Man versus Musk: Whistleblower creates headaches for Tesla

Man versus Musk: Whistleblower creates headaches for Tesla

A day after Lukasz Krupski put out a fire at a Tesla car delivery site in Norway, severely burning his hands and averting disaster, he received an email from Elon Musk.

“Congratulations on saving the day!” » Mr. Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, wrote in March 2019.

But what began as the story of a heroic employee and a grateful employer turned into an epic battle between the automaker and Mr. Krupski, a service technician. The fight has resulted in lawsuits in Norway and the United States and attracted the attention of regulators in several countries.

After initially being hailed as a savior, Mr. Krupski said in an interview with The New York Times that he was harassed, threatened and ultimately fired after complaining about what he saw as serious security problems on his workplace near Oslo. Mr. Krupski, originally from Poland, was part of a team that helped prepare Teslas for buyers, but became so frustrated with the company that last year he handed over tons of data from the company’s computer system. car manufacturer to Handelsblatt, a German business newspaper.

The data contained lists of Tesla employees, including Mr. Musk, often accompanied by their Social Security numbers and other personal information. There have been thousands of accident reports and other internal Tesla communications that Handelsblatt used as basis for stories on flaws in the company’s Autopilot driver assistance software.

The data also served as a basis for Handelsblatt stories And wired magazine on Tesla’s difficulties manufacturing the Cybertruck pickup, which the company says will be delivered to customers at the end of this month, almost three years behind schedule. (Some information came from a second, unidentified Tesla employee.)

Mr. Krupski said he gained access to sensitive data simply by entering search terms on an internal company website, raising questions about how Tesla protected the privacy of thousands of employees and his own secrets.

The data protection authority in the Netherlands, where Tesla has its European headquarters, is investigating whether privacy laws were violated. A lawyer for the authority confirmed it was investigating but declined to comment further.

Tesla and three lawyers representing the company did not respond to requests for comment.

In the United States, Benson Pai, a former Tesla production employee, sued the automaker in federal court in California, claiming Tesla’s lack of security revealed employee information that could be sold to criminals. Mr. Pai’s lawyers are seeking a judge’s approval to pursue the case as a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of Tesla employees.

Mr. Krupski shared the data with Aaron Greenspan, a prominent Tesla critic and short seller, who urged him to provide the information he had collected on Autopilot to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration . The safety agency is conducting a long-term investigation into the software, which can steer, accelerate and stop a car on its own, but requires the driver to be ready to take control at any time. The agency interviewed Mr. Krupski several times, he said, indicating that his information was taken seriously.

Mr. Greenspan said he began liquidating his short positions in Tesla shortly after hearing from Mr. Krupski.

The US safety agency confirmed it was investigating whether autopilot played a role in hundreds of crashes, some of them fatal, but declined to comment on any interactions with Mr Krupski. Tesla has argued that Autopilot makes cars safer and recently won a lawsuit that claimed the software was to blame for a fatal crash in California.

Mr. Krupski and Mr. Greenspan also wrote a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission raising questions about Tesla’s accounting practices, based in part on data collected by Mr. Krupski. He said he didn’t know what the commission did with that information.

The SEC did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Krupski remained anonymous until he spoke officially to Handelsblatt last week.

In the Times interview, Mr. Krupski, 38, said he was unemployed and had exhausted his savings. He has put Tesla on notice that he plans to sue for compensation, but he can’t move forward with the case until he raises enough money to pay a lawyer. Unlike American lawyers, Norwegian lawyers are not allowed to work on commission: they receive a share of any reward if they win, but nothing if they lose.

Tormod Tingstad, an Oslo lawyer, is representing Mr. Krupski for free while they try to raise money.

None of this could have been predicted on March 30, 2019, when Mr. Krupski, hired a few months earlier, was part of a team convened on short notice to prepare Teslas for delivery to customers in Norway, where Electric vehicles account for more than 80 percent of new car sales.

Tesla, which sells cars directly to buyers, was using space in an exhibition hall near Oslo to deliver vehicles. Thousands of people were visiting a car show in the same complex.

Around noon, a charger that another employee had improperly modified caught fire under a Model 3 sedan. Mr. Krupski removed the device and, with his bare hands, removed the burning and melting cables, hoses and other components. . He used rags and towels to smother the flames.

“It’s fair to say that without his action, the result would have been a car on fire,” Mr. Krupski’s manager wrote in an email to Mr. Musk the next day. Mr Krupski said the fire could have spread, endangering workers and customers waiting nearby and forcing the evacuation of the car show.

The only person seriously injured was Mr Krupski, who was hospitalized with serious burns but recovered.

After Mr. Musk congratulated Mr. Krupski, the technician responded by complaining about the safety practices of Tesla’s Norwegian operations. On the day of the fire, he wrote, there was no fire extinguisher, cardboard boxes and other flammable materials were scattered around and employees were not informed where they would work.

“OK, please let me know if there is anything else we should do,” Mr. Musk responded, according to a copy of the email included in legal documents prepared by Mr. .Tingstad.

But Mr. Krupski’s direct communications with Tesla’s chief executive did not sit well with his bosses in Norway. According to Mr. Krupski, his supervisor began to question his performance and told him that he had no future at Tesla.

“To make a long story short, I am fired,” Mr. Krupski wrote to Mr. Musk in late April 2019, less than four weeks after the fire. Mr. Musk responded: “I can’t read emails unless it’s critical to Tesla. » That was the end of their correspondence.

In the months that followed, Mr. Krupski said, he was threatened and harassed by co-workers and exiled to a basement. A co-worker threatened to stab him in the back with a screwdriver, he said. Mr. Krupski and other workers were furloughed during the pandemic and missed work due to stress-related health problems. Then, in 2022, he was fired after being accused of bad behavior, poor time management and negative influence.

His bosses also said Mr. Krupski took photos at a Tesla factory in violation of company policy. He said he took photos to document safety issues, including the use of a rolling table that employees placed under a car to remove a battery. The table was designed to support a maximum of 500 kilograms (about 1,100 pounds), Mr. Krupski said, while the batteries weighed much more. If a table collapses, he said, workers could be seriously injured or even killed.

In a letter to Mr. Krupski’s lawyer, a Norwegian law firm representing Tesla said the company would dispute that he was retaliated against. The letter accused Mr. Krupski of misappropriating information about the company and threatened to seek damages from him.

Tesla obtained an injunction from a Norwegian court ordering Mr. Krupski to stop releasing information about the company. The court also seized his laptop and handed it over to Tesla. The company informed its employees of the data breach on August 18, about three months after learning that Handelsblatt had the information.

Information including work email addresses, compensation and Social Security numbers may have been leaked, Tesla told employees in an email, but said: “We have no proof that information personal information has been misused or will be used in a way that could harm you. »

Mr. Krupski said he suffered depression, anxiety and insomnia following his battle with Tesla, but felt relieved to no longer be anonymous.

“I feel like just by making it public, I have a new burst of energy,” he said. “I’m motivated and maybe I can start rebuilding my life again..”

Noam Scheiber reports contributed.

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David B.Otero

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