Tesla Is Sorry, but Not for the Fatal Driverless Car Crash in Texas

Tesla has offered a “deep apology” for failing to please Chinese customers after a car crash led to a dramatic protest.
April 23, 2021, 12:27pm
tesla china elon musk
Tesla has vowed to strictly comply with government requirements in China. Photo: Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP

In the United States, Tesla has stayed largely silent over the death of two men in a Model S crash in Texas. Having dissolved his U.S. public relations team, Elon Musk gave his first public response in a reply to a Twitter user, denying that the Autopilot system was at fault—authorities said no one was driving—and mocking the reporting of The Wall Street Journal.

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Meanwhile in China, where Tesla has also been put on the defensive over a crash, the company has posted a late-night apology, published driving log data on state media, and vowed to do everything the government asks for.

“We will work with regulators to conduct a deep-dive investigation with no reservations, and accept society’s supervision with sincerity and openness,” the company said on microblogging site Weibo on Thursday.

Tesla’s obedient response in China reflects the importance of the world’s biggest auto market, where support from authorities is key to the success of any business or entrepreneur, no matter how big of a star they are.

Tesla has been embroiled in a public relations crisis in China since a disgruntled customer climbed on top of a Model 3 sedan at an auto show this week to protest what she claimed to be a “brake failure” that led to a car crash in February. The Model 3 hit two other cars. At least two people, including the Tesla’s driver herself, were reportedly injured.

While local authorities ordered the woman into five-day detention for “disrupting public order,” Tesla’s initial uncompromising response to her complaint drew a torrent of criticism from authorities and internet users.

The Communist Party’s powerful corruption watchdog called Tesla “spoiled and arrogant” and warned it against “making Chinese people’s money while taking Chinese people’s lives.” The State Administration for Market Regulation said it was paying great attention to the protest at the auto show, and had ordered local regulators to look into the customers’ complaints.

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Tesla’s Chinese PR team seems to have been working into late nights since then. In a series of lengthy statements posted between 10:30 p.m. and midnight, Tesla offered “deep apology” for failing to solve car owners’ problem, pledged to win back consumers’ support “with genuine sincerity,” and promised to cover all the costs from third-party examination of the protester’s vehicle.

On Thursday, the company, which previously blamed the crash on speeding, also published a driving log of the vehicle from the minute before it crashed.

But the husband of the protester told a local news outlet on Thursday that Tesla had infringed on the family’s privacy by publishing the data. “My wife is not able to receive it from the detention center,” he said. 

It’s unclear how the dispute will be resolved. Under Tesla’s deferential Weibo posts, the company’s critics and supporters fought each other over who is at fault.

On Friday, Tesla published its sixth statement since the auto show protest. It denied quality issues claimed by another customer who joined the protest, but promised to help her pay to have the car examined.

Tesla did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comments. 

Musk sees China as Tesla’s biggest market in the long run, and its ambitions in the country had had Beijing’s unequivocal blessing—Tesla was the first foreign carmaker allowed to build a wholly-owned plant in China.

But the recent scrutiny has put the company in a precarious position in the world’s biggest consumer market, just as many other foreign brands are suffering from growing tensions between Beijing and the West.

In February, Chinese regulators summoned Tesla over consumer reports on quality issues including unexpected acceleration, battery fires, and flaws in over-the-air software updates.

Reuters reported in March that the Chinese military had banned Tesla cars from entering its complexes. Musk responded by saying the company “will get shut down” if it used its cars to spy.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.