Road Rage

Posted on Feb 18, 2013 | 3 Comments

If you haven’t followed the tussle between The New York Times and Tesla Motors, what happened was this: Reporter John M. Broder took the Model S electric vehicle for an extended drive up the East Coast and found that it couldn’t hold a charge for the full journey. Tesla Chairman Elon Musk responded that Broder had misrepresented the facts and “worked very hard to force our car to stop running.” And the fight was on.

What really happened? Over at the HBR Blog, editor Tim Sullivan suggests that the details of Broder’s road trip aren’t all that important. “Tesla is run by visionary engineers,” Sullivan says. “Perhaps this is the root of the problem. The Tesla team have built a car to satisfy themselves, which means that they’ve focused on the customer as driver not on the customer as a whole individual.

Tesla wants the S to be considered a normal car, but in Sullivan’s view that’s unrealistic. “Will anyone put up with the hassle?” he asks. “Was this normal use part of their early goal or did they just geek out on an awesome car?”

We here at the Dx have no intention of risking our limbs by getting in the middle of the NYT-Tesla dispute. But if Sullivan’s diagnosis is correct, then it’d be one more example of a phenomenon that Peter Drucker saw time and again: companies falling in love with a product because of the product’s difficult birth rather than because of its appeal to the consumer.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

Photo credit: Robert Scoble

In Managing for Results, Drucker described how advertisements often betray this tendency among companies. “One [advertisement] after the other stresses how complicated, how laborious, it is to make this or that product. ‘Our engineers had to suspend the Laws of Nature to make this possible’ is a constant theme,” Drucker wrote. “If this makes any impression on the customer, it is likely to be the opposite of the intended one: ‘If this is so hard to make right,’ he will say, ‘it probably doesn’t work.’”

Drucker stressed the same point in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “The typical engineering definition of quality is something that is hard to do, is complicated and costs a lot of money!” Drucker asserted. “But that isn’t quality; it’s incompetence. What the customer thinks he or she is buying, what he or she considers value, is decisive.”

What do you think?  Did Tesla forget the customer?


  1. J Peterson
    February 23, 2013

    Did Tesla forget the customer? No. Is Tesla kicking against the goads? Yes, absolutely.

    Another car maker, Preston Tucker was incredibly forward thinking in Automotive design in 1948, and there is ample evidence that he was shut down by forces other than the quality, dependability or the perceived public acceptance of his product.

    The US Auto market is absolutely ready for an electric car, but the question is whether you manufacture a car that does everything that gasoline cars can do, or whether you ask customers to modify their habits a bit. Both are tall orders. And this ignores what may be a more challenging obstacle – the established automobile industry that doesn’t want any more competition.

    Americans hate limits. Look at all the 4 wheel drive SUVs that have been purchased. I bet many of them see the 4WD button pushed once a year or less, but people will sacrifice gas mileage and pay more for the 4WD option. Tesla will have to find a way to market their product that appeals to the American sense of freedom, or the customers won’t materialize.

  2. Greg Zerovnik
    February 23, 2013

    Latest reports seem to portend a mixed financial outlook for Tesla and its the Model S. Sales and revenue are up nicely, beating analysts’ forecasts. But the stock is down about 7% thanks to Broder’s piece. Now, if Broder did indeed drive in circles as the Tesla folks claim he did, per in-car blackbox data, then it’s yet another example of lax journalism standards.

  3. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    February 26, 2013

    [...] of the Week: Last week, when we looked at the spat between the New York Times and Tesla, we asked whether Tesla reader had forgotten the customer.  Reader J Peterson said no, but with [...]


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