Late Wednesday, after Tesla filed a lawsuit against former Gigafactory technician Marty Tripp, the ex-technician shared emails with the Washington Post that highlighted a heated back-and-forth between him and CEO Elon Musk. At first, it seemed like Musk fired off a quick jab before the suit was filed, calling Tripp a “horrible person.” But a copy of the entire exchange provided to Jalopnik offers a more illuminating dialogue—with Tripp acting first.
The story and subsequent tweets by Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell, who broke the news of the testy spat late Wednesday, implied the first missive came from Musk:
But that’s not the case. Just before noon EDT on Wednesday, shortly after news of the lawsuit broke Tripp sent Musk the first email message, which was confirmed by Tesla:
And off it went:
Finally, Musk responded:
Musk later clarified he meant “no injuries,” which is an unfortunate typo.
The email exchange was posted on Twitter today by Harwell after Jalopnik reached out to the paper for questions.
No doubt, it’s a strange move to email someone you’re suing, but since Tripp actually fired first, it gives me pause about the narrative the whistleblower is spinning publicly. (As for Musk, if you follow him on Twitter, you know he probably wasn’t going to let a message like that just slide.)
And now Tesla says it received a phone call from a friend of Tripp’s, telling him that he’d threaten to go to Gigafactory and “shoot the place up.” Tesla said it was enhancing security at the plant, but the local sheriff’s office quickly responded saying it found no credible threat.
“After several hours of investigation deputies were able to determine there was no credible threat. Further investigation into the threat’s origin continues. No additional information concerning the ongoing investigation will be released until it’s [sic] conclusion to protect the investigative process,” the police statement to CNBC said.
That, among other aspects of this weird story, has me puzzled about what’s really going on here.
‘Vastly Exaggerated’ Claims, According To Tesla
On Wednesday, Tesla lobbed a series of explosive claims against an ex-technician at its Gigafactory plant in Nevada, bolstering an otherwise paranoid email Musk fired off over the weekend about “extensive and damaging sabotage” by a former staffer.
It’s unclear if Musk was referring to Tripp in that email, but once the alleged leaker opened up to the press late Wednesday, so much of this entire saga began to seem strange—including the one offered by the defendant himself.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court, Tesla accused former Gigafactory employee Tripp of unlawfully hacking into the company’s “confidential and trade secret information” and transferring “that information to third parties.”
“Tesla has only begun to understand the full scope of Tripp’s illegal activity, but he has thus far admitted to writing software that hacked Tesla’s manufacturing operating system (‘MOS’) and to transferring several gigabytes of Tesla data to outside entities,” the lawsuit alleges.
The automaker claimed Tripp, who didn’t respond to a message for comment from Jalopnik, took confidential photographs and a video of Tesla’s manufacturings systems, and in an interview with internal investigators last week, he allegedly admitted to “writing software that hacked Tesla’s MOS and to transferring several gigabytes of confidential and proprietary Tesla data to entities outside the company.”
Tripp then leaked some of that info to the press, including the amount of scrap Tesla allegedly generates at its factories, but Tesla says in the suit his claims were “vastly exaggerated.”
Tripp disputes Tesla’s allegations, and in interviews with CNN and the Washington Post on Wednesday, says he views himsel as a legitimate whistleblower who decided to speak out after seeing “some really scary things” inside the company, including batteries with punctured cells being installed in cars. (Tesla denies this claim outright in the suit.)
But here’s several reasons why I’m lost about this situation.
Is Tesla Trying To Make An Example Of Tripp?
The lawsuit claims he was attempting to cultivate additional sources inside Gigafactory to leak confidential information, so perhaps that’s why. And though Tesla hasn’t responded to questions over whether Tripp is the alleged saboteur identified by Musk last weekend, the CEO believes more individuals could be involved.
But the company has little to gain in remediation from a civil lawsuit—if Tripp went broke as a result, for example, he could probably discharge the claims in bankruptcy—so, if it’s as serious of a situation as the company claims to be, then why is it not turning to local or even federal authorities? (Police in the city of Fremont, where Tesla’s factory is located, confirmed to Jalopnik that it responded to no calls over this, and it’s not clear if Tesla has spoken to the FBI.)
Tripp’s Access Even After A Job Reassignment
Tesla says Tripp, who joined the company in October, had numerous problems at work with other colleagues, and so, in mid-May, the company reassigned him. According to the complaint, Tripp responded by expressing “anger that he was reassigned.”
It’s then Tesla says the alleged theft took place. What was he reassigned to? And whatever the case, if he was such an unruly employee, why did he still have access to any of these materials following the reassignment?
Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment on this.
The Alleged ‘Punctured Battery Cells’
In February, a misprogrammed robot that handles battery modules repeatedly punctured through the plastic housing (called a clamshell) and into some battery cells, the employee said, adding that instead of scrapping all the modules, some were fixed with adhesive and put back on the manufacturing line. According to internal documents Business Insider reviewed, this foible affected more than 1,000 pieces.
The story relies upon apparent internal logs to illustrate how allegedly punctured batteries ended up in cars. Tesla’s suit, however, alleges Tripp made up the punctured battery cell claim wholesale. The automaker also says, contrary to BI’s reporting that it has lost $150 million on scrap, Tripp “vastly exaggerated” the true amount Tesla has generated.
I’m never going to be one to deter whistleblowers from speaking out to the media (and I’d encourage you to speak to us), but Tripp makes it seem like he had no other options to disclose an alleged safety issue, when speaking to CNN:
The ex-employee said he contacted several media outlets about his allegations and spoke at length to one of them. But that outlet has yet to do a story about it.
If that’s so, and no reporter took him up on his intel, then why not go to safety regulators? If it’s that concerning, that’d seem like an obvious next choice in my mind.
Tripp’s Statements To The Press
Then there’s Tripp himself. In a matter of hours, he told CNN that he’d contacted several media outlets and spoke at length to one. But, CNN reports, the outlet he spoke to at length hasn’t done a story.
This directly contradicts something he says later to the Washington Post:
Speaking Wednesday night to The Post, Tripp confirmed that he provided information to Business Insider for a story the news website did earlier this month about the company’s raw-material waste.
Tripp also disputed what, on paper, appears to be Tesla’s most solid claim—that he “admitted” to hacking into the automaker’s computer system. He also said he couldn’t care less about not getting a promotion in May.
Again from the Post:
“I don’t have the patience for coding.” He also said he was not, as Tesla lawyers claimed, disgruntled about not getting a promotion. “That’s their generic excuse,” he said. “I could literally care less.”
The fact he offered two different narratives to the press on Wednesday night about his role as a source in Business Insider’s reporting gives me pause. And the direct refutation of what Tesla claims to be an explicit confession underscores another striking point: Someone’s lying here.
How Tesla Found Out
Not exactly a point to the alleged sabotage itself, but a question I’ve been wondering is how Tesla found out. The automaker hasn’t responded to questions about what tipped them off to Tripp, but a story from Business Insider earlier this month offers a possible hint:
But Business Insider reviewed an internal log that showed the parts were put into hundreds of vehicles. We sent Tesla an identification number for one of the cars, and the company would neither confirm nor deny that the piece was in a finished vehicle. It said only that if the piece were a safety concern, it would not be used.
Tesla’s notorious about ensuring employees don’t speak to the press—just this week Bloomberg reported that a severance agreement for workers laid off as part of the recently announced 9 percent reduction of Tesla’s staff is “likely to deter” them from going public with public safety concerns.
Tripp already makes himself seem unreliable by offering different narratives publicly about his role as a leaker in highly-publicized stories, but if this case moves forward to trial, Tesla has a lot to prove. Does it really want to open up a can of worms that could lead to the revelation of Model 3s being shipped with punctured battery cells? That’s what it’s staring down with this.
Tesla also has a history of lacing previous litigation and stories with bouts of paranoia. Musk suggested sabotage when a SpaceX rocket exploded in 2016, as it was being fueled up. And he previously alleged—in an lawsuit extremely thin on details—that former Autopilot team leader Sterling Anderson stole confidential information before leaving to start his own autonomous driving startup, Aurora Innovation.
Three months later, both sides reached a settlement, and Aurora even agreed to audits to ensure any allegedly stolen data wasn’t used by the company. Aurora admitted no wrongdoing, had a third-party forensics review that concluded nothing was taken, and that report found nothing allegedly belonging to Tesla had been used by a startup. The lawsuit was completely meritless, Aurora said. Musk and Tesla sure got a lot of attention for it, though.
But Tripp’s talking a big game, too. If he indeed has documents proving Tesla shipped cars with punctured battery cells, that’s undoubtedly a safety issue, and unless Tesla voluntarily dismisses the suit or a settlement materializes, this is almost certainly going to shape up to be a case to watch in 2018—even if it makes little sense right now.
This story has been updated since its publication for clarity.