Tesla, one
of the leaders in the electric vehicle industry, also has ethical glitches.

Tesla Motors is a
renowned American electric vehicle company founded 2003. Throughout the last years, it has been achieving outstanding
results which seem to be promising for the future of electric cars. 1 Along with the low environmental impact of
electric cars, Tesla is a great example of how various researches (high
capacity batteries, efficient engines and
light-weight materials) are being combined into marvels of the 21st
century, equipped with sophisticated technologies which allow these vehicles to
do what has never been done before.

AUTONOMOUS-DRIVING AND COLLISIONS

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One of their most
extraordinary outcomes is the possibility of self-driving cars, which do not require
the control of a human being behind the wheel. But since the launch of this
type of car, a very critical problem has arisen when it comes to the
eventuality of a crash, a possibility which unfortunately is unavoidable in
certain situations. In May 2016, just over a year since the launch of the Tesla
S model, a man in the US was killed whilst the autopilot mode was active. The
accident took place on a motorway, where a tractor trailer crossed the path of
the Tesla. Investigations done to the computers on board the car show
that no brakes were applied by the car
nor the driver. 2 This is the first fatal accident that has
ever occurred whilst using autopilot, but
it does highlight a flaw in the functioning of the automated driving mode on
board the vehicle.

In a lawsuit
against Tesla, they stressed that the AEB
(Automatic Emergency Braking) would not activate under certain conditions, such
as pressing down on the accelerator or steering harshly, as these would
indicate a situation where the driver has regained control of the car and is
trying to avoid a potential danger in the road. But in the case of this
accident, as stated previously, the car and the driver did not notice the
hazard in their path. If the driver could have been able to see the obstacle,
he could have somehow tried to avoid the collision which resulted in his death.
But he did not do so. So the blame cannot be totally given to the car.

SUSPENSION PROBLEMS

Just over a month
after the fatal incident, another event saw Tesla being put in the crosshairs.
Several owners reported having problems
with the forward and rear suspension of their car. In particular, one owner3 when driving at a low speed, experience a
front suspension failure which ended his journey. The first thing that came to
his mind was to contact the car manufacturer and request a repair, although the
warranty for the vehicle had expired. However, he thought that it was
unacceptable that a suspension would fail with a relatively small amount of
mileage (circa 73,000 miles). Tesla claimed the suspension failed due to
expectable wear caused by driving on rough terrain. In fact, the owner
regularly drove on unstable surfaces to reach his home. This caused the car to
experience greater stress compared to driving on normal surfaces. But the most
peculiar part was Tesla’s offer for the repairs.

The company offered
to repair the suspension at half price, as long as the requestor agreed to sign
a GoodWill document4, nothing more than a non-disclosure
document which would prevent the owner from informing the US NHTSA (National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Despite the S model owner signing the
document, he proceeded in informing the NHTSA about what had occurred to him
and the found it inadmissible for the company to take such action5, and proceeded in investigating the part
and discovered the poor quality of the components. They decided to further
investigate the matter by requesting the same parts from Tesla, which agreed
without a sign of hesitation. Tesla added that the GoodWill document was a
normal procedure when offering discounted of free repairs to the part which had passed their warranty period.

NON-IDEAL WORKING CONDITIONS

Moving from
accidents involving the car to where these are produced, it is possible to
identify another glitch in the company. Many workers have complained about “gruelling
conditions”.6 The TRIR (recordable incident rate) from
2013 to 2016 was above average, indicating that many workers were injured or
ill. This potentially highlights a safety issue within the company. Workers
tend to highlight that the bad working conditions are due to the desire of the CEO Elon Musk to succeed in
delivering carbon free vehicles and his ambition to have a large production.7 Testimonials of employees reveal that some saw
workers collapse whilst working, and were told to work around the lying bodies
as if nothing had happened. Even more shocking is that injured people had wage
cuts (around half the original pay) which forced them to return from their
leave in advance, as they could not live with that amount of money, especially
if the money went towards a family.

Tesla admits that
there may be some issues when it comes to injuries but states that “safety and
job satisfaction of our employees have
always been extremely important to us. We have a long history of engaging
directly with our employees on the issues that matter to them”.8 Furthermore, Elon Musk claims that the
employees are working extremely hard because they all believe in a “sustainable
energy future … and it is not a way to become rich”.9 Despite him stating the positive aims of
the company he leads, it’s easy to understand that workers are very likely not
rewarded they way they would like to be.

 

IMPROVEMENTS

For what concerns
the autopilot incident which happened over a year ago, Tesla has a lot to
learn. Although Tesla warns its car owners to pay attention to the road and to
hold the steering wheel regardless of the autopilot being active, also the NTSB
agrees that there is a lack of system safeguards.10 11 The aim of the autopilot is not for the
driver to relax nor ignore what is happening in his surroundings, but allow to
relieve some fatigue due to exhausting long driving. To avoid other accidents
involving the autopilot, Tesla should implement a system which detects the
concentration of the driver whilst in autopilot mode by using sensors which
monitor how much attention the driver is paying to the road. This would allow
the driver to be responsive in the eventuality the car does not detect a hazard
in its path. In order to do so they would have to service all available
vehicles and introduce the new technology, as it would but users’ life at risk
if only new cars had access to this awareness detection system.

Moving forward, the
suspension problem that the company agreed to fix in return of a signature which
impeded the Tesla owner to report the event to any authority or transport
safety agency, to the eyes of everybody seems like a very unethical move on
behalf of Tesla. If there were to be a real problem with their suspension making
it fail prematurely, anybody driving at high speed on one of their vehicles
could be in potential danger. However the aim of the document was very likely
to not scare new nor existing customers until the problem was properly
investigated. Furthermore, Tesla agreed without hesitation to give additional
samples to the NHTSA, highlighting its will to determine whether there is a
problem or not. But if Tesla has been cutting corners in the design and materials
of the suspensions, its putting at risk not only its own users but also other
drivers.

Finally, the
working conditions of Tesla employees need
to improve. Having a green future as an aim for the company does not imply the
right to cut down on workers’ wages. The biggest Tesla production plant is
situated in Fremont, California, and living costs are high. The salary should
be calibrated with the area where the employees work. Also, the company should
not penalise ill or injured workers as long as they are not taking advantage of
their condition. Nevertheless, if the injury occurred on the worksite and Tesla is responsible because of a
lack of safety precautions, it should offer compensation for the worker.

CONCLUSION

Tesla has managed
to achieve extraordinary things, but to reach its aims and compete with the
market it must not cut corners, especially when it comes to safety of both its workers and customers.
Whenever a problem arises, the company should not ignore it nor try to cover it
up, but act responsibly. Although an accident has occurred while using the
patented autopilot, it still remains one of the most astonishing outcomes of
the 21st century, although its improvement is vital. For the rest, this company has opened a new era for
transportation and hopefully, in the
future, many people ill be able to benefit from their hard effort.

1 Encyclopaedia
Britannica. Tesla Motors Internet. 16 October 2017. Accessed 27 December
2017; Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tesla-Motors

2 The
Verge. Tesla driver killed in crash with Autopilot active, NHTSA investigating.
Internet. 30 June 2016. Accessed 22 December 2017; Available from: https://www.theverge.com/2016/6/30/12072408/tesla-autopilot-car-crash-death-autonomous-model-s

3 Electrek.
Tesla Model S suspension and NDA situation: here are the facts. Internet. 10
June 2016. Accessed 27 December 2017; Available from: https://electrek.co/2016/06/10/tesla-model-s-suspension-nda-nhtsa/

4 Daily
Kanban. Tesla Suspension Breakage: It’s Not The Crime, It’s The Coverup.
Internet. 8 June 2016. Accessed 27 December 2017; Available from: https://dailykanban.com/2016/06/tesla-suspension-breakage-not-crime-coverup/

5 Auto123.
Tesla under fire after suspension repair cover-up. Internet. 10 June 2017. Accessed
27 December 2017; Available from: https://www.auto123.com/en/news/tesla-model-s-suspension-problems/62389/

6 The Guardian. Tesla factory workers reveal pain,
injury and stress: ‘Everything feels like the future but us’. Internet. 18
May 2017. Accessed 28 December 2017; Available from:
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/18/tesla-workers-factory-conditions-elon-musk

7 Business
Insider UK. Tesla factory employees describe gruelling work conditions where
people pass out ‘like a pancake’. Internet. 18 May 2017. Accessed 28
December 2017; Available from: http://uk.businessinsider.com/tesla-factory-workers-detail-grueling-conditions-fremont-2017-5

8 Techcruch.
Tesla answers claims of poor factory working conditions and unionization
efforts. Internet 9 February 2017. Accessed 29 December 2017; Available
from: https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/09/tesla-answers-claims-of-poor-factory-working-conditions-and-unionization-efforts/

9 TheStreet.
Elon Musk Defends Tesla Working Conditions Amidst Complaints of Fainting
Spells, Long Hours. Internet. 18 May 2017. Accessed 28 December 2017;
Available from: https://www.thestreet.com/story/14142274/1/elon-musk-defends-tesla-working-conditions-amidst-complaints-of-fainting-spells-long-hours.html

10 Reuters.
‘System safeguards’ lacking in Tesla crash on autopilot: NTSB. Internet. 12
September 2017. Accessed 23 December 2017; Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tesla-autopilot/system-safeguards-lacking-in-tesla-crash-on-autopilot-ntsb-idUSKCN1BN1QP

11 Autoblog.
This is what happens when you ignore Tesla Autopilot warnings. Internet. 26
September 2016. Accessed 30 December 2017; Available from: https://www.autoblog.com/2016/09/26/autopilot-tesla-version-8-warning-video/ 

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