Sunday, February 17, 2013

NYT vs Tesla: Sustainability, Electric Cars and Data Audits

On February 10th, the New York Times posted a negative review of the Tesla S Sports car. The article entitled, "Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway", painted a bleak picture of the ability of the Tesla to keep its charge and travel long distances. This is obviously a big concern for those that would purchase such a car.  The reporter who drove the car noted the following with respect to his experience during the test drive:
  • Charge was dropping faster than anticipated.
  • In order to extend the charge, the reporter reduced the temperature to the point where he was feeling uncomfortable.
  • The reporter barely made it to the next charging station, even though he should have been able to make it (easily) based on the amount of charge indicated at the outset of his journey.
  • Car did not retain its charge overnight after. When the reporter went to sleep it stated 79 miles was required, but in the morning it stated that 25 miles was remaining
  • On another leg of the trip the reporter never made it to the next charge station, even though the driver drove the car at a modest 45 miles per hour. Instead, the car shut down on the road, requiring the reporter to wait 45 minutes for the car to be put on the flat bed truck.

Billionaire Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla and founder of PayPal, was not going to take this review lying down. As it turns out, the Tesla S sports car had data logs recording the drivers actions. So, Elon reviewed the logs and fired back with the following post, disputing the claims of the NY Times article. He noted the following:

  • The temperature was not turned down, but instead turned up to 74 degrees.
  • Insufficient time was spent charging the car (47 minutes instead of 59 minutes).
  • On the last leg of the trip where the car died, the reporter actually missed the recharge station.
  • He drove between 61 and 81 mph, well beyond the 45 mph claimed.
The blog post also points a link to the following article, highlighting that the report had previously noted that electric cars were "dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate", pointing to the writer's bias against electric cars. 

Of course, the report was also not going to take this rebuttal lying down either. And so he fired back with the following "rebuttal of the rebuttal". (I am not going to summarize what he said, but you can read it there).

The point is who is correct? 

Although Tesla is stating that the reporter has an axe to grind, the same argument can be made against Tesla. That is, they want electric cars to be viewed favourably so that their company succeeds. 

And that's where the importance of data audits and system controls come in.

How do we know the logs that Tesla are using are not tampered with? What are the system controls that are in place to ensure that there is data integrity? 

The importance of this topic goes beyond a tussle between a media outlet and company. What's really being discussed is here is environmental sustainability. The tussle illustrates the increasing importance of data for society to make critical judgments on how to think about sustainability. And this goes to my next question: are assurance practitioners ready to tackle these types of third party reporting challenges? 

As I've mentioned in previous posts, auditing information is skill that goes beyond the actual information being audited. In terms of the Tesla car, audit procedures could be performed to see whether there were controls over the data logs exist to ensure they were not tampered with,  the sensors that report the data generated could also be tested for completeness, accuracy and validity, etc. For example, Musk claims that the car never ran out of energy, where as the reporter (in his rebuttal) claims it did. So is it the reporter right and the sensors wrong? Or the sensors right and the reporter are wrong? You can only know if someone independent of the NYT and Tesla tested the controls. 

As we know from the increased interest in big data (e.g. it was a big part of the last US federal election), these types of disagreements are going to become more common place. It illustrates the financial auditors need to become more proficient in technology and be able to port over their skills from one arena of financial information to sustainability, etc.

However, the world waits for no one. 

Non-accountants have already started to dabble in the world of assurance. Although not an audit per se, CloudAudit  is an attempt by members of the Cloud Security Alliance to allow potential cloud customers to view "audit artifacts" (which I would translate to source documents or audit evidence) maintained by a cloud service provider and gain some comfort over the state system controls at the cloud customer. Consequently, if audit professionals choose to stay on the sidelines and stick to the traditional financial audit, some other tech savvy professional group will be needed to fill this gap.  

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