The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun investigating complaints about suspension problems on the Tesla Model S. The agency is also looking into reports that Tesla Motors asked owners to sign "Goodwill Agreements" that prevent them from speaking with federal regulators.
Overnight, Tesla published a long, testy response to those allegations. Is its frustration justified?
"No safety defect"
NHTSA says that it's looking into numerous complaints about suspension failures on the Model S. It hasn't launched a formal investigation into the matter--at least not according to the agency's website--but in April, it began seeking information from owners and from Tesla itself. Tesla responded to NHTSA's request on April 30.
News of the informal probe didn't break until yesterday, and Tesla responded by offering its side of the story. An excerpt:
"First, there is no safety defect with the suspensions in either the Model S or Model X. Since we own all of our service centers, we are aware of every incident that happens with our customer cars and we are aware of every part that gets replaced. Whenever there is even a potential issue with one of those parts, we investigate fully. This, combined with extensive durability testing, gives us high confidence in our suspensions. With respect to the car that is discussed in the blog post that led to yesterday’s news...the suspension ball joint experienced very abnormal rust. We haven’t seen this on any other car, suggesting a very unusual use case. The car had over 70,000 miles on it and its owner lives down such a long dirt road that it required two tow trucks to retrieve the car. (One to get the car to the highway and one to get it from the highway to the service center.) When we got the car, it was caked in dirt."
The post goes on to discuss Tesla's inspection and quality control policies, which it describes as "rigorous" and "proactive".
Tesla admits that it has asked customers to sign "Goodwill Agreements", but not as a means to prevent them from filing complaints with regulatory agencies:
"When our customers tell us something went wrong with their car, we often cover it even if we find that the problem was not caused by the car and that we therefore have no obligations under the warranty. In these situations, we discount or conduct the repair for free, because we believe in putting our customers’ happiness ahead of our own bottom line. When this happens, we sometimes ask our customers to sign a 'Goodwill Agreement.' The basic point is to ensure that Tesla doesn’t do a good deed, only to have that used against us in court for further gain. These situations are very rare, but have sometimes occurred in the past.... [T]his agreement never even comes close to mentioning NHTSA or the government and it has nothing to do with trying to stop someone from communicating with NHTSA or the government about our cars. "
For a deeper dive into these issues, be sure to check out Green Car Reports.
"A world record for axe-grinding"
The question of whether the Model S suffers from suspension problems and whether the "Goodwill Agreement" is legal is will be answered by NHTSA.
The far more interesting thing about this story is that the uproar about the suspension and the agreement seems to have been fomented largely by one disgruntled Tesla owner and one journalist.
The owner appears to be a Pennsylvania man who goes by the handle "gpcordaro" on the Tesla Motors Club blog, where he's posted about the troubles with his Tesla Model S. There, he's posted the text of the "Goodwill Agreement", which reads, in part:
"The Goodwill is being provided to you without any admission of liability or wrongdoing or acceptance of any facts by Tesla, and shall not be treated as or considered evidence of Tesla’s liability with respect to any claim or incidents. You agree to keep confidential our provision of the Goodwill, the terms of this agreement and the incidents or claims leading or related to our provision of the Goodwill. In accepting the Goodwill, you hereby release and discharge Tesla and related persons or entities from any and all claims or damages arising out of or in any way connected with any claims or incidents leading or related to our provision of the Goodwill. You further agree that you will not commence, participate or voluntarily aid in any action at law or in equity or any legal proceeding against Tesla or related persons or entities based upon facts related to the claims or incidents leading to or related to this Goodwill."
This may or may not be the same person who has bombarded NHTSA's website with complaints about the Tesla Model S' suspension, using images and reports he's found online. A quick look at complaints filed against the 2015 Model S, for example, reveals that of the 21 on file, 14 were submitted by a "concerned citizen" who claims to live outside the U.S. That seems...extreme.
As for the journalist, Tesla names him outright: Edward Niedermayer. In its blog post, Tesla snarkily muses about Niedermayer's objectives:
"We don’t know if Mr. Niedermayer’s motivation is simply to set a world record for axe-grinding or whether he or his associates have something financial to gain by negatively affecting Tesla’s stock price, but it is important to highlight that there are several billion dollars in short sale bets against Tesla. This means that there is a strong financial incentive to greatly amplify minor issues and to create false issues from whole cloth."
As journalists, we try not to pick sides in arguments like this. We hope that representatives from NHTSA and Tesla can speak to one another like civilized people and work through any safety or legal concerns.
We're a little more torn about Tesla's response.
On the one hand, we understand the frustration that Tesla must feel, in these days when everyone's a "influencer", and a few angry folks can undo years of a company's work. On the other hand, we also understand the value of whistleblowers in bringing hush-hush problems to light. If a few more folks had spoken up at Volkswagen and General Motors, two very high profile scandals might've been nipped in the bud.