Cars crashed bollards, brakes that apply to avoid imaginary collisions, and more than 2,400 complaints about cars accelerating without the owner’s control. 100 gigabytes of internal Tesla documents leaked to a German newspaper Handelsblatt present a sobering picture of the technical limitations of the EV company.
23,000 files received Handelsblatt cover problems in Europe, the US and Asia between 2015 and March 2022, and appear to show serious flaws in Tesla’s Autopilot technology. The revelations could see the company face new pressure from regulators, who are likely to scrutinize the reports for evidence that the company misled authorities or customers about the safety of its cars.
The leaks could also add to widespread concern among Tesla investors and analysts that the company has lost its way. Its vaunted self-driving technology appears far from being safe enough for the road, and it can’t move viable new products from the drawing board to the showroom. Tesla hasn’t launched a new consumer car since 2020, and many believe it is lagging behind other automakers ramping up development of new electric vehicles to meet rising demand. Half-hidden in the rush of revelations is a teaser of a secret report on Tesla’s long-awaited “Cybertruck,” the strange, angular pickup truck announced in 2019. This is unlikely to be good news.
“Tesla urgently needs a new story of trust,” says Ferdinand Dudenhofer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany.
The contents of the leaked documents are shocking, with accounts of near-death experiences at the hands of Tesla’s Autopilot. But analysts say that this is not unexpected.
“For most of us who have been covering Tesla for ten years, it’s not that surprising, and it’s probably not surprising for most of Tesla’s customers either,” says Matthias Schmidt, an independent automotive analyst based in Berlin.
Schmidt says Tesla has long followed a “move fast and break things” approach to product development, raising concerns about whether its new releases are ready for launch. There have been 393 reported deaths involving Teslas, 33 of which involved Autopilot. Schmidt claims that Musk “accepts the driver’s death as a consequence of the forwarding technology.” Musk did not respond to a request for comment for this story or to address Schmidt’s allegations.
It is often difficult to separate the Tesla brand from the character of its CEO. Musk typically deflects criticism of his products — often via Twitter, which he bought for $44 billion last October. But the scale of the German leaks could make it difficult for Musk to sell his version of the story, Dudenhofer said.
“It has thousands of bits of information, customer complaints, and at the same time it’s telling people it’s the best product in the world,” says Dudenhofer, comparing the dispute to the Volkswagen scandal in the mid-2010s, when it was discovered that the automaker minimizes the environmental impact of its vehicles.
Dudenhofer puts the blame for Tesla’s mounting problems on Musk, who divides his time between running Tesla, his rocket company SpaceX and Twitter, which has been in a state of perpetual crisis since its takeover last year. “He shouldn’t be CEO and run Tesla anymore,” says Dudenhofer, “because he’s making mistake after mistake after mistake.”