From The Mobilist Inbox This Week

A 24th Tesla investigation, 1884 EV design, dry batteries

The Tesla safety and quality problem: Last weekend, two Houston men took the family Tesla S out for a spin, failed to turn in a cul-de-sac, sped into some woods, and crashed into a tree. No one was at the wheel at the time, police said, and both men were killed. Confusing the situation, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Autopilot wasn’t engaged at the time.

It’s the latest of 24 Tesla crashes under investigation by the NHTSA, the U.S. auto safety agency, many involving Autopilot. At the cusp of a new era for electric vehicles, in which EVs seem headed for a massive market share battle with conventional vehicles around the middle of the decade, Tesla will be increasingly assessed not by friendly early-movers and status seekers, but by unsentimental mass-market buyers. These ordinary buyers will be much less forgiving of Tesla’s erratic quality performance: Last November, Consumer Reports stopped recommending the Model S and criticized Tesla’s Model Y crossover SUV as one of the least reliable vehicles it tested. In short, Tesla needs to hire a first-rate quality control SWAT team, and get every detail of its vehicles completely right.

In a note to clients yesterday, Barclays analyst Brian Johnson suggested that, in last week’s crash, Tesla faces potential action for failing to hinder “foreseeable abuse” of Autopilot. Johnson cited a 2016 NHTSA precedent that said manufacturers are responsible to identify and mitigate unsafe use of their products through “predictable abuse” by consumers. Instructing drivers in an owner’s manual to keep their hands on the wheel — which Tesla does — is not necessarily sufficient to prevent a possible NHTSA recall of its vehicles, Johnson argued. In a 1975 case involving General Motors, Johnson wrote, the agency said that “advertising claims could override the owners’ manual warnings.”

Johnson suggested that it’s not clear which way the federal investigations will go. On one hand, he noted, the NTSB, the other federal safety agency, in 2019 harshly criticized the NHTSA for failing to regulate Tesla’s Autopilot function. On the other, he added, the Biden Administration’s aggressive policy support for EVs makes it “unclear the focus this will get.”

Buying a Tesla? Check out this app meant to help you inspect it.

Annals of Cool: Stuff, a New Zealand website, last week published an “Illustrated History of Electric Car Design,” going back to 1884. (h/t Magnus Karlstrom)

How to go dry: Have you wondered what Musk has meant about cutting costs by producing dry batteries? At TECHtricity, Daniel Kent explains.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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