How does a car-company CEO get to be a rock star?
It helps, of course, if your company makes a five-passenger luxury sedan that outdrags a Porsche 911, uses half the energy of a Prius, and has the highest crash-safety rating ever recorded.
But Elon Musk has done something else to separate himself from the grey-flannel pack: He listens to his customers.
And then he responds to them, either personally or on social media.
Open letter in Palo Alto Daily to Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, from Model S owners in Long Island, NY
Even more radical, in many cases, Musk readily admits to faults or substandard aspects of the Tesla Model S.
Last week, a couple from Long Island, New York, who own a pair of Teslas placed an ad in Musk's hometown newspaper asking for half a dozen improvements in the Model S.
Two days later, Musk tweeted to his million-plus followers, "Ad taken out in Palo Alto Daily by two Model S owners is right. Many of the suggestions will be implemented soon."
It's not clear whether the changes will come as a direct result of the ad, or whether they were on the drawing board already.
But we Model S owners have come to feel that what we think actually matters to the CEO of Tesla Motors--and that our suggestions may actually turn into reality.
My mails from Musk
Three years ago, I was an early Model S deposit-holder, eagerly awaiting my car.
On the wildest of whims, I decided to e-mail Elon with a suggestion. "Please give us driver-adjustable regen braking on the Model S," I pleaded.
To my utter astonishment, three hours later I got a reply: "I totally agree that regen should be driver adjustable, and it will be on Model S." Musk copied the message to his chief technical officer, JB Straubel.
Elon Musk signs new 2013 Tesla Model S at Tesla Store opening, Austin, Texas [photo: John Griswell]
Over the following year, Musk and I had three more e-mail exchanges, on the subject of battery power, cold-weather range, and the annual maintenance plan. In all cases, he responded the same day--on one occasion, within seven minutes.
Can you imagine having a lively e-mail back-and-forth with Mark Fields or Mary Barra, CEOs of Ford and General Motors respectively?
More recently, I wrote about the spate of drive-unit replacements in the Model S.
I pointed out that Tesla, for all its trumpeting about reliability and customer service, had no extended powertrain warranty beyond the standard four-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper coverage--unlike most other carmakers.
I concluded the piece with a personal plea for an extended powertrain warranty: "Your move, Mr. Musk. Can you keep up with Kia?"
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Seven days later, Musk announced Tesla's new eight-year, infinite-mile powertrain warranty for the Model S. "In hindsight," he wrote, "This should have been our policy from the beginning of the Model S program."
I have no idea whether Musk was aware of that article, or whether it played any role in the announcement.
But the perception among Model S owners is that Musk listens to us. If we make sense, changes may occur.
Plea No. 2
So let's do a little test: Let's make another personal plea to Elon Musk, and see what happens.
I believe the Model S has a potentially serious safety problem.
2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]
Its brake and accelerator pedals are spaced closely together--both horizontally and vertically--making it more likely that the driver may inadvertantly press both pedals simultaneously. When that happens, braking performance is seriously degraded.
On several occasions, I have inadvertently pressed both pedals of my Model S--once nearly causing a serious crash. Many other owners have reported the same problem. Eventually, someone will get hurt.
The solution is quick and simple: a software change that cuts off power to the electric motor whenever the brake pedal is pressed.
Your move, Mr. Musk. Can you make this simple change to enhance the safety of the Model S?