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The Real Problem with the Tesla Model S

Harvard Business Review

By all reports, Tesla Motor's Model S is a remarkable car. It has been ranked as car of the year by a number of automotive outlets, and one friend of mine who lives in San Francisco has gloated noisily about his chance to drive it.

A brouhaha has sprung up around the car thanks to an unfavorable New York Times review by John Broder. Broder claimed that the car's battery rapidly lost it charge in the cold and left him stranded, more or less, on his trip from Washington, DC, to Boston, limping from charging station to charging station as he called Tesla for help.

Tesla founder Elon Musk replied on the company's website. And Musk brought a bunch of data with him to support his claim that Broder "faked" the review. Broder, in turn, has issued a detailed rebuttal of Musk's data. Margaret Sullivan (no relation), the Times public editor, has tweeted that she's "on it."

The company has responded aggressively to criticism in the past, suing the BBC show "Top Gear" in 2011 over a 2008 review of the car; the case was tossed out of court. And, for what it's worth, Fortune's reviewer encountered similar problems with range and battery life.

The controversy will continue, as these things do, and Tesla's stock price will dip and recover and dip again.

But let's take a step back and consider the nature of the controversy, which I think is rooted in the way many inventors approach innovation. Tesla is run by visionary engineers. Musk was a co-founder of PayPal and is the chief designer at SpaceX, overseeing development of rockets and spacecraft. Other executives have similarly impressive backgrounds at Apple and in the aerospace and automotive industries. I would wager that they all love to drive.

Perhaps this is the root of the problem. The Tesla team have built a car to satisfy themselves, which means that they've focused on the customer as driver not on the customer as a whole individual. That's the tension I see in the original Broder review: great driving, bad transportation. Tesla's goal is to sell 20,000 units of the Model S and they are promoting it as a "normal-use" car. Will anyone put up with the hassle? Was this normal use part of their early goal or did they just geek out on an awesome car?

Based on reviews of an earlier model, the Tesla Roadster, I would guess that there's a heavy element of geeking out involved.

Being focused in your vision can be a good thing. It sets limits, and Tesla's design successes have quelled any fears that car lovers might have had that global warming was going to take their fun away. But that same focus has meant that when it came time to expand, Tesla didn't properly consider a host of issues that stand in the way of the everyday use of the car — like convenience, charge time, inclement weather, and so on.

Many would-be innovators suffer the same problem. They develop a cool technology that is, they're convinced, going to change the way you live. For them, the reasons for adoption are self-evident. The technology is so useful, revolutionary, endearing, cool, that it becomes almost literally blinding. Why wouldn't anyone want to use this, whatever it takes? the inventor thinks. My product will overwhelm you with its awesomeness.

But consumers rarely want to change their behaviors to adopt your cool tech. They want you to identify and solve their problem, cheaply and efficiently.

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