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The Tesla Problem: When Your Car Knows More Than You Do

Tesla and the New York Times recently scuffled over Model S performance. What does it mean when consumer perceptions clash with the data?


Recently, automotive upstart Tesla Motors and the New York Times got into a bit of a scuffle over some vehicle data. When the New York Times reporter charged (pun intended!) with reviewing a Tesla Model S ran out of battery and required a tow on a cold winter day, Tesla looked at the vehicle diagnostic data to see what was really going on. Tesla found that the car had not run out of charge, but had been used improperly: not charged for long enough and not driven at appropriate speeds, among other issues.

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan summarized the situation from a journalist's perspective, but we're interested in looking at it from an automotive data perspective. Teslas and other modern cars certainly represent a revolution in the way people interact with their vehicles. With more and more sophisticated software and electronics in vehicles, cars diagnose and resolve small problems constantly and indeed can almost drive themselves--in fact, some literally do

But what about when your car is too smart for you? All the diagnostic data and smart software in the world don't amount to anything useful if drivers don't understand them. Ultimately, the driver is the expert. If a car's system is too complex to understand or too different from what drivers are used to, drivers will have a bad experience--and the car's reputation will suffer as a result. We're seeing this already in our own data, where problems with audio, entertainment, and navigation systems are skyrocketing over mechanical issues; JD Power and Associates see the same thing. People have high expectations of software, yet low tolerance for learning about it.

Tesla Model S

The New York Times experience echoes consumer concerns; we discovered in one of our studies that about 20% of consumers interested in an electric vehicle were not sure where they would charge it. While the debacle may have hit Tesla's reputation, the problem is not Tesla, but rather complex vehicle features that drivers don't understand. We see this frequently in our Continuous Quality Insight surveys, where drivers express confusion and frustration regarding the steep learning curve for operating various vehicle features. This is one reason we've developed Quick Tips educational content to help drivers better understand the specific features they identify as problematic.

While Tesla's full data log may redeem the car to some extent, it doesn't change the experience of a Tesla driver who's confused about why the vehicle charge seems to be dropping faster than expected, and doesn't have enough time to charge properly. There's nearly always a good technical explanation for any problem you may have with your vehicle, but that doesn't ease the confusion and frustration you feel as a result of those problems. Tesla fans suggested that the New York Times reporter should have read the owner's manual before driving; if he had, he might not have experienced the problems he did. Perhaps true--but how many of you have read your owner's manual in any situation other than an emergency?

Our habits as drivers are based on our expectation that cars will always work as expected. When that doesn't happen, and the owner's manual doesn't immediately provide an answer, we're almost always at a loss. The solution for the automotive industry going forward will be to find ways--like our Quick Tips--to help drivers understand their vehicles better. Driving should be a partnership, not a battle--between automaker and journalist, nor between automobile and driver. Education can help strengthen that partnership. Let's make it happen.


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