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Better smart than right

Tesla-model-s-front-three-quarter-11Elon Musk is a smart guy.

He can do math. And by his count, despite the current brouhaha, his electric car is safer than the typical gasoline-engine car.

His math: a gasoline car goes up in flames for every 20 million miles driven.  But so far his Tesla Model S cars have had only one fire per 100 million miles. And one of those fires happened after a drunk driver jumped the curb, took out several feet of concrete wall, and then hit a tree. Any car would have burst into flame after that. (No one has been hurt in any of the fires.)

Nevertheless, after initially trying to defend his electric cars with data, Musk is taking a smarter approach:

  • He expanded the car's warranty to cover all fires (even those caused by drivers).
  • He rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension to give the car greater ground clearance at highway speeds, reducing the chances of underbody impact damage. A January update will give drivers even greater control over ground clearance.
  • And he's invited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a full investigation into the fires, pledging to make any changes they recommend to improve fire safety both in new cars and as a free retrofit to all existing cars.

As I said, he's a smart guy. He understands that his customers' trust is a product of both logic and emotion. He can address people's logical cognitive processes with data, but as Daniel Kahneman and others have noted, that part of our brain is slow, costly, and lazy. 

The faster, cheaper, and far more compelling part of our brain doesn't respond to facts and figures. It runs on memories, associations, and feelings. It's subject to all kinds of illusions and faulty rules of thumb. But it usually gets the job done while the more logical part of our brain is still trying to get in gear, espcially if there's any risk involved.

So Musk is almost certainly right -- based solely on their power source, electric cars are inherently safer than gasoline cars. But he'd be wrong to depend only on that fact to win his case.

It's always better to be smart than right.



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