product recalls

Why the Tesla recall matters

January 14, 2014: 4:44 PM ET

The electric automaker is supposed to usher in the future of cars, but every overly magnified misstep is working against it.

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FORTUNE -- Elon Musk, chief executive of the young electric automaker Tesla Motors (TSLA), can't catch a break.

Early last year, Tesla came under fire by a New York Times writer for producing vehicles that weren't up to the difficulties of driving in a winter in the northeastern U.S. With his company's stock slipping, Musk took the Times to task publicly for misrepresenting its test drive.

Several months ago, three separate Tesla vehicles caught fire after involvement in a collision. The brief window in which they occurred -- just two months -- spurred the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open an inquiry.

So it comes as no surprise, then, that the company is in hot water again this week for issuing a recall (technically, an over-the-air software update) concerning 29,000 charging adapters for its 2013 Model S electric cars. The risk? Potential fire hazard.

MORE: Vinod Khosla hits back at 60 Minutes for cleantech 'errors'

Though the issue was first made public three days prior, the press latched onto the news today, one day after the official opening of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And so it goes: wall-to-wall coverage of Tesla's troubles, even though the update appears to affect fewer than 3% of its vehicles. (This time, the company's stock remains unaffected. It helps to post higher-than-expected sales and promise "reckless growth" shortly after making a recall public.)

For five years, Musk and company have been waging a war not over the future of the automotive powertrain but control over the company's narrative. It's a part of the devil's bargain Musk struck when he became the industry's media darling: lots of press doesn't necessarily guarantee that it will be good.

Here's the problem: The company's love-hate relationship with the press is hijacking the conversation around electric vehicles as a whole. For many people, fear about electric cars is real: They can't perform as well as gasoline-powered vehicles. They'll run out of charge and strand their passengers. They'll catch fire when involved in an accident. They'll catch fire when they're charging.

MORE: What GM's Mary Barra must do now

What they don't know or choose to ignore: that gasoline-powered cars can be underpowered, under-fueled and catch fire, too. And a small number do, every year.

Musk knows this. He's sensitive about the preconceptions people have about electric vehicles -- principles aside, it directly affects the success of his business. Yet it's still his company sweating in the limelight, even as General Motors (GM) works its way through a recent recall of 370,000 gasoline-powered trucks for a software-derived fire hazard blamed for at least eight known fires. That's more than 10 times the number of vehicles Tesla hopes to sell in 2014, though it's unlikely that GM or its vehicles will be closely associated with risk of fire in the minds of buyers. Which is why Tesla's tiny recall really matters.

This isn't a call to arms against GM, mind you. It's a suggestion to be a little easier on Tesla and its electric-powered peers. Based on the numbers, it's only fair.

When its first vehicles rolled off the production line, Tesla didn't need to make a strong case to its initial well-heeled, Silicon Valley-based customers that electric cars were the future; they were already converts. If Tesla hopes to succeed as an eventual electric automaker to the masses, it must convince people that its technical troubles are not unusual, but in fact better than the industry average.

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