The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened what can best be described as an inquiry into whether or not there is a problem with the suspension installed on the Tesla Model S, prompting a sharp response from the maker of electric cars.
Prompted by a complaint from a Model S owner who suffered a premature failure of his suspension, the NHTSA is looking into whether or not this incident is a flaw, a one-off fluke, or the owner's fault. We'll make it clear right now: the NHTSA has not opened an official investigation — they are asking the public if any other Model S owners have experienced similar flaws and they have admonished Tesla over a the mistaken implication of having gagged the owner of that car.
For their part, Tesla strenuously and categorically denies all such allegations.
Let's unpack this:
In exchange for covering half of the out-of-warranty repair cost, Tesla had the owner sign a standard agreement not to sue them over it.
We know of one (1) complaint to the NHTSA about suspension failure of a Tesla Model S, coming from Tesla Motors Club member Pete Cordaro. Essentially, one of his car's ball joints prematurely failed. After having his disabled Model S towed to a Tesla Service Center, Tesla's looked at the broken suspension and determined that the ball joint had "experience very abnormal rust", unlike which Tesla has seen on any other car, "suggesting a very unusual case". Tesla notes that the owner lives on "such a long dirt road that it required two tow trucks to retrieve the car" (one to get it to the highway, another from there to the Service Center).
With 73,000 miles on the odometer, the suspension of Cordaro's car was out of Tesla's 4-year, 50,000-mile warranty (the battery and powertrain are covered under an 8-year, infinite-mile warranty). Obviously, the suspension should not fail like this after 70,000 miles, which Tesla agreed with and they offered to meet Cordaro halfway and cover half the $3,100 repair cost. And as a standard measure in extending such a goodwill offer, Tesla required that Cordaro sign an agreement not to sue Tesla over the repair.
Cordaro interpreted that document as a non-disclosure agreement. Here's what it looks like.
In my years in the tech media I have signed my fair share of NDAs to gain early access to a product under threat of legal action and loss of access. That is not an NDA. It is an agreement that, in exchange for covering half of the repair cost that, the signatory will not take, participate in, or aid legal action against Tesla over this incident and that Tesla admits no liability or wrongdoing. This is a standard ass-covering agreement from any company that's trying to do the right thing — we'll help you, just don't make us regret it. Cordaro said that he was satisfied with this agreement.
Tesla calls claims that this agreement limited Cordaro's ability to speak with anybody, much less the government, about the suspension failure, repair, or even Tesla covering part of the cost preposterous:
Tesla has never and would never ask a customer to sign a document to prevent them from talking to NHTSA or any other government agency. That is preposterous.
And then he reached out to the NHTSA. I'm not accusing Cordaro of violating this agreement (though he apparently believes that he did in contacting a safety agency), but in contacting the NHTSA his complaint triggered the initial inquiries into whether or not this was even worth of an investigation. Cordaro sent the suspension parts to the NHTSA for evaluation and the agency contacted Tesla for more information about their suspensions. Tesla says the NHTSA described the request as "routine screening" and that what we're looking at right now hasn't even reached the point of the stage of being a "preliminary evaluation", the lowest level of formal investigation. Tesla says they are cooperating fully with the NTHSA and are confident in the durability of their suspensions.
Of course, this quickly spiraled out of control in a media that's hungry for stories about high-profile companies like Tesla. The news articles published by supposedly quality news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Tesla was being investigated by the NHTSA (false) and that they had required customers to sign non-disclosure agreements (false).
It's lazy alarmist journalism at its finest.