First, Fortune mischaracterizes Tesla's SEC filing. Here is what Tesla's SEC filing actually says: "We may become subject to product liability claims, which could harm our financial condition and liquidity if we are not able to successfully defend or insure against such claims." [full text included below] This is just stating the obvious. One of the risks facing Tesla (or any company) is that someone could bring product liability claims against it. However, neither at the time of this SEC filing, nor in the several weeks to date, has anyone brought a product liability claim against Tesla relating to the crash in Florida.
Next, Fortune entirely ignores what Tesla knew and when, nor did they even asked the questions. Instead, they simply assumed that Tesla had complete information from the moment this accident occurred. This was a physical impossibility given that the damage sustained by the Model S in the crash limited Tesla's ability to recover data from it remotely.
When Tesla told NHTSA about the accident on May 16th, they had barely started their investigation. Tesla informed NHTSA because it wanted to let NHTSA know about a death that had taken place in one of its vehicles. It was not until May 18th that a Tesla investigator was able to go to Florida to inspect the car and the crash site and pull the complete vehicle logs from the car, and it was not until the last week of May that Tesla was able to finish its review of those logs and complete its investigation. When Fortune contacted Tesla for comment on this story during the July 4th holiday, Fortune never asked any of these questions and instead just made assumptions. Tesla asked Fortune to give it a day to confirm these facts before it rushed its story to print. They declined and instead ran a misleading article.
Here's what they did know at the time of the accident and subsequent filing:
- That Tesla Autopilot had been safely used in over 100 million miles of driving by tens of thousands of customers worldwide, with zero confirmed fatalities and a wealth of internal data demonstrating safer, more predictable vehicle control performance when the system is properly used.
- That contrasted against worldwide accident data, customers using Autopilot are statistically safer than those not using it at all.
- That given its nature as a driver assistance system, a collision on Autopilot was a statistical inevitability, though by this point, not one that would alter the conclusion already borne out over millions of miles that the system provided a net safety benefit to society.
Given the fact that the "better-than-human" threshold had been crossed and robustly validated internally, news of a statistical inevitability did not materially change any statements previously made about the Autopilot system, its capabilities, or net impact on roadway safety.
Finally, the Fortune article makes two other false assumptions. First, they assume that this accident was caused by an Autopilot failure. To be clear, this accident was the result of a semi-tractor trailer crossing both lanes of a divided highway in front of an oncoming car. Whether driven under manual or assisted mode, this presented a challenging and unexpected emergency braking scenario for the driver to respond to. In the moments leading up to the collision, there is no evidence to suggest that Autopilot was not operating as designed and as described to users: specifically, as a driver assistance system that maintains a vehicle's position in lane and adjusts the vehicle's speed to match surrounding traffic.
Fortune never even addresses that point. Second, Fortune assumes that, putting all of these other problems aside, a single accident involving Autopilot, regardless of how many accidents Autopilot has stopped and how many lives it has saved, is material to Tesla's investors. On the day the news broke about NHTSA's decision to initiate a preliminary evaluation into the incident, Tesla's stock traded up, not down, confirming that not only did their investors know better, but that their own internal assessment of the performance and risk profile of Autopilot were in line with market expectations.
The bottom line is that Fortune jumped the gun on a story before they had the facts. They then sought wrongly to defend that position by plucking boilerplate language from SEC filings that have no bearing on what happened, while failing to correct or acknowledge their original omissions and errors.
Full text referenced above:
We may become subject to product liability claims, which could harm our financial condition and liquidity if we are not able to successfully defend or insure against such claims.
Product liability claims could harm our business, prospects, operating results and financial condition. The automobile industry experiences significant product liability claims and we face inherent risk of exposure to claims in the event our vehicles do not perform as expected resulting in personal injury or death. We also may face similar claims related to any misuse or failures of new technologies that we are pioneering, including autopilot in our vehicles and our Tesla Energy products. A successful product liability claim against us with respect to any aspect of our products could require us to pay a substantial monetary award. Our risks in this area are particularly pronounced given the limited number of vehicles and energy storage products delivered to date and limited field experience of our products. Moreover, a product liability claim could generate substantial negative publicity about our products and business and would have material adverse effect on our brand, business, prospects and operating results. We self-insure against the risk of product liability claims, meaning that any product liability claims will have to be paid from company funds, not by insurance.
Also published on Medium.