semantics with the industry’s regulator, the latest step in what he calls a crusade to revolutionize the automobile.
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year started investigating battery fires in the $70,000 Tesla Model S sedan. It escalated after the agency listed as a recall Tesla’s steps to reduce fire risks during recharging. An exasperated Musk took to Twitter, saying, “the word ‘recall’ needs to be recalled.”
As Musk looks to start selling into the safety-conscious mass market within three years, he wants to dispel any notion that owning a Tesla is inherently dangerous. Yet by sparring publicly with NHTSA, he risks rankling a regulator that could force costly alterations or fine Tesla millions of dollars for not reporting what it considers safety defects.
“This is just the kind of reaction you get from someone who is essentially a rookie in the car business,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book. “You will not hear a seasoned auto executive knock NHTSA.”
Automakers typically work behind the scenes to negotiate with NHTSA on the scope and timing of recalls. For the largest automakers, these efforts can result in recalls covering fewer model years or applying only to vehicles made in certain factories, narrowing the cost to companies.
“Because Tesla gets so much attention, NHTSA rides us pretty hard,” Musk said in an interview. “People are going to think our car has a greater propensity for fire than a gasoline car, which is simply untrue. 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,” he said. “We should be applauded for how amazing our car is for never catching on fire relative to a gasoline car.”
NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman downplayed any tensions with Tesla during an interview at the Detroit auto show. The company is doing a good job of communicating with and responding to the agency, he said.
The agency began investigating the Model S on Nov. 19 after two US fires that started after drivers ran over road debris that punctured the cars’ lithium-ion battery packs. Investigators sent a set of detailed questions that the company answered within a week, Musk said.