Tesla's Elon Musk and Chrysler/Fiat's Sergio MarchionneEnlarge Photo
Over the past few days, two very different automakers have rolled out two very different recalls, and they've done so in very different ways -- unexpected ways that could hint at each company's future.
Exhibit A: yesterday, Tesla announced that it would recall 2013 Model S vehicles manufactured between May 8 and June 10 of this year. The company cited concerns that attachments holding the left-rear seat in place might've become compromised during the manufacturing process, which could cause the seat to detach during a collision.
Exhibit B: the day before, Chrysler reversed course and said that it would, in fact, recall 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty models to address a potentially hazardous design flaw. Last week, the company insisted that the vehicles were completely safe and said that it intended to defy the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's request for a recall. The automaker gave no reason for its change of heart, though sagging public opinion polls may have played a role.
What's interesting isn't the causes of the two recalls. Tesla's stems from an obvious manufacturing flaw, while Jeep's is the result of shifting attitudes toward the placement of fuel tanks.
No, what's interesting is the way that each company handled its respective recall.
Tesla says that it never received a complaint about the left-rear seat, nor has the company been contacted by NHTSA. Instead, the problem was uncovered during Tesla's own quality testing procedures. Apparently, the automaker wanted to get out in front of the issue before it became a real issue.
Chrysler, on the other hand, received numerous complaints about the position of the gas tank on the Grand Cherokee and Liberty. (It's located behind the rear axle, much like the doomed Ford Pinto.) In fact, NHTSA has attributed 51 deaths to the flaw, which can cause gas leaks and fires during rear-end collisions. And yet, in a press release issued last week, Chrysler sniffed, "The company does not agree with NHTSA’s conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation".
Even in Tuesday's reversal, Chrysler remained defiant, saying that it wouldn't issue an official recall, but that it would "inspect" all vehicles and "upgrade" some of them.
Frankly, we would've thought this should be the other way around.
Tesla's Elon Musk is known as something of a hothead. He's rebellious, brash, and he's been known to hang up on journalists during interviews. From a distance, he seems like just the type to say, "Nope, there's nothing wrong with our vehicles. They're perfect as-is."
Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne, on the other hand, has proven himself cool and even-keeled. Since taking the helm of the merged Chrysler/Fiat, he's offered brutally frank assessments of the company. That makes his reluctance to admit problems with these Jeeps more than a little odd.
Of course, you could argue that the size of the two recalls make this a case of apples and oranges. Jeep has been asked to fix 2.7 million vehicles, while Tesla is dealing with just 1,300. But given the relative size of the companies, we'd say that the recalls are closer in scope than they appear on paper.
Bottom line: for all their headstrong flaws, Musk and his team clearly understand the lay of the land in the 21st century. Thanks to the internet -- and especially social media -- companies can no longer run from problems or try to hide them. They have to manage them head-on, just as he and his team have done. Marchionne and other legacy automakers could take a tip or two.