Tesla’s communications chief is leaving the automaker

Dave Arnold, Tesla’s senior director of communications, is leaving the company after two-and-half years, according to sources familiar with the move.

Tesla confirmed to TechCrunch that Arnold was leaving in June.

“We’d like to thank Dave for his work in support of Tesla’s mission, and we wish him well,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a company-issued statement. “Dave will remain with the company for the next month to help transition his responsibilities to Keely Sulprizio, Tesla’s director of Global Communications.”

Arnold became senior director of communications at Tesla in July after the departure of Sarah O’Brien. O’Brien, who was previously at Apple, held the position at Tesla for two years. She later took a position at Facebook.

The top communications job at Tesla is a high-profile and critical role for the company, which unlike other automakers, doesn’t have a traditional advertising strategy. And thanks to the near-frenetic amount of attention that Tesla and CEO Elon Musk receives from investors and the press, it also can be a challenging and exhausting one. 

The typical stint for the role has been about two years.

Musk reaches his fervent fan base — and critics — via Twitter. His account now has some 26.5 million followers. Musk’s tweets, along with other announcements and controversies, translate to constant news coverage of the company.

That coverage has been largely responsible for driving sales. Tesla’s relationship with the media might be rocky at times. However, the attention by the press has also helped drive sales. The company has said in previous regulatory filings that “media coverage and word of mouth have been the primary drivers of our sales leads and have helped us achieve sales without traditional advertising and at relatively low marketing costs.”

Tesla issues battery software update after Hong Kong vehicle fire

Tesla has started pushing out a software update that will change battery charge and thermal management settings in Model S sedans and Model X SUVs following a fire in a parked vehicle in Hong Kong earlier this week.

The software update, which Tesla says is being done out of “an abundance of caution,” is supposed to “protect the battery and improve its longevity.” The over-the-air software update will not be made to Model 3 vehicles.

Tesla has not yet identified the cause of the fire or found any issues with the battery pack. But the company said it will act if it discovers a problem.

“The safety of our customers is our top priority, and if we do identify an issue, we will do whatever is necessary to address it,” Tesla said in a statement.

Here is the company’s statement in its entirety on the software update:

We currently have well over half a million vehicles on the road, which is more than double the number that we had at the beginning of last year, and Tesla’s team of battery experts uses that data to thoroughly investigate incidents that occur and understand the root cause. Although fire incidents involving Tesla vehicles are already extremely rare and our cars are 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gas car, we believe the right number of incidents to aspire to is zero.

As we continue our investigation of the root cause, out of an abundance of caution, we are revising charge and thermal management settings on Model S and Model X vehicles via an over-the-air software update that will begin rolling out today, to help further protect the battery and improve battery longevity.

A Tesla Model S caught on fire March 14 while parked near a Hong Kong shopping mall. The vehicle was sitting for about a half an hour before it burst into flames. Three explosions were seen on CCTV footage, Reuters and the Apple Daily newspaper reported at the time.

Tesla was onsite to offer support to our customer and establish the facts of this incident, a Tesla spokesperson said. The investigation is ongoing.

Only a few battery modules were affected on the Model S that caught on fire and the majority of the battery pack is undamaged, according to Tesla.

The company noted that the battery packs are designed so that if “in the very rare instance” a fire does occur  it spread slowly and vents heat away from the cabin. The aim is to give occupants time to exit the vehicle.

The Hong Kong fire followed video footage posted in April that appears to show a Tesla Model S smoking and then exploding while parked in a garage in Shanghai.

Tesla sued in wrongful death lawsuit that alleges Autopilot caused crash

The family of Walter Huang, an Apple engineer who died after his Tesla Model X with Autopilot engaged crashed into a highway median, is suing Tesla. The State of California Department of Transportation is also named in the lawsuit.

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, alleges that errors by Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system caused the crash that killed Huang on March 23, 2018. Huang, who was 38, died when his 2017 Tesla Model X hit a highway barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California.

The lawsuit alleges that Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system misread lane lines, failed to detect the concrete media, failed to brake and instead accelerated into the median.

A Tesla spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“Mrs. Huang lost her husband, and two children lost their father because Tesla is beta testing its Autopilot software on live drivers,” B. Mark  Fong, a partner at law firm Minami Tamaki said in a statement.

Other allegations against Tesla include product liability, defective product design, failure to warn, breach of warranty, intentional and negligent misrepresentation and false advertising. California DOT is also named in the lawsuit because the concrete highway median that Huang’s vehicle struck was missing its crash attenuator guard, according to the filing. Caltrans failed to replace the guard after an earlier crash there, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit aims to “ensure the technology behind semi-autonomous cars is safe before it is released on the roads, and its risks are not withheld or misrepresented to the public,” said Doris Cheng, a partner at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, who is also representing the family.

In the days following the crash, Tesla released two blog posts and ended up scuffling with the National Transportation Safety Board, which had sent investigators to the crash scene.

Tesla’s March 30 blog post acknowledged Autopilot had been engaged at the time of the crash. Tesla said the driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.

Those comments prompted a response from the NTSB, which indicated it was “unhappy with the release of investigative information by Tesla.” The NTSB requires companies who are a party to an agency accident investigation to not release details about the incident to the public without approval.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk would soon chime in via Twitter to express his own disappointment and criticism of the NTSB.

Three weeks after the crash, Tesla issued a statement placing the blame on Huang and denying moral or legal liability for the crash.

“According to the family, Mr. Huang was well aware that Autopilot was not perfect and, specifically, he told them it was not reliable in that exact location, yet he nonetheless engaged Autopilot at that location. The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”

The relationship between NTSB and Tesla would disintegrate further following the statement. Tesla said it withdrew from its party agreement with the NTSB. Within a day, NTSB claimed that it had removed Tesla as a party to its crash investigation.

A preliminary report from the NTSB didn’t make any conclusions of what caused the crash. But it did find that the vehicle accelerated from 62 mph to 70.8 mph in the final three seconds before impact and moved left as it approached the paved gore area dividing the main travel lane of 101 and Highway 85 exit ramp.

The report also found that in the 18 minutes and 55 seconds prior to impact, the Tesla provided two visual alerts and one auditory alert for the driver to place his hands on the steering wheel. The alerts were made more than 15 minutes before the crash.

Huang’s hands were detected on the steering wheel only 34 seconds during the last minute before impact. No pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement was detected, the report said.

The case is Sz Hua Huang et al v. Tesla Inc., The State of California, no. 19CV346663.

 

Elon Musk, SEC agree to guidelines on Twitter use

Tesla,  Elon Musk and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reached an agreement Friday that will give the CEO freedom to use Twitter —within certain limitations — without fear of being held in contempt for violating an earlier court order.

Musk can tweet as he wishes except when it’s about certain events or financial milestones. In those cases, Musk must seek pre-approval from a securities lawyer, according to the agreement filed with Manhattan federal court.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan, the presiding judge on this matter, must still approve the deal. Nathan had given the SEC and Musk two weeks to work out their differences and come to a resolution.

Musk must seek pre-approval if his tweets include:

  • any information about the company’s financial condition or guidance, potential or proposed mergers, acquisitions or joint ventures,
  • production numbers or sales or delivery number (actual, forecasted, or projected),
  • new or proposed business lines that are unrelated to then-existing business lines (presently includes vehicles, transportation, and sustainable energy products);
  • projection, forecast, or estimate numbers regarding Tesla’s business that have not been previously published in official company guidance
  • events regarding the company’s securities (including Musk’s acquisition or disposition of shares)
  • nonpublic legal or regulatory findings or decisions;
  • any event requiring the filing of a Form 8-K such as a change in control or a change in the company’s directors; any principal executive officer, president, principal financial officer, principal accounting officer, principal operating officer, or any person performing similar functions

The fight between the two parties began after Musk’s now infamous August 7, 2018 tweet that had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share. The SEC filed a complaint in alleging that Musk had committed securities fraud.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC last year without admitting wrongdoing. Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

The fight was re-ignited after Musk sent a tweet on February 19 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year end.

The SEC argued that the tweet sent by Musk violated their agreement. Musk has said the tweet was “immaterial” and complied with the settlement.

The SEC had asked the court to hold Musk in contempt for violating a settlement agreement reached last October over Musk’s now infamous “funding secured” tweet. The SEC had argued that Musk was supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors, the agency has argued. The SEC claimed a February 19 tweet violated the agreement.

Musk has steadfastly maintained that he didn’t violate the agreement.

A new Tesla Model S can now drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a single charge

Tesla has announced that it has extended the range of its Model S vehicle to 370 miles and Model X to 325 miles on a single charge — extending the range of its cars to make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a single charge. 

The extensions beat Tesla’s previous records for mileage per charge using the same 100 kWh battery pack, the company said.

The company also announced a new adaptive suspension system and upgrades to its Ludicrous Mode.

Both models now have the newest drive unit technology, Tesla said. Combining an optimized permanent magnet synchronous reluctance motor, silicon carbide power electronics and improved lubrication, cooling, bearings and gear designs the new cars can achieve better than 93% efficiency, Tesla said in a statement.

By pairing a permanent magnet motor in the front with an induction motor in the rear gives both models better performance times adding up to a 10% improvement in range — offering bidirectional performance benefits as energy flows out of the battery during acceleration and back into the battery through regenerative braking.

The company also announced faster charging on V3 and V2 Superchargers of 200 kW and 145 kW, respectively — which should half the time it takes to recharge the cars.

Improvements to the suspension are also helping to increase performance. The company added fully adaptive damping giving the car a better feel on the highway or in autopilot mode.

Tesla touts that its suspension software was developed in-house and includes algorithms that predict how damping would need to be adjusted based on road conditions, speed, and “vehicle and driver inputs”, according to a statement.

The new models also reduce drag by improving the system’s ability to level — keeping the car lower to the ground. As a thank you to early customers that wish to buy the new Tesla models, the company said it would throw in a Ludicrous Mode upgrade for no additional charge.

We also want to emphasize the critical impact each of our early Tesla owners has had on advancing our mission, so as a thank you, all existing Model S and Model X owners who wish to purchase a new Model S or Model X Performance car will get the Ludicrous Mode upgrade, a $20,000 value, at no additional charge.

 

Tesla plans to launch a robotaxi network in 2020

Tesla expects to launch the first robotaxis as part of broader vision for an autonomous ride-sharing network in 2020, CEO Elon Musk said during the company’s Autonomy Day.

“I feel very confident predicting that there will be autonomous robotaxis next year — not in all jurisdictions because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere” Musk said without detailing what regulations he was referring to.

Tesla will enable owners to add their properly equipped vehicles to its own ride-sharing app, which will operate close to an Uber of Airbnb business model. Tesla will take 25 percent to 30 percent of the revenue from those rides, Musk said. In places where there isn’t enough people to share their cars, Tesla would provide a dedicated fleet of robotaxis.

Musk has talked about the Tesla Network and ambitions to allow owners to place their vehicles on the ride-hailing app since 2016.

All new Tesla vehicles are now produced with its custom full self-driving computer chip, a detail that Musk revealed during the event Monday. That chip fulfills the hardware requirements for full self-driving, according to Musk. (Tesla vehicles are equipped with a suite of sensors such as forward-facing radar and cameras. It does not have lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, a sensor that most AV developers say is critical, but that Musk argues is a fool’s errand and “doomed.”)

The remaining step is the software, which Musk says will be “feature complete” and at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention, by the middle of next year.

“From our standpoint, if you fast forward a year, maybe a year and three months, but next year for sure, we’ll have over a million robotaxis on the road,” Musk said. “The fleet wakes up with an over the air update; that’s all it takes.”

Musk also noted at numerous times that the full self-driving and the robotaxi fleet will require regulatory approval. However, he didn’t explain or name specific mention of what kinds of regulatory approval is needed. The federal government does not have any laws regulating autonomous vehicles. There are only voluntary guidelines. And if the vehicles are not altered in any way on the hardware side — such as removing the steering wheel or pedals, for instance — it’s unclear how the federal government could limit Tesla.

Musk could be referring to local and state laws that regulate ride-hailing networks. Again, it’s unclear and we’ll update the story if Tesla provides new information.

Recharging the Tesla robotaxis is one of few challenges that the company will face as it prepares to deploy.

Musk noted that he sees a future where the robotaxis would return home and automatically park and recharge. While he stopped short of confirming a production version of the snake charger Tesla unveiled in 2015, it was clear that Tesla sees a similar version coming to market alongside the robotaxi network.

New registrations for electric vehicles doubled in U.S. since last year

Electric vehicles, still a small percentage of the total automotive market in the U.S., are beginning to gain ground, according to analysis by IHS Markit.

There were 208,000 new registrations for electric vehicles in the U.S. last year, more than double the number filed in 2017, IHS said Monday.

That growth in EVs was heavily concentrated in California as well as nine other states that have adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle program. California was the first to launch the ZEV program‚ a state regulation that requires automakers to sell electric cars and trucks there. Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont are also ZEV states.

California accounted for nearly 46 percent, or 95,000, of new EV registrations in 2018, IHS said. California has 59 percent of market share of registered electric vehicles in the U.S.

Those numbers are expected to push even higher over the next two years as more electric vehicles come on the market and an increasing number existing EV owners stick with the technology.

More than 350,000 new EVs will be sold in the US in 2020.  Those figures will give EVs a still tiny 2 percent share of the total U.S. fleet. By 2025, that figure is expected to rise to more than1.1 million vehicles sold or a 7 percent share, according to recent IHS Markit.

The Tesla’s Model 3 is the top selling all-electric in the U.S. so far this year, followed by the Chevy Bolt, Tesla Model X, Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf, according to estimates by Inside EVs. More EVs are just now coming onto the market, or about to in the coming months , including the Kia Niro EV and Hyundai Kona EV. Startup Rivian expects to start production in 2020.

“A rapid increase in EV nameplates is the catalyst behind the projected growth throughout the next decade,” Devin Lindsay, IHS Markit powertrain analyst said in a statement. “While relatively successful models such as the Tesla Model 3 mature in the market, other traditional automakers will be rolling out not just one EV as we have seen in the past, but multiple models off dedicated EV platforms.”

IHS found that loyalty rates for EVs have also increased with nearly 55 percent of all new EV owners who returned to market during the fourth quarter of 2018 acquiring (purchasing or leasing) another EV, up from 42 percent in the prior quarter.

Tesla is raising the price of its full self-driving option

In a few weeks, Tesla buyers will have to pay more for an option that isn’t yet completely functional, but that CEO Elon Musk promises will one day deliver full autonomous driving capabilities.

Musk tweeted Saturday that the price of its full self-driving option will “increase substantially over time” beginning May 1.

Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. Musk has promised that the advanced driver assistance capabilities on Tesla vehicles will continue to improve until eventually reaching that full automation high-water mark.

Musk didn’t provide a specific figure, but in response to a question on Twitter, he said the increase would be “something like” around the $3,000+ figure. Full self-driving currently costs $5,000.

The price hike comes amid several notable changes and events, including an upcoming Investor Autonomy Day on April 22 meant to explain and showcase Tesla’s autonomous driving technology. On Thursday, Tesla announced that Autopilot, its advanced driver assistance system that offers a combination of adaptive cruise control and lane steering, is now a standard feature.

The price of vehicles with the standard Autopilot is higher (although it should be noted that this standard feature is less than the prior cost of the option).  Buyers previously had to pay $3,000 for the option and examples given by Tesla suggest a $500 savings.

Tesla also announced it would begin leasing the Model 3 vehicles.

The more robust version of Autopilot is called Full Self-Driving, or FSD, and currently costs an additional $5,000. FSD includes Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable “Navigate on Autopilot” for that trip.

Tesla continues to improve Navigate on Autopilot and the broader FSD system through over-the-air software updates. The company says on its website that FSD will soon be able to recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs and automatically driving on city streets. 

The next major step change is a new custom chip called Hardware 3 that Tesla recently began producing. The Tesla-built piece of hardware is designed to have greater processing power than the Nvidia computer currently in Model S, X, and 3 vehicles.

Musk tweeted Saturday that Tesla will begin swapping the new custom chip into existing vehicles in a few months.

Musk has been promising full self-driving for years now. In late 2016, when Tesla started producing electric vehicles with a more robust suite of sensors, radar and cameras that would allow higher levels of automated driving, it also started taking money from customers for FSD. Musk said at the time, it would become available if and when the technical challenges were conquered and regulatory approvals were met.

Judge to SEC and Elon Musk: Put your ‘reasonableness pants on and work this out’

Tesla, Elon Musk and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have two weeks to work out their differences and come to a new resolution, a U.S. judge said Thursday at the conclusion of a hearing held to determine whether the automaker’s CEO should be held in contempt for his Twitter use.

The SEC had asked the court to hold Musk in contempt for violating a settlement agreement reached last October over Musk’s now infamous “funding secured” tweet. Under that agreement, Musk is supposed to get approval from Tesla’s board before communicating potentially material information to investors, the agency has argued. The SEC says a February 19 tweet violated the agreement.

Musk contends he didn’t violate the agreement and that the problem lies in the SEC’s interpretation, which he described as “virtually wrong at every level,” in a recent court filing.

As lawyers from Tesla and the SEC argued their points Thursday, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan’s questioning suggested little patience with the two parties’ inability to reach a resolution, according to TechCrunch’s review of several reported accounts of inside the courtroom, including from Bloomberg and Courthouse News.

Musk told reporters after the hearing that he was “very impressed” with Nathan’s analysis and later when asked whether he would be able to work out problems with the SEC, he replied “Most likely,” Bloomberg reported.

The concerns about the outcome of the hearing, which some worried would result in Musk losing his CEO position, along with disappointing delivery numbers in the first quarter put pressure on Tesla’s share price. Tesla shares fell more than 8 percent to close at $267.78 on Thursday.

The increasingly expensive scuttlebutt between Musk and the SEC began in August when the CEO tweeted that he had “funding secured” for a private takeover of the company at $420 per share.  The SEC filed a complaint in federal district court in September alleging that Musk lied.

Musk and Tesla settled with the SEC without admitting wrongdoing and Tesla agreed to pay a $20 million fine; Musk had to agree to step down as Tesla chairman for a period of at least three years; the company had to appoint two independent directors to the board; and Tesla was also told to put in place a way to monitor Musk’s statements to the public about the company, including via Twitter.

However, the relationship between Musk and the SEC has remained strained. Musk has openly criticized the SEC via Twitter on various occasions, openly mocking the agency at times, even days after the settlement was reached:

In February, the SEC escalated matters and asked a judge to hold Musk in contempt for violating the settlement agreement. Musk tweeted February 19 that Tesla would produce “around” 500,000 cars this year, correcting himself hours later to clarify that he meant the company would be producing at an annualized rate of 500,000 vehicles by year-end.

Tesla deliveries drop due to new challenges shipping Model 3 overseas

Tesla delivered 63,000 of its electric vehicles in the first quarter of the year, nearly a one-third drop from the previous quarter, the company reported late Wednesday. Tesla cautioned that it expects first quarter profits to be negatively impacted by lower than expected delivery volumes and several pricing adjustments.

Deliveries included about 50,900 Model 3 vehicles and 12,100 Model S and X SUVs.

Tesla said despite the challenges that it “ended the quarter with sufficient cash on hand.”

Tesla blamed the striking difference in numbers on its efforts to increase deliveries of its Model 3 electric car in Europe and China, which was fraught with challenges and caused delays.

“Due to a massive increase in deliveries in Europe and China, which at times exceeded 5x that of prior peak delivery levels, and many challenges encountered for the first time, we had only delivered half of the entire quarter’s numbers by March 21, ten days before end of quarter,” Tesla said in its report. “This caused a large number of vehicle deliveries to shift to the second quarter. At the end of the first quarter, approximately 10,600 vehicles were in transit to customers globally.”

Those numbers appear to be further pressured by a drop in Model S and Model X deliveries. Deliveries of the Model S and X dropped by nearly half compared to the fourth quarter.

Tesla delivered 90,966 vehicles during the fourth quarter. Of those, 27,607 were Model S sedans and Model X SUVs and 63,359 were Model 3s.

Those logistics challenges are reflected in the disparity between its delivery and production numbers in the first quarter. The numbers typically wouldn’t match. But this quarter, the gap is wide.

In the first quarter, Tesla produced about 77,100 total vehicles, consisting of 62,950 Model 3 and 14,150 Model S and X vehicles. That’s