Was Elon Musk's Tesla Pickup Tweetstorm a Smokescreen for Battery Fires?

Musk dropped some surprise details on the promised Tesla pickup—just as the NTSB dropped a report on battery fires.

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Two things happened on Tuesday. One is that Tesla CEO Elon Musk prompted a frenzy of speculation by tweeting hints about the production of the as-yet-unseen Tesla pickup truck. The other is that the NTSB released a preliminary report on the fatal crash and fire of a 2014 Tesla Model S revealing the electric car's battery pack reignited twice in the hours after the accident. Odd timing, or another move from a master of misdirection?

As someone with a reputation for both interacting with regular people and making sudden, surprise announcements on Twitter, what Elon Musk says and does on the site is news in today's world. So it makes sense that after he asked his 22 million followers what they would "love to see in a Tesla pickup truck" and laid down a few breadcrumbs, many automotive websites—and crucially, non-automotive ones as well—would offer up headlines like "Elon Musk Reveals Tesla's Pickup Truck Will Have 'Crazy Torque'" and "Elon Musk Wants Suggestions for the Tesla Pickup Truck."

We're not saying Musk didn't want suggestions, and indeed, his timeline shows him doling out answers with his trademark confidence. How many seats? Six. Range? "400 to 500 mile option definitely. Higher, maybe." A locking rear differential? "For sure." It will also allegedly boast 240-volt outlets for heavy-duty electric power tools, a built-in compressor connected to the auto-leveling air suspension system, a driver's seat that's big enough to fit André the Giant, and a 300,000-pound towing capacity. Most importantly, Musk promises it "will" look like a proper truck.

Phew. That's a lot of supposedly solid information for a vehicle that's still just a gleam in his eye—and it's also reminiscent of last fall, when Musk responded to early reports of Tesla Model 3 production woes with a splashy event unveiling both the Tesla Semi and the new Tesla Roadster, each with their own superlative stat lines. Fans were wowed, critics were skeptical, but the new vehicles succeeded in diverting attention away from the Model 3. For a time.

So what's going on under the surface this month? Model 3 production continues to lag its goal of 5,000 per week by the end of June, hence the installation of a new manufacturing line in a literal tent in the parking lot next to Tesla's Fremont, California factory. But the company has been in the news lately over a different issue: the safety and stability of its high-voltage lithium-ion batteries in a crash.

Earlier this year, the battery pack of a Tesla Model X that was involved in a fatal (and autopilot-related) crash in northern California reignited six days after the accident as it sat in a tow yard. Last month, two teenagers in a 2014 Tesla Model S were killed when the driver lost control at high speeds and crashed in Florida—and as Tuesday's NTSB report confirms, the battery pack in that Tesla also caught on fire twice even after first responders doused it in 200 to 300 gallons of water and foam.

The report specifies that battery was severely compromised, with small pieces broken off and scattered around the road. It first reignited as the car was being loaded onto a flatbed, then a second time after it was delivered to the tow yard. Obviously, gasoline-powered cars are quite capable of exploding, and do so far more often than electric vehicles. But these incidents point to a problem that's unique to batteries, that the volatile chemical reactions taking place are far more unpredictable and dangerous than spilled fuel once there's a serious structural failure.

Was Musk just trying to change the subject with his Tesla pickup tweetstorm? The timing certainly lines up—and for the most part, whether or not he meant to, it worked. A quick look at Google Trends shows that the search term "Tesla battery" handily outranked "Tesla pickup" all year and spiked in accordance with developments in both crash stories over the last few months. Until early yesterday afternoon, that is, when Musk began tweeting about the truck. At its height early this morning, "Tesla pickup" was more popular than "Tesla battery" by a factor of five. Tesla's stock also closed 2.7% higher on Tuesday.

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It's worth mentioning that Musk has fulfilled other lofty promises that seemed ridiculous at first (remember, there's an original Tesla Roadster rocketing through space right now), and that Model 3 production is slowly ramping up after extensive delays. Pre-orders are now open to every American and Canadian reservation holder, and the company has been able to cut the prices of certain options and get a little closer to that magic $35,000 mass-market electric car. He also has every right to promote his products and his vision however he sees fit as the founder and CEO of Tesla. Twitter is certainly an invaluable public relations tool in this day and age, and Musk wields its power more effectively than most.

But in the sage words of Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility, and Musk's behavior on the platform over the last year makes it a little harder to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's open, communicative, and casual with Tesla owners and fans, and simultaneously merciless with critics. Let's not forget, Tuesday's tweets come just about a month after a string of negative headlines had him threatening to create a website where the public could rank "holier-than-thou" journalists on their truthfulness. By circling the wagons instead of using his high standing to spark broader conversations, he's missing an opportunity to bring everyone together under the same tent—if only for a moment.

Musk has just a few days left until the end of the fiscal year, and to meet his 5,000 per week Model 3 production goal. The NTSB is probing both the battery fires as well as the safety of Tesla's autopilot system. The company's cash burn rate remains incredibly high, and short sellers are still circling. Other companies continue to prepare their own all-electric vehicles, and the point will come soon where Tesla is no longer the main game in town. It's all well and good to talk about the future, but the messy present demands more attention.