Tesla’s ‘Driverless’ Public Relations Puts Autopilot at Risk of Increased Scrutiny

 In Public Relations

Texas crash that killed two opens automaker to scrutiny that could have been neutralized

If you have even the slightest interest in the electric vehicle (EV) industry, it was hard to miss the tragic news of two men dying in a fiery Model S car crash north of Houston, Texas, last week. The facts as of now are on the night of Saturday, April 17, around 11:25 pm, a 2019 Tesla Model S crashed into a tree at high speed. The crash ignited the battery pack causing a fire and thermal runaway. The initial fire was extinguished within three minutes using up to 30,000 gallons of water. However, the chemical reaction of thermal runaway, common with lithium-ion batteries, took hours and an unreturned call to Tesla to put out fully. Unfortunately for Tesla, the negative press was compounded by its Chinese PR team that botched a crisis at the Shanghai Auto Show the same week.

Car crashes with fires or disgruntled customers aren’t typically newsworthy beyond the local TV news circuit, even when it involves Tesla. In these instances, people involved added to the stories that made them novel, and therefore newsworthy.

The PR fire in the US reignited throughout the week because the company didn’t have a PR team on staff to manage it. CEO Elon Musk famously dissolved the department last year.  In China, the PR team kept adding fuel to the fire by making ill-advised statements rather than exemplary customer service. As a PR professional myself, I can’t help but think Tesla could have avoided the damage to its brand last week with some basic crisis communications.

For those aware of the two PR instances that happened last week, skip to the section titled, The Absence of Crisis Communications at the end of this article for my analysis. For readers looking to get up top speed, here is an accounting of what happened.

A Missing Driver in Texas

Sunday, April 18

In Texas, authorities are reported to have said with near certainty that no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. The initial reporting varied from responsible and neutral to biased clickbait regarding this aspect. By the end of the week, over 6,500 articles had been published across the world.

For a well-balanced accounting of the facts as were known at the time, I recommend reading Brad Templeton’s Forbes piece, Fatal Tesla Crash In Texas: What We Know And What We Don’t, and Sebastian Blanco’s article in Car and Driver, Tesla Fire in Texas Crash Was Not How It Was Reported, Says Fire Chief.

By dawn on Sunday, April 18, outlets such as the Associated Press, USA Today, Jalopnik, and Newsweek reported the facts in their headlines. If they mentioned the car was missing a driver in the headline, the notion was attributed to authorities, removing the outlet from making the claim – Journalism 101.

As the popularity of the news grew, other media highlighted the mystery surrounding what appeared to be a missing driver. Some kept a neutral tone, writing “no one was driving,” (CNBC, Washington Post, Mercury News, Chron.com), or it was “believed to be driverless” (Reuters, Yahoo! News).

As the news proliferated, other outlets chose to drop the hedge that it was “believed to be” driverless to simply calling it a “driverless” crash (New York Times, Forbes, Boston.com, The Washington Post, The Street). This slight change indirectly hints that Autopilot was involved. It’s a tactic that walks the line between fact-based reporting and biased speculation that twists the facts toward a desired outcome in the reader’s mind. The “driverless” articles are particularly unfortunate and misleading, as they conflate whether a human being was behind the wheel and autonomous technology, even though Tesla’s cars do not offer autonomous capability.

More still, other outlets directly stated that the car was “in Autopilot” without any attribution (New York Post, Barron’s). As the week went on, the incident itself would be referred to as Tesla’s Autopilot crash.

Interestingly, some outlets modified their headlines after posting. Indicating either a desire to dial back the speculation or refine the headline based on new information. Here are a few examples:


Monday, April 19

The question surrounding whether or not Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash centers around two sources. The first being Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 18.

“Our preliminary investigation is determining—but it’s not complete yet—that there was no one at the wheel of that vehicle,” he told several news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal and others. “We’re almost 99.9% sure.”

Notice the Constable said, “no one was at the wheel.” Not that it was believed to be ‘driverless’ or that Autopilot was involved.

KHOU reported the Constable said investigators “feel very confident just with the positioning of the bodies after the impact that there was no one driving that vehicle.”

The second source is an NBC affiliate station, KPRC 2, where Deven Clarke reported he spoke to one victim’s brother-in-law “who said he was taking the car out for a spin with his best friend, so there were just two in the vehicle.

“The owner, he said, backed out of the driveway and then may have hopped in the back seat only to crash a few hundred yards down the road. He said the owner was found in the back seat upright.

“The concept that the driver may have hopped in the back seat, later morphed into local authorities being attributed to saying they were told by witnesses on the scene that nobody was behind the wheel.”

Even if an article hints that Autopilot could have been involved to get the click, and then smooth out that slanted take in the body of the article, it’s still damaging for Tesla. As many of us know, headlines are typically the only news element people read. If they do click into the article, the seed of the bias that the headline plants clouds the reader’s perception as they absorb the content of the article and leads them down a specific path of understanding.

Musk Response

By Monday evening on April 19, Musk addressed the crash, but indirectly. In the past, he might have posted directly on his feed about the incident or released the full data logs with an accompanying blog post to disprove any misinformation. However, in this instance, he chose to wait almost 40 hours before acknowledging the event and then only to reply to a Twitter thread surrounding the Wall Street Journal’s article.


If someone was not combing through every tweet about the topic, they might have easily missed Elon’s reply. Thankfully, for Tesla, some reporters did their research. The news surrounding Elon’s statement started pouring in on his “denial” that Autopilot was enabled and that the car had not purchased FSD (Full Self-Driving).

Reuters then reported that they pointed out Musk’s Tweet to Constable Herman and that it was the first news police had heard from Tesla representatives.

“If he is tweeting that out, if he has already pulled the data, he hasn’t told us that,” Herman told the agency. “We will eagerly wait for that data.”

Similarly, authorities complained they had not heard from a Tesla representative at all since the crash. Authorities claimed they had initially attempted to contact the company for advice on how to put out the battery fire.

Tuesday, April 20

As the sun rose on day three in Texas, several new angles emerged as reporters sought to hold on to their readership with the unfolding event. One type of reporting was that police planned to serve search warrants on Tesla to secure data that Musk referred to in his tweet. If those warrants were eventually served, no one reported it throughout the week.

The second (first reported by Tom Krisher at the AP) covered how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) planned to send teams to investigate the crash. If one just read these headlines, they might feel the event’s drama was increasing, as the inference was that it was unusual that the two agencies would send investors. However, few articles mentioned the context that the Texas crash was only one of three the agencies were looking into, and even then, that has no authority to require Tesla to make any changes to its safety features.

Krisher wrote, “Tesla has had serious problems with Autopilot, which has been involved in several fatal crashes where it failed to stop for tractor-trailers crossing in front of it, stopped emergency vehicles, or a highway barrier. The NTSB, which can only issue recommendations, asked that NHTSA and Tesla limit the system to roads on which the system can safely operate and that Tesla install a more robust system to monitor drivers to make sure they’re paying attention. Neither Tesla nor the agency took action, drawing criticism and blame for one of the crashes from the NTSB.”

The third thread of articles that day speculated on how Tesla’s stock price and other EV stocks might suffer or were down surrounding the news (Barron’s, The Street, CNBC).

A fourth one started questioning Tesla’s naming conventions for Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving.” Writers pointed out that perhaps more people are assuming they can be passive in the driving experience. They argued that maybe the names the company chose gave drivers a false sense of security, not that vehicles still need constant human attention and potential intervention at a moment’s notice. Yahoo! News pointed to public documents made available last month showing “Tesla told California regulators that its latest “full self-driving” software — which is being rolled out to more users — doesn’t actually make the car autonomous, seemingly contradicting its name.”

Wednesday, April 21

By mid-week, Reuters’ Hyunjoo Jin, Tina Bellon, and David Shepardson expanded the story to discuss how the NHTSA has sought to regulate semi-autonomous systems such as Autopilot, or fully autonomous vehicles (AVs).

The article said, “There are no NHTSA rules requiring carmakers to ensure systems are used as intended or to stop drivers misusing them. The only significant federal limitation is that vehicles have steering wheels and human controls required under federal rules. With no performance or technical standards, systems such as Autopilot inhabit a regulatory grey area.”

Thursday, April 22

Two Democrats heard this point about a regulatory grey area. The next day The Hill reported Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote the NHTSA and NTSB urging them to develop “recommendations for how automated driving and driving assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot can be improved,” and warned that fatal crashes involving self-driving car software are becoming a “pattern.”

On the same day, Consumer Reports (CR) engineers demonstrated how one could trick a Tesla Model Y to drive on Autopilot on a closed track without anyone in the driver’s seat. In the video, one can watch the vehicle automatically steer along painted lane lines without sending out a warning that the driver’s seat was unoccupied.

While YouTube is full of similar videos, and the CR video offered no additional data on the Texas crash, the brand was able to leverage the moment for a press lift and point readers to its research on other brands. The article was picked up widely and reignited the notion that Autopilot could have been involved, even if Musk said it wasn’t.

Friday, April 23

The last day of the news cycle was full of copycat coverage of the CR video on how Autopilot could be “tricked” into driving without someone in the driver’s seat. These pieces called Musk into question and speculated that perhaps Elon was not telling the whole story.

Sprinkled among these were a few pieces from Tesla watchers and fans pointing out how the company’s media coverage was turning negative.

“A week before arguably the most anticipated Earnings Call in recent memory,” Teslarati’s Joey Klender wrote. “With Tesla reporting production and deliveries that were well over Wall Street’s consensus, anticipation for the Q1 2021 Earnings Call is slightly higher than usual, and the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) is at an all-time high.”


Meanwhile, in China, a Driver Protest Goes Viral

While all of this was going on in the U.S., Tesla was facing a second PR crisis in China. A woman claiming to be a Tesla customer grabbed attention at the Shanghai auto show when she climbed on top of a car with a T-shirt that read “brakes don’t work.” She was angry about an alleged brake failure in her vehicle (something other social media users in China claiming to be Tesla drivers have complained about in past months). A video of the protest went viral on Chinese social media.

CNBC reported, “Tesla alleged the woman was involved in a collision in February due to ‘speeding violations’ and that in their two months of negotiations, she would not allow a third-party inspection but insisted on a refund for the car.’

Tesla’s vice president for China, Tao Lin, was reported as saying the company didn’t have any reason to give her the high compensation she sought. In conjunction, in a post on Weibo, Tesla said it would not compromise with “unreasonable demands.” Grace Tao, Tesla’s vice president for external relations and with the company since 2014, escalated the incident questioning whether the customer acted on her own.

State media latched on to this series of events and leveraged it in opinion pieces admonishing the company. It’s worth noting Tesla was the first automaker allowed to operate in China without partnering with a state-owned company, so state-run media could be seen as having an interest in bringing the company to heel.

Autoblog reported that Tesla later issued “a series of increasingly contrite late-night statements” in response. The tone began with Monday’s “no compromise” to an “apology and self-inspection” on Tuesday. By Wednesday, it was “working with regulators for investigation.”

By Friday, Tesla had published six statements since the Monday auto show and Electrek covered two new aspects of this news. One was a deep dive into the raw data files the company released to the owner on the accident in question. In the past, Tesla has been criticized for only releasing its interpretation of the data logs, and this may be the first time raw files were shared outside the company.

In the second Electrek article, Tesla owners reported being stopped by police from driving on the highway in Guangzhou, China, the same city as the protester’s accident. Traffic management was cited as the reason, and police said they were stopping a variety of vehicles. But, Tesla drivers claimed to be singled out and posted on social media.


The Absence of Crisis Communications 

Regarding the Texas crisis, I’m left wondering why Tesla and Musk weren’t more active as the Texas story unfolded and why the Chinese PR team chose strategies that made that story worse. Managing a PR crisis is never a perfect science; however, some basic techniques can be employed to temper fires rather than letting them burn themselves out.

Beyond Elon’s Monday tweet, the company was not active in any related Texas story. It declined to comment and did not release data logs. On Wednesday, April 21, Musk announced in a series of tweets that Tesla Solar Panels and Solar Roof would soon be sold as an integrated product with the Powerwall battery. He wished his followers a happy Earth Day on Thursday. On Friday, he posted several items on the successful SpaceX Dragon launch and docking at the International Space Station for a second time.

The PR fumbles in Texas and China could give us a window into Elon’s thinking. He’s a busy guy, running two very demanding enterprises. And the China crisis could’ve drawn his attention due to the broader market and more delicate politics. Without a US PR team to handle stateside matters for him and a Chinese PR team lacking decorum, perhaps he simply didn’t have the time and hoped it would fade out. It’s unconfirmed whether PR teams still operate in other countries beyond China.

In Texas, maybe Musk didn’t want to add fuel to the fire by participating in stories of what could be viewed as just another battery fire. This certainly is a standard crisis communication tactic, although not one that is recommended. When companies take this tactic, it allows reporters to speculate surrounding the company, sometimes prompting them to dig more. It can also make the brand seem unsympathetic to the victims’ family and their customers.

Of course, in China, the company did the opposite and still ended up with egg on its face. What can I say? Crisis communications is a delicate minefield that is best navigated with the forethought of a chess player.

Beyond this, even if Autopilot was activated in Texas (which Musk says it wasn’t), Cleantechnica’s Jennifer Sensiba writes, “I don’t think it’s ethical to try to blame Tesla for that.” She makes a point that to “trick” Autopilot, one must take various, conscious actions to evade the safety protocols, explaining,

“That really puts responsibility for anything bad that happens on the driver. You can’t put the work in to bypass multiple safety features and then claim you are a victim of Tesla. They tried to keep you away from danger, and you jumped multiple fences and put yourself there anyway.”

Maybe Musk feels the same way, and to weigh in on any reporting of the incident could be construed as taking some type of responsibility for it.

In the case of the China crisis, Tesla did release the data logs. Additionally, in previous fatal crashes when Autopilot was involved, such as Joshua Brown in Florida in 2016, Walter Huang in California in 2018, the company released blog posts detailing the information they had on the crash.

Surrounding the Texas accident, Bloomberg’s Dana Hull wrote, “we have one carefully worded tweet from CEO Elon Musk. … [he] may be right, or he may be selectively focusing on some aspects of the data logs and not others. Is it possible that Autopilot was enabled at some point, then was disabled or disengaged before impact?”

Musk has the logs. Why not release them as they did in China, and remove Autopilot from the speculation? Without such an action, it brings into question what else he knows. He’s either not sharing because he doesn’t want to, or he’s not at liberty to with an ongoing investigation. Further, there’s no PR staff on hand who can manage or advise him.

The fact that Tesla set a precedent of releasing the data, and they have not done so in the Texas instance, is naturally suspicious. Tesla could neutralize this thought by releasing a statement informing the public why it has not released the information or when it plans to.


The 24/7 Crisis Comms Grind

As a cleantech PR professional running Technica Communications and Women in Cleantech and Sustainability, it’s natural that I would value the support PR and crisis communications can bring to a company. Over the years, I’ve met a few of the early members of Tesla’s PR department who have since moved on from the company. They told me stories of how they ran 24-hour shifts to keep the news of Roadster and Model S battery fires out of the news. Seven days a week, they would trade off monitoring coverage and do the best they could to either get those stories pulled or the content neutralized away from a dramatic or biased perspective. They managed the fallout when Elon would go rogue on Twitter, making claims or announcements without giving them the heads up. And, as Ashlee Vane wrote in his biography of Musk, they handled a boss who often would write his own releases, post them when they were finished, and call reporters himself.

Even being one-tenth the size of PR groups for the major automakers, Electrek reporter Fred Lambert recalls how effective they were in his October 2020 report of the department’s dissolution.

“At times, they were extremely helpful with my reporting with responses and context/nuances/corrections.” And while he didn’t always agree with all their approach, “I think Tesla’s PR department was a net positive overall as they helped correct a lot of misinformation about the company and get the word out. Journalists are a particularly needy bunch, and even acknowledging our existence goes a long way to spreading goodwill in the community.”

It’s difficult to say how different the week of April 18 may have been for Tesla in the U.S. if it had a team of professionals on call to run damage control, provide expert advice, and leverage their reporter relationships. Certainly, they could not have stopped the speculation around Autopilot’s use (if that is the truth). Still, perhaps they could have tempered it, halted the “driverless” conflation, and steered some writers away from blaming the feature directly.

The PR team certainly would have been the people-power that Musk needed to transform data logs into a blog post the company could use to set the record straight, assuming the content of Musk’s tweet is the whole story. Even if such content couldn’t be released because it was part of an ongoing investigation, they certainly could have advised on how such messaging could be disseminated to the public without running afoul of regulators. They might even have been able to counter the messaging from politicians using the moment to push for more regulation of semi and fully autonomous systems.

Since its inception, there have always been negative stories about Tesla. It is a massive threat to the status quo of Big Oil and Big Auto and a favorite of short-sellers. To this day, countless entities have a vested interest in preventing its success. However, typically, these stories involve microscale issues, such as a dissatisfied customer, a disgruntled employee, or a production bottleneck.

This week, however, the news was on the macro-level across two continents. It wasn’t just another Tesla crash or disgruntled customer. It was two incidents that could hurt future sales, or open the automaker to greater scrutiny surrounding the design and functionality of Autopilot, or lack of proper regulations for safety features.

As it stands, Tesla had two crises in the same week, one fueled by state media and another surrounded in mystery, just a week before a highly anticipated earnings call (April 26), and a lack of competent PR professionals to manage the crisis communications.

Maybe that’s why articles about Elon’s pending appearance on Saturday Night Live in a few weeks have started cropping up after he tweeted it. The cynical might see it was a smokescreen, or perhaps it is just coincidental. Either way, the timing is questionable and could have been managed better – something PR teams are typically on the lookout for.

We knew it would be a grand experiment to watch an automaker like Tesla, with all its haters, attempt to manage its U.S. message on Autopilot. On Monday’s earning call, it’s a near guarantee Musk will get a question surrounding the crash and stock repercussions from the investigation and the regulator’s probe. How he will handle them will give us a window into what the next wave of media coverage will look like for Tesla and if Musk will continue to allow their media exposure to be “driverless” or if they will finally put their hands back on the wheel.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton is founder and CEO of the award-winning Technica Communications and founder and Chairwoman of the non-profit Women in Cleantech & Sustainability. She was named a PR Executive of the Year by the American Business Awards (2020), Female Entrepreneur of the Year for Advertising and Marketing by the Women in Business and the Professions World Awards (2020), and a Woman of Influence by the Silicon Valley Business Journal (2017). She is a Tesla stockholder.