Tesla fire

On stage at Business Insider’s Ignition conference in New York yesterday, Elon Musk did not seem in high spirits. That was perhaps understandable. Last week, news came of a third fire in a Tesla Model S in a six-week span, sending investors into a panic. Tesla’s stock price dropped immediately, compounding a plunge the previous day precipitated by the company’s revelation of a battery shortage.

Given free reign to address the audience for the opening part of his interview with Business Insider editor Henry Blodget, the SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO expressed dismay about the media coverage of his car company’s “fire problem.”

The criticism hurts, he said. He pointed out that there are far fewer fires per car for the Model S than there are for gasoline-powered cars. The fires that did happen in the Tesla cars, meanwhile, were contained in the front of the vehicle and caused no damage to the passenger areas.

“There’s never been a single death or serious injury in a Model S,” he said.

Even as talk of a federal inquiry into the fires gathers steam, the facts support Musk’s position. There were about 150,000 car fires a year between 2006 and 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That means at any given hour in the United States, 17 gas-powered cars are ablaze. There are about 250 million cars in the US, which means that for every 10,000 vehicles, each year you can expect 5.9 to catch on fire. So far, Tesla has sold about 18,000 Model S cars. So, for every 10,000 Model S vehicles there have been 1.7 fires.

The victims of the Tesla fires don’t blame the car, either. Before the most recent fire started, the computer system in the Model S told its driver to pull over and that the car would be shutting down. The driver has since written on Tesla’s blog that he would buy another Model S in a heartbeat.

These facts haven’t stopped the negative headlines, though.

Will the government force a recall?

Should we doubt the untouchable company?

Is Tesla doomed?

Musk complained that a simple Google search would turn up the facts to counter these criticisms. And he’s right. That’s exactly what I did to find those figures above.

Three car fires in six weeks sounds like a huge story – until you actually look at the facts. And when you do that, you can see that investors and many in the media have been swayed by the power of narrative more than by the reality it purports to depict.

This is not the first time Musk has lashed out at the media in defense of Tesla. In February, he published an emotive blog post in which he called into question the motivations of New York Times reviewer John Broder, who wrote a negative review of his experiences with a Model S. I criticized Musk at the time for making his retort too personal instead of just relying on the data, which spoke in his favor. Musk later defended himself, saying the bad review cost Tesla $100 million in stock-market value.

Asked by Blodget yesterday why he has repeatedly responded aggressively to attacks on Tesla, Musk replied simply: “I think it’s important to tell the truth and to rebut things that are wrong.” Being right really matters to the engineer in Musk, who as a child used to correct his classmates about the exact distance to the moon.

But it’s more than just that. It’s also because Musk is a cause-driven man. With Tesla in particular he wants to catalyze an electric car revolution that will help wean us from our dependence on fossil fuels. So he gets upset whenever a force that he perceives to be motivated by anything other than truth compromises his vision of an electric future. Such forces have in the past been successful in thwarting the development of electric vehicles, as laid out in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which Musk has endorsed in previous on-stage interviews.

He is also, I suspect, animated by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt” – another favorite recommendation of his. “Merchants of Doubt” shows how over the past four decades, small interest groups motivated by free market zeal have launched cynical campaigns against the scientific consensus on issues ranging from whether or not cigarettes are linked to lung cancer to whether or not humans are causing climate change. The book does not reflect well on the media, which has over the years proven susceptible to manipulative PR campaigns from interest groups intent on scuttling regulation, especially environmental regulation, by creating confusion among the public.

“Merchants of Doubt” is the apotheosis of decades of frustration within the scientific community of seeing its research systematically distorted, misinterpreted, and misreported in the service of political agendas, many of which are damaging the long-term health of the planet and its inhabitants. Such willful abuse of the truth for political gain is anathema to scientists, who in most cases are bound by the protocols and practices that regulate the profession. In their world, certainty is impossible, advocacy is discouraged, and all research is subjected to rigorous dissection by their peers.

Most media organizations are not beholden to the same restrictions. There is no established rubric for peer review in the media; adherence to truth is largely a matter of self-regulation. Instead of peer review, in which experts check the work of other experts, media has editors and fact-checkers. Often, those people are not experts in the matters their institutions are covering. Worse, sometimes they are novices on subjects ranging from climate science to jet propulsion to even basic statistics.

But they still get to control the headlines on those stories. They still serve as the major conduit through which the public is informed about what are often intrinsically complex but extremely important matters. And even with strong editing standards in place, it is inevitable that some of the reporting for which they are responsible will lack crucial nuance or just be plain wrong.

As proven by everything from the New York Times’ reporting on the case for war in Iraq to the ongoing “debate” about climate change, the media’s record on truth-telling is not entirely a proud one. That’s not to say the peer-reviewed science is always right – but at least there is a system in place to help the scientific institution resist external manipulation and internal error as best it can. Media’s defense systems, by contrast, are weak and easily penetrated. I’m not saying, either, that there aren’t many excellent media organizations that are faithful to facts and have exceptionally high reporting standards – but the “exceptionally” part is the bit that matters.

Media budgets and newsrooms are shrinking in tandem. As a result, fact-checking departments are disappearing while reporters and editors are being stretched thin, responsible for covering an increasingly wide array of subjects, many of which they know little about. And now with the pageview-driven economics of online media, there is more incentive to disseminate sensational stories than there is to take one’s time and make sure all the facts are right and that one is not being manipulated by some malintent force. (Indeed, as a reporter writing for the Web on tight deadlines and within a small news organization, I am not invulnerable to those very pressures. We at PandoDaily have made our fair share of mistakes.) For an example of how easy it is for a well-funded, well-organized group to spin facts in its favor, watch the film “Thank You For Smoking,” which – surprise! – was partly funded by Elon Musk.

In short, the dynamics of today’s media environment do not bode well for fidelity to the facts. And it only takes one misreported story, or even one piece of missing context, to affect the course of history.

I do not mean that you should by default believe everything Musk says. On the contrary – you should subject his comments to as much scrutiny as those who criticize him, as well as those who point to three fires and scream “See, I told you the world can’t have electric cars!”. But if you do that, you’ll often find that the facts don’t lend themselves so well to shocking headlines.

This is why Musk fights back against the media. He is a believer in his cause. He wants the world to have electric cars. Without them, the world we live in could be less sustainable. He has the right, and the moral justification, to defend his vision.

At the end of 2008, Tesla came close to bankruptcy. It was, in fact, one day away from going broke. Musk was deeply depressed at the time. He had poured $70 million of his own money into the company. If Tesla failed, he told Blodget on stage yesterday, it would not have been just a matter of a company going out of business. It could have been the death of a cause.

“If we had not succeeded we would have been used as an example of why people shouldn’t do electric cars,” Musk told Blodget.

“That would have been really terrible.”

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Disclosure: For a few months, I owned 27 shares in Tesla, which I later sold on the advice of my editor in the interests of ethical purity. (Update: Some people have made fun of this disclosure. Which is good — because I’m making fun of myself too. Just being honest about my naivety.)