How to Report on Tesla: The Sycophantic Approach

By Todd Lassa

Memorial Day weekend, Los Angeles Times reporter Russ Mitchell opened up on Twitter about covering Tesla and its larger-than-life CEO, Elon Musk, who, not entirely coincidentally, is embroiled in controversy over his pending $44-billion takeover of Twitter.

“It took several months to realize it, but Tesla’s media approach was to find reporters who would in effect serve as public relations contractors, and then suck up to them with access to Musk and other access,” Mitchell writes in tweet two of 23 he posted on the topic. “Tesla PR,” item 3/23 says, “would drop ‘exclusive’ stories on compliant reporters’ laps that could be reported as news.”

It is smug for an auto journalist to say  “I told you so,” and point out that generally writers for buff books  were always more dubious about Tesla, especially as the company’s market cap surged toward $1 trillion, even when the bulk of its profits came from California Zero Emissions tax credits paid by the “dinosaur”-fed industry.

Mitchell was an auto reporter for the paper, covering, “the future of mobility and the strengthening relationship between Silicon Valley and the auto industry.”  he had been a tech reporter for the Times until January 2016, when he left for a “brief stint” at Kaiser Health News’ California Healthline.

Shortly after his return, Mitchell covered the fallout from a May 2016 decapitation of a Tesla driver whose car Autopiloted itself under a semi-trailer in Florida. One result of this incident was that Tesla “broke up” with Mobileye, an Israeli sensor and software company whose products Tesla was using, in September 2016. Telsa blamed the split on what it said was Mobileye’s plans to compete with Tesla.

When Mitchell reported both sides of the story, with a Mobileye source telling him it was because of Tesla’s “lax” safety culture, a Tesla spokesperson told him the PR department “felt betrayed,” according to tweet 16/23. From that moment on, Mitchell says, “I was set aside as a potential propagandist. …”

In other words, he did Tesla PR’s bidding for just a quarter-year.

Mainstream automotive reporters were sufficiently impressed by the battery cell technology powering the Lotus-bodied 2005-09 Roadster, and when the Model S made its debut in June 2012, virtually universally we found the performance, range and promise of a carbon-emissions free automotive future impressive. (I was one of the Motor Trend editors to unanimously vote it 2013 Car of the Year.)

But the Wall Street investment community and Silicon Valley hubris – it was still a time when big tech could do no wrong– certainly did not sit well with those of us waiting for broken-down, past-its-20th-century-glory Detroit to collapse in the face of automotive startups like Tesla.

Still, we gave credit when and where Tesla was at the top of its game while, at the same time, trying to hold Musk accountable for his antics, including his promotion of “full self-driving” cars and SUVs which always seemed to be “coming soon” but never really arriving.

Musk has blamed his customers, on more than one occasion, of being clueless about what Autopilot “full self-driving” is, even as he claims the latest software update makes his vehicles “full self-driving.”

They are not. They are Level 2 at best.

But any criticism of Tesla’s models, major or minor, will almost certainly be met with vitriolic, even trolling counter-criticism from Musk’s acolytes. Everything Musk does must be perfect. Much of the objective reviewing of Tesla’s products come from independent EV auto websites, though there are plenty of Tesla-specific fanboy sites.

It may have taken Mitchell just three months to figure out that Tesla PR had appropriated him, but the company’s communication system apparently remains, and that’s not good for Tesla’s customers, Tesla’s competitors, nor highway safety.

Todd Lassa is a long-time automotive journalist and editor of thehustings.news

Elon Musk: Rocket Man

And then there’s that car business. . .

By Gary S. Vasilash

Time has named Elon Musk 2021 Person of the Year.

Presumably if nothing else it will help the publication move some issues as Tesla fanfolk snap up copies with their hero on the cover.

A double win.

One of the interesting things about the extensive story about the selection in the magazine—positive but not hagiography—is that it is primarily a story about Musk and SpaceX.

This is not to say that the terrestrial transportation products are completely overlooked, but in the context of a classic ink-on-paper newspaper it could be said that the coverage of the cars is below the fold. Well below the fold.

And an exchange quoted in the piece puts this in context:

“Musk’s toddler, X Æ A-Xii (pronounced ‘X’), has recently started saying car, to which his father responds, ‘Rocket!’”

Let Musk Put You in the Driver’s Seat

With its Hertz deal, Tesla continues to defy us skeptics

By Todd Lassa

Contributor

Electric cars are the future. No matter how attracted you are to the charms of the internal combustion engine, it should be obvious by now we need to stop burning fossil fuels ASAP and begin to try and reduce greenhouse gases, if it’s not already too late.

When the transition finally comes, when internal combustion engines are powering only a few collectible cars out for a cruise on warm summer days – and two or three of them may be mine, I’m afraid – it will be right and appropriate to celebrate Tesla’s contribution to the shift. Full disclosure here: I’ve long been a Tesla skeptic, not so much because of the cars, which are undeniably state-of-the-art in their battery chemistry (until solid-state batteries become the order of the day), but mostly because of its CEO, Elon Musk.

(Image: Tesla)

From the beginning, I was skeptical about Telsa’s ability to make money. Most of the few profitable quarters since Tesla’s 2012 IPO were from selling zero-emissions vehicle credits in California to automakers whose sales of vehicles were anything but zero-emissions.

Then there’s Musk’s techie hucksterism and his faked astonishment at the value of the company’s shares. He’s long been known for unveiling new products with ridiculously short development schedules. The vehicle is introduced. The stock goes up. And in many cases, the vehicle is nowhere to be seen after it has left the stage. The Cybertruck has been delayed again and again. As has the Roadster. No matter, it seems. The Tesla faithful will wait.

Were it a brand from Detroit or Stuttgart, these delays would be derided. Not so for Musk.

When Hertz announced in October that it has signed a contract to buy 100,000 Tesla Model 3 EVs, one-fifth of its rental fleet, conventional auto business wisdom might have been, “why would Musk do that?”

“Heritage” automakers historically relied on rental fleets to take as much as one-quarter of the production of their mainstream compact and midsize models. A Nissan Sentra sold to a retail customer will make a razor-thin profit for both the automaker and the dealer – and even less when leased to Hertz or Enterprise and then sold after a couple of years at another huge discount, damaging resale values even more for those who drive these models every day. 

Many of the mainstream automakers have been talking for years about reducing their rental fleet business because of the negative effect those sales had on residual values. But when the Hertz-Tesla deal was announced, Tesla Inc.’s shares shot up by 9.6% to make it the latest tech firm to top $1-trillion in market cap. Musk may soon pass Amazon’s Jeff Bezos as the world’s wealthiest human. As I write this, one share is worth $1,096.02, or $1.1 trillion in market cap. GM is at $79.1 billion and Ford Motor is worth $68.53 billion.

Bloomberg News explains that Hertz will pay “full price” for the Teslas, worth $4.2 billion in revenue to the automaker. Citing a Hertz spokeswoman, the report says the Model 3 rental rates will be “similar” to other luxury car rates, and charging will be covered by the rental company through January of next year. Tesla will deliver all 100,000 Model 3s within the next 14 months.

What is interesting about the Hertz-Tesla deal is another individual: Hertz acting CEO Mark Fields. Fields had been the CEO of Ford, but “retired” from the company in 2017. Fields is 60. One of the rumored reasons why he departed Dearborn was because he wasn’t doing enough to message to Wall Street the OEM’s mobility vision.

Seems that what he’s contributed to Tesla’s valuation underscores his mobility vision.

What worries me about the Hertz-Tesla arrangement is this detail, also from the Bloomberg News report: You will be able to re-load your smartphone with the Hertz app, for on-demand access to Supercharger credits and to the car’s Autopilot system.

Autopilot is Tesla’s “autonomous driving” system, which Musk has promoted as the car being able to drive itself. It is not self-driving, and by most accounts it’s less sophisticated than the GMC Super Cruise commercials you might have seen on television, lately with the Queen hand-claps.

In case you rent a Tesla from Hertz and choose to download the Autopilot system on your smartphone, I’m going to give you a piece of advice I would never otherwise give for a rental car: You might want to take the supplemental insurance from Hertz.

Will Apple Get into the Automobile Business?

Although it is no secret that Apple had been operating a secret “Project Titan,” which was imagined to be its electric—and probably (at least semi-) autonomous—vehicle program, although it was said to have been disbanded, although it was said to be restarted after Doug Field was rehired, a Reuters’ report has gotten legions of Apple fanboys—to say nothing of the investment community—giddier than they already are when it comes to all things Apple.

The vehicle is back, it seems. Launch date: 2024.

Could this happen?

Apple CEO Tim Cook. (Image: Apple)

If so, they’d better start rethinking the Genius Bar and figure out how to install hydraulic lifts in the back of the stores.

As Elon Musk discovered—and it should be pointed out that he has Tweeted that he once wanted to sell out to Apple but couldn’t get a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook—building cars is hard.

And this is a challenge whether you’re a long-time manufacturer or someone who has just started within the past few years, trying to take advantage of the “simpler” production requirements of an electric vehicle, compared to one that has an internal combustion engine.

However, as Darren Palmer, global director, Battery Electric Vehicles, a Ford recently told me, “80% of a car is not the drivetrain.” Meaning that it is a challenge to make sures the doors fit, the plastic materials on the inside have consistent coloring, the fascias don’t fall off. And on and on.

Yes, hard.

Apple doesn’t manufacture its products. That is done for it by companies including Hon Hai Precision Industry (a.k.a., Foxconn), Wistron, Pegatron and so on.

So the likelihood of it building its own vehicles is non-existent.

It would have to work with a company that knows how to make things.

In the auto industry there are companies like Magna, which produces vehicles for companies including BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Jaguar—and for Jaguar it manufacturers the electric i-Pace. Magna has recently entered into an agreement with Fisker. It is working on the engineering of the Fisker Ocean right now and will be performing the manufacturing when it is ready to go.

What’s interesting about Magna is that most people have no idea that it has manufactured so many vehicles.

That is the kind of company that Apple would need to work with.

It knows that building cars is hard (you can see an interview with Magna’s just-retired CEO Don Walker here, where he talks about how tough the task is). It knows how to build them with the highest levels of quality. And it does so while remaining discrete.

Let’s face it: It is one thing if someone has a problem with an iPhone that bends as it shouldn’t or a battery that doesn’t have the life it should and it would be something else entirely were that to be a full-size car or SUV.

Will Project Titan come to fruition?

If it does, Tim Cook will have his hands full. Just ask Elon.