Following reports of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) probing Tesla over a possible problem with the Model S’ suspension and the automaker’s goodwill agreement, it came to light that several false and/or misleading complaints were filed with NHTSA.

A spokesperson for NHTSA confirmed that the agency has not found any safety issue with Tesla’s suspensions and that the company has clarified the language in its goodwill agreement. It considers the issue resolved, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk shared on Twitter that something suspicious is going on with the suspension complaints:

It can be difficult to understand why would someone falsify complaints to an official agency, which can be harmful to both the company and time-wasting for the regulators. The most obvious explanation is always money, and Tesla brought it up in a blog post following last week’s events.

The news of a potential problem with Tesla’s suspension came out last week after a blog claimed there was a pattern of defects based on one real instance when a Model S’ suspension broke and on several other unsubstantiated complaints that we now learn are false or misleading.

Tesla implied that the blogger behind the original post, which was picked up by hundreds of media outlets (from Reuters to the NY Times), could have a financial incentive to make an issue out of these complaints:

“We don’t know if Mr. Niedermeyer’s motivation is simply to set a world record for axe-grinding or whether he or his associates have something financial to gain by negatively affecting Tesla’s stock price, but it is important to highlight that there are several billion dollars in short sale bets against Tesla. This means that there is a strong financial incentive to greatly amplify minor issues and to create false issues from whole cloth.”

There’s no way to prove that Niedermeyer or anyone associated with him have or had any financial interest in the situation. He never responded when we asked directly if himself or associates have a short position on Tesla, but his partner at Daily Kanban, Bertel Schmitt, claimed that neither himself or Niedermeyer have a short position on Tesla. Anyone with a short position on Tesla made a 7% gain during the hours following the news of the NHTSA probe:Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 1.09.59 PM

While short interest could be a motivation, it looks like the false and misleading complaints, which in part prompted the scrutiny, originated from more of a puzzling situation than a nefarious one.

As Elon pointed out, 37 out of the 40 complaints listed on NHTSA’s website contain false or misleading information. That’s because the owners of vehicles didn’t file the complaints, but someone named Keef Leech did, also known on the internet as Keef Wivaneff and other aliases.Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 2.17.21 PM

Keef Leech aka Keef Wivaneff

Leech’s claim to fame is to have “busted” a scam to sell bogus “solar harvesting devices” in Australia. He describes himself as someone who “bust green scams” and for the past few years, this role can be summarized as “attacking” companies with an environmental aspect, like Tesla.

His “attacks” mainly take the form of online comments on articles about Tesla and other “green companies”. Keef has also been gathering and sharing pictures of crashed Tesla Model S vehicles. A reverse Google search on the pictures show that most of them were taken from salvage auction websites to sell vehicles totalled after severe crashes. Now with over 100,000 vehicles on the road, it’s more than normal for plenty of Teslas to have been involved in crashes and end up on those sites. We even covered a few of those crashes here on Electrek.

Some of the complaints made to NHTSA were based on the same pictures Leech has been gathering and the complaints suggested that the crashes had something to do with Tesla’s suspension even though the listing have little to no information on how the vehicles were damaged. It’s important to note that most car crashes are due to human errors, not car defect or part failure.

The NHTSA complaints were filed not long after Leech added salvaged pictures to his collection and he then would refer to them in his online comments without pointing out that he filed them:

Date Complaint Filed: 03/28/2016

Date of Incident: 02/01/2016

Component(s): SUSPENSION NHTSA ID Number: 10852100

Consumer Location: Unknown

All Products Associated with this Complaint expand

Manufacturer: Tesla Motors, Inc.

Vehicle Identification No. (VIN): 5YJSA1H12EF…

SUMMARY: THIS IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF A TESLA WITH A REAR WHEEL ASSEMBLY THAT HAS FALLEN COMPLETELY OFF THE CAR. HTTPS://M.IAAI.COM/VEHICLEDETENC.ASPX?AUCTIONID=0&ITEMID=21617174&ROWID=10&PAGESOURCE=VEHICLERESULTS# THE CAR HAS SUFFERED HEAVY FRONT END DAMAGE BUT THERE IS NO SIGN OF DAMAGE AT THE REAR LEFT THAT COULD EXPLAIN WHY THE WHEEL HAS FALLEN OFF. THE FRONT LH SUSPENSION HAS ALSO BROKEN BUT IT IS UNCLEAR IF THAT WAS THE CAUSE OR THE RESULT OF THE COLLISION. PLEASE INVESTIGATE THIS. THERE ARE FAR TOO MANY SIMILAR CASES OF SNAPPED OFF WHEELS FOR THIS TO BE MERELY A FREAK ACCIDENT.

In other complaints, Leech, who is from Australia, discloses that he is filing under a made up US address:

Date Complaint Filed: 03/28/2016

Date of Incident: 02/01/2016Component(s): SUSPENSIONNHTSA ID Number: 10852077

Consumer Location: BEVERLY HILLS, CA

All Products Associated with this Complaint expand

Manufacturer: Tesla Motors, Inc.

Vehicle Identification No. (VIN): 5YJSA1H13EF…

SUMMARY: I AM FILING THIS COMPLAINT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST. I AM NOT THE VEHICLE OWNER. I AM NOT A US RESIDENT AND HAVE USED A MADE UP ADDRESS TO SATISFY YOUR WEBSITE REQUIREMENTS. I HAVE SUPPLIED MY GENUINE CONTACT DETAILS ON THE SUBMITTED FORM. THIS CAR IS FOR SALE AS A SALVAGE WRECK. HTTP://WWW.COPART.COM/US/LOT/40663765?SEARCHID=261226908 THERE IS OVERALL DAMAGE TO THE ENTIRE CAR AND THE AIR-BAGS HAVE DEPLOYED BUT THE RH REAR WHEEL ASSEMBLY HAS BEEN TOTALLY WRENCHED OFF DESPITE THERE BEING NO COLLISION DAMAGE IN THAT AREA OF THE CAR. THE PHOTOGRAPHS SHOW THAT ALL OF THE ALLOY SUSPENSION COMPONENTS HAVE BEEN TORN CLEAN AWAY. IT IS MOST PROBABLE THAT THIS FAILURE WAS THE CAUSE OF THE CRASH AND NOT THE RESULT OF IMPACT DAMAGE. THERE ARE SO MANY SIMILAR INCIDENTS INVOLVING THE TESLA THAT IT IS OBVIOUS THAT THE COMPONENTS ARE NOT STRONG ENOUGH AND CONSTITUTE A DANGER TO ALL ROAD USERS.

From a regulatory standpoint, once allegations are made, a regulatory body like NHTSA has to investigate even though it has little to no bearing in truth. In the previously mentioned complaint, he states that Tesla’s suspension is “not strong enough and constitutes a danger to all road users” solely based on this own analysis of a few pictures of one single car crash with absolutely no information on the circumstances of the crash:

Several accounts (like loosewheel and Lucille) created from Australia on the Tesla Motors Club forum were banned by the site after spamming links to Keef’s collection of salvaged Model S pictures. Those accounts appear to have been created by Keef one after the other has been banned.

The accounts defended the idea of filling complaints to NHTSA without being the vehicle owner. They suggested that by filing enough complaints, it will trigger an official investigation by the agency.

Though NHTSA never launched an official investigation, it did probe the suspension complaints, but it was following a legitimate complaint from an actual Model S owner, not the dozen fake complaints based on regular crashes. The agency requested some information from Tesla and as previously mentioned, a spokesperson for NHTSA confirmed that the agency has not found any safety issue with Tesla’s suspension.

Now the question is why would Keef go to such lengths to inconvenience Tesla and NHTSA. Following the media coverage of the alleged suspension problem, billions of dollar worth of market value were wiped out of Tesla’s market capitalisation. A financial incentive could be an answer, especially considering that we know lobbying and marketing efforts are in place to discredit electric vehicles, but Keef’s motives might also be completely unrelated to those issues.

In his online comments, he seems to have a particular obsession with Elon Musk’s businesses and even claimed that SpaceX faked the first booster landing:

He used arguments reminiscent of the moon landing deniers, which isn’t great for his credibility – especially after SpaceX successfully landed 4 boosters at this point. Maybe Keef is just really concerned about car safety and he simply has a seriously misguided way to show it, or maybe he has nefarious motives for creating these complaints , or he is simply a conspiracy theorist. It is up for debate.

But the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t file a complaint if you don’t have all the facts, and some out-of-context pictures online certainly don’t represent all the facts.

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