Public communication is vital to business maintenance, and this importance only increases when a company’s products are on the cutting edge of its field’s technology. Why? Because edgy tech is . . . edgy. It doesn’t always work perfectly the first time and customers must be prepared to sign onto some degree of unpredictability.

Maintaining a customer base requires updated information about them, and regular communication; this reality encourages us to ask whether Elon Musk and Tesla could do a better job containing some of their recent legal troubles with better communication and expectation management?

In addition to the many hassles and image management problems Tesla has had lately, customer complaints about its products have become more intense. The company is facing class action lawsuits or complaints which are likely to become such lawsuits in the near future. One recent cause of action has been the failure of a critical instrument in the vehicle: the media control unit and touchscreen. In many instances, this hardware allegedly “froze, crashed or went black entirely” while the car was being driven.

Of course, it’s not enough for the malfunction to occur; that won’t get a plaintiff into court, even if it happens often. Allegations Tesla “was well aware of the widespread malfunction,” on the other hand, will; and such an allegation is quite a dangerous one.

The allegation essentially suggests that Tesla was already aware of the issue prior to receiving consumer complaints about it. This forces us to ask the following questions: what if Tesla had immediately acted to fix the problem once they allegedly became aware of it? What if that commitment were accompanied by frank and direct communication, both with the public and with individual drivers who experienced the malfunction? It’s likely that Tesla having done so would have opened it to damages liability, but those damages would have realistically been far less than those from a class action suit argued before a jury.

Furthermore, what’s happening presently seems to be part of a larger pattern that’s characterized Tesla. In China a few months ago, “Model 3 owners discovered last week the company had quietly downgraded the computer chip inside their vehicles to an older generation” — a deliberate stealth replacement and public misrepresentation. Tesla even half-apologized for it, blaming coronavirus, asserting the global pandemic led to a slowed production rate that somehow “forced it to ship with the old chip.” Given the outcome — Tesla executives had to go before Chinese government officials and explain themselves, and they had to give consumers a free upgrade anyway — all of this communication and concession could have occurred in a more open framework in the first place.

And even after all that, Chinese Tesla drivers are still considering a class action suit, exacerbating any of Tesla’s losses associated with this dilemma. Getting out in front of mishaps means really getting out in front of them, and that requires a proactive communicative strategy, as well as an underlying values commitment. In this example, Tesla displayed neither.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of current local hearings in a municipality of Germany, where Tesla is facing public objections to building a new plant. This, of course, is something auto manufacturers routinely have to deal with. Again, however, Tesla is a different target, because their technology is more audacious and their leadership less conciliatory than in the rest of the auto industry.
Part of the good faith efforts that companies like Tesla can communicate to clients is their regulatory compliance. What is true of product liability and class action law is also true of Big Tech and New Auto Tech: claims must be accurate, regulatory compliance must be evident, and there must be clear and proactive demonstration that a corporation is not trying to skirt the law. Tesla appears to dismiss the law in many instances, and its attitude could easily be perceived as mocking, or “scofflaw.” A different communicative ethics could result in fewer antagonistic relationships for the company.