Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tesla: Handling Model S Fires (2013)

Testla Motors logo
In 2003, Tesla Motors was founded with the mission “to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy”. A little over a decade later, Tesla has transformed from an idealistic start-up with a big vision, into, according to Morgan Stanley, “the most important car company in the world”. Armed with a growing fleet of high-tech, high performance, and fuel efficient electric automobiles, Tesla has to lead the charge in the current alternative fuel revolution in the automotive industry. The company’s latest model, the Model S, created shockwaves when it was released in 2012, receiving the first ever unanimous vote as Motortrend’s “2013 Car of the Year”, as well as being the highest scoring car ever tested by Consumer Reports and named the on TIME’s “Best Inventions of the Year 2012” list. A quick look at its stats sheet proves why. Not only did the Model S achieve the highest crash-test score in history, but offers a 0-60 as low as 3.9 seconds, returns the equivalent of 89mpg, well-designed, American-made, chaise, and luxurious interior, all for a base price of around $70,000. The Model S’ release. 
The first incident occurred October 2, 2013, in Washington State. According to reports of the incident, the driver ran over a “large metallic object in the middle of the road”. As a result, a warning light engaged in the cabin telling the driver to pull over. After pulling over and exiting the car, it ignited. Photos show that the flames consumed a large portion of the front of the car, but it was reported that the fire did not enter the cabin. After the investigation, it was found that a piece of metal that had fallen off a tractor trailer had punctured a hole in the quarter inch thick, ballistics grade aluminum underbody shield, allowing debris to damage the battery causing the fire. Elon Musk personally released a statement concerning the incident on Tesla’s website two days after the crash. The release provided a full synopsis of the event, as well as the email correspondence between Tesla and the involved car owner. 
Washington 10/2 -Collision with metal object

The second incident occurred on November 6th in Tennessee, roughly one month after the first Model S fire. According to a firsthand account by the owner of the Model S in the incident, Juris Shibayama, the car caught fire as a result of running over road debris. Shibayama states he was driving at an estimated 70 miles per hour on the highway when he ran over a three-pronged metal trailer hitch. The hitch made noticeable contact with underbody of the vehicle, lifting it off the ground for a brief time. Shibayama continued to drive, pulling over roughly a minute and a half later after warning lights instructed him to do so. After exiting the car, Shibayama saw smoke shortly before the car caught fire about two minutes later. The fire was contained to the front of the vehicle and did not damage the cabin. Shibayama states he was in control of the car after the collision and that both he and his passenger did not sustain any injuries. Even after the incident, Shibayama is so impressed by the Tesla, he stated he would like to purchase another one.
In the aftermath of the third fire, the NHTSA launched a federal investigation dated November 15, 2013, to investigate “Deformation/intrusion into the propulsion battery by roadway debris may result in a thermal reaction and fire”. The investigation considered the two incidents occurring in the United States that resulted in fires, as well as 29 other instances of undercarriage strike damage in Model S vehicles that did not result in fire or disablement. The investigation did not consider an October 18th case occurring in Mexico also resulted in the fire, as previous investigations determined the fire was due to driver negligence. Tesla responded to the Federal investigation by conducting their own. Upon conclusion, Tesla stated that although the battery and shield design makes the Model S five times less likely than a gasoline vehicle to catch fire, the company made several plans to enhance the design as a result of their findings.
Upon closing the federal investigation on March 26, 2014, the Department of Transportation confirmed that both fires occurred after debris penetrated the under-mounted battery shield, resulting in damage to the car’s batteries. Despite this finding, it did not find any defects in the shielding or batteries used in the Tesla Model S. The case report stated that impact with road debris is a “normal and foreseeable” part of driving, thus implying that the damage occurring in the incidents was not due to a system failure. The NHTSA did not issue a recall did not require Tesla to take any further actions. Despite the ruling, Tesla voluntarily chose to work to provide solutions to prevent future collision-related fires because, as Elon states in a press release, “we felt it was important to bring this risk down to virtually zero to give Model S owners complete peace of mind”.
Tennessee -11/6/2013-second fire in nearly one month

To provide “complete peace of mind”, Tesla released a free, wireless suspension update that automatically increased the ride high of all current and future S Models in November of 2013, shortly after the third incident. Tesla also created a new shield for the battery. The new design improves upon the old shield by consisting of three separate layers of titanium and aluminum plates. After testing the shield in 152 vehicle level tests, Tesla informed the public on March 28, 2014 that they would be implementing the shield on all future S model cars. The press release, written by Musk, goes into detail about the events of all three incidents, provided information and test videos explaining the new shield technology, and explained why Tesla decided to implement the shield, despite the lack of a recall. Elon also stated that S Models currently on the road can receive the upgrade at any time in the future, free of charge.

The fact that Tesla took the time and resources to voluntarily research and address an issue involving only two of it vehicles is rather dumbfounding, especially considering Tesla operates in an industry that assumes safety recalls are a “cost of doing business”. For comparison, on of Tesla’s competitors, General Motors, is currently finds itself amidst the largest automotive recall in history: 24.6 million vehicles, responsible for at least 30 deaths, due to a defective ignition part GM knowingly and continually installed in over 15 model years. Compared to GM, Tesla’s action appears to be very heartfelt and at a quick glance, “ethical”. Yet despite Tesla’s seemingly good-faith effort to provide the best product possible for their customers, Tesla’s actions would still be considered unethical under a strict interpretation of Milton Friedman’s ethical school of thought, Individualism. Individualist believes that the only function a company serves is to provide profit to its shareholders. Therefore, any action that does that does not prioritize profits and the maximization of shareholder wealth are unethical and impermissible. Although Tesla’s actions may be viewed by many as the “responsible” thing to do in such a situation, they directly contrast Friedman’s views. Since Tesla voluntarily decided to spend company profits on a non-issue, without the intention of directly producing more profits from the endeavor, Tesla, in essence, stole profits that could have to go to the company’s shareholders. Since Tesla’s actions contradict and inhibit the main goal of any company, as defined Friedman, to produce profits for shareholders, the company’s actions are unethical under Individualism.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors

In contrast to Individualism, the three other major schools of ethical analysis assert that Tesla’s actions are ethical. Utilitarianism, which determines an action's morality based upon the net benefit or detriment it provides to the involved stakeholders, would rule that Tesla’s actions are in fact ethical. Stakeholders are anything, both human and non-human, that could potentially be affected by an action. In the case of Tesla, the only stakeholder that could potentially receive any detriment are the shareholders. Although individualists argue that Tesla’s action shows a disregard for shareholders by misspending profits, Tesla’s actions actually improved the company’s financial position due to the positive implications for the company’s brand and goodwill. Tesla’s actions also provided a benefit for customers and potential buyers, giving them the peace of mind associated with a safer car and providing safer roadways for general drivers.

Tesla’s actions are the most consistent with the third major theory of morality, Kantianism. Based upon the theories of Immanuel Kant theory, Kantianism states that the motivation or justification behind an action must be rational in order to be ethical. Actions must also promote rational decision making. Rational motives produce ethical actions because rational thinking can only occur when information is honest and transparent and individuals are respected. Therefore, transparency in all actions is key, as rationality is compromised if information is withheld. By releasing raw test footage, and taking voluntary action in response to the fires, shows that Tesla intended to promote rational decision making among anybody analyzing their products or company.

Virtue Theory

Telsa’s actions are also considered ethical under the oldest theory of morality, Virtue theory. Originally developed by Aristotle, Virtue Theory assesses morality based upon the vicious or virtuous nature of an action. Actions which demonstrate the four core virtues of courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. As a small and growing company, Tesla took a big chance on spending company profits on an issue which was not assessed to be their fault. Tesla’s actions show a general concern for both the company and its customers, as seen through the company’s dedication, borderline fixation, with providing the highest quality product possible. By upholding these foundational virtues in their actions, Tesla was able to overcome the negative publicity associated with the event and build a positive reputation as an ethically responsible company.


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Musk, Elon. "Blog." Tesla Adds Titanium Underbody Shield and Aluminum Deflector Plates to Model S. N.p., 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2014. [link] 

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Valdes-Dapena, Peter. "Tesla Gets Near-perfect Score from Consumer Reports." CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 09 May 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

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