Tesla whistleblower in legal battle over braking-safety concerns

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Image source, Cristina Balan

Image caption, Cristina Balan finishing her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer

  • Author, Zoe Kleinman
  • Role, Technology editor

A Tesla whistleblower who has battled Elon Musk and his company through the courts for a decade tells BBC News she is still seeking a public apology.

No other interview about a tech giant has made me cry.

But towards the end of our Zoom call, when former Tesla engineer Cristina Balan dramatically removes her wig and tearfully tells me she has just finished breast-cancer treatment – and is now fighting, as a single mother, for both her life and her reputation, it’s impossible not to feel her emotion.

“I want to clear my name. I wish Elon Musk had the decency to apologise,” is her message to the company’s billionaire boss.

Ms Balan has been waiting a long time.

Until 2014, she was a rising star within the electric-car company in the US.

In tribute to her engineering expertise, Ms Balan’s initials were engraved into all early Tesla Model S batteries. And she proudly shows off a battery shell on camera.

Ms Balan recalls chatting to Mr Musk in the lunch queue at the staff canteen and says she was happy and successful – living her dream, after growing up in Romania with a lifelong passion for cars.

But after raising concerns about the safety of braking in Tesla vehicles, in 2014, she lost her job.

But then, in a long media statement, Tesla claimed she had used company time and resources for a secret personal project, which it said was embezzlement – a crime in the US.

It is something Ms Balan strongly denies.

Tesla has never provided any details about the alleged incident, either to her or in public, she says.

The company also failed to respond to a BBC News request for information about it.

Ms Balan accuses Tesla of defamation.

And while she is currently in remission from stage-3B breast cancer, her biggest worry is she may not live to see her final day in court.

Ultimately, Ms Balan says, she has doggedly pursued the case for so long because she wants to prove her innocence to her son.

“I’m his hero,” she says.

“I’m the mommy who does airplanes and cars.”

And she does not want him to grow up believing his mother was a thief.

Image source, Cristina Balan

Image caption, The initials CB on a Tesla Model S battery, following Cristina Balan’s design input

Ms Balan shared with BBC News various communications between herself and Tesla from her time working there.

“Everything went south when I realised that they were hiding some critical safety issues,” she claims.

Ms Balan was worried the carpets were curling underneath some pedals – a simple but potentially lethal design flaw – and said customers had complained.

“If you cannot push the brake, someone else, outside of a Tesla, can get injured,” she says.

“They just had to say, ‘We realise the carpets are bad – just take them out of the cars.’”

But managers rebuffed her concerns and became hostile, Ms Balan claims.

So she emailed Mr Musk, who had directly encouraged employees to come to him personally with any worries that could affect Tesla’s reputation.

“I emailed him two emails,” Ms Balan says.

“I sent him one before I was out (of Tesla), telling him that we are all threatened.

“I was thinking in my head, ‘He still wants to do what’s right for Tesla.'”

But it failed – and Ms Balan went on to lose her job.

BBC News put her claims to Tesla but received no response.

The company’s website says: “Safety is the most important part of every Tesla.

“We design our vehicles to exceed safety standards”.

Another Tesla whistleblower, Lukasz Krupski, recounted a similar, unrelated experience after emailing Mr Musk over concerns about working conditions at Tesla’s Norway headquarters.

And Ms Balan says other Tesla staff may be “afraid to speak up”.

Her case will eventually be heard in the California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal – but there is no date for it yet.

It is her only chance of professional vindication, Ms Balan says.

“I don’t want to give up my career,” she says.

“And I know that if I’m not winning this, it doesn’t matter how good I am.

“Everybody will look at what Tesla say about (me), so my career is gone.

Image caption, Ms Balan took her concerns to Tesla chief executive Elon Musk

Mr Musk’s leadership style is notoriously unconventional – but some of those to have worked for him say he gets results.

Dolly Singh, who worked at SpaceX for Mr Musk between 2008 and 2013,  previously told BBC News he was an “incredible leader”.

“If that wasn’t the case, he wouldn’t be accomplishing the things that he is,” she said, in 2022.

“Yes, it’s exhausting to work for Elon.

“But I think it’s a proving ground like nothing else.”

US lawyer Gordon Schnell, from the firm Constantine Cannon, says a rising number of technology-sector workers are becoming whistleblowers.

The stakes are so high because tech products have “such a wide impact on the world,” he says.

“It really touches all of our lives,” he says.

But the advice of Mr Schnell, who specialises in representing whistleblowers, is to explore every possible option before going public with any claims.

“There are so many protected channels in so many different industries that a whistleblower can take, where they can get confidential concerns to the proper government agencies that are best suited to address those concerns,” he says.

Additional reporting by Philippa Wain

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