How Tesla and Uber Are Deftly Fighting Doubters and Critics

Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Tesla’s Elon Musk are using a damn-the-torpedoes strategy.

A leader is someone who goes places before others do, and it’s never easy. The world seems to furnish 100 doubters for every visionary. Yet two leaders in the same broadly defined industry, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Tesla’s Elon Musk, are meeting the challenges quite effectively, as recent news shows – and in their business, these challenges are huge.

It’s astonishing that both CEOs have progressed as far as they have in deploying self-driving cars directed by cutting-edge technology that, if faulty, could kill people. It certainly failed to save a Tesla driver last month, though the driver may not have properly understood the limits of the car’s Autopilot feature. The Center for Auto Safety, a Ralph Nader-founded lobbying group, called for Tesla TSLA -1.22% to recall all vehicles with the feature and to disable it until federal authorities complete an investigation, and that’s what many leaders would have done. Instead, Musk did the opposite.

On Sunday he announced his own fix to the problem, an upgrade to Autopilot that he says would likely have prevented the Florida crash; Tesla will beam it to all affected vehicles as a software update in the next couple of weeks. He said cars with the update will be “by far” the safest on the road and that federal regulators, whom he briefed on the changes, “appear very happy with the changes.”Kalanick is following the same damn-the-torpedoes strategy. Some safety advocates, including Joan Claybrook, who ran the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Carter administration, want Uber to shut down its new Pittsburgh test of autonomous cars giving rides to consumers. But that’s unlikely because Kalanick found a locale that doesn’t require government permission for the experiment – Pennsylvania law says nothing about autonomous cars – and he worked deftly with state regulators and Pittsburgh mayor William Peduto, who saw an opportunity to make his city a symbol of advanced tech. Like Musk, Kalanick didn’t ask permission. He played offense, driven by a powerful will to do what leaders do, going someplace before others get there.

Both CEOs are forcing additional major changes in different realms, overcoming powerful interests whose existence they threaten. Kalanick has to win over local taxi commissions under siege by taxi operators who in many cases have virtually captured the regulators. Musk has to fight auto dealers endangered by his direct-to-consumer sales model and who wield heavy influence in state legislatures. His showrooms are illegal in Michigan, for example, where buyers must pick up their new Teslas in Ohio. But state by state, the laws are changing. Ultimately it isn’t exactly Uber and Tesla that will overcome the forces of opposition. It’s both companies’ tremendous popularity with consumers that will sway regulators and legislators.

Kalanick and Musk can never know if they’ll succeed, yet they plunge ahead. This is the power of will. It’s greater than most people ever imagine, and and as we’re seeing today in the transportation industry, it sets the most successful leaders apart from the rest.

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