Tesla whistleblower in legal battle over braking safety concerns

Image source, Christina Balan

Comment on the photo, Christina Balan finishes chemotherapy for breast cancer

  • author, Zoe Kleinman
  • Role, Technology Editor

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

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

But at the end of the Zoom call, when former Tesla engineer Christina Balan dramatically removed her wig and tearfully told me she had just finished treatment for breast cancer — and now, as a single mother, she was fighting for her life and her reputation. It's impossible not to feel her feelings.

“I want to clear my name. I hope Elon Musk has the decency to apologise,” is her message to the company's billionaire boss.

Mrs. Balan has been waiting for a long time.

Until 2014, it was a rising star within the US electric car company.

As a tribute to her engineering expertise, Ms. Balan's initials were engraved on all early Tesla Model S batteries. She proudly displays the battery housing to the camera.

Balan remembers chatting with Musk in the lunch line in the staff cafeteria, and says she was happy and successful – living her dream, having grown up in Romania with a lifelong passion for cars.

But after concerns were raised about the safety of brakes in Tesla cars, it lost its job in 2014.

This is something that Ms. Balan strongly denies.

She says Tesla never provided any details about the alleged incident, either to themselves or publicly.

The company also failed to respond to a BBC News request for information on the matter.

Ms. Balan accuses Tesla of defamation.

While she is currently in remission from stage 3B breast cancer, her biggest fear is that she may not live to see her final day in court.

Ultimately, Ms. Balan says, she doggedly pursued the case for a long time because she wanted to prove her innocence to her son.

“I am his hero,” she says.

“I am the mother who makes planes and cars.”

She doesn't want him to grow up thinking his mother was a thief.

Image source, Christina Balan

Comment on the photo, The initials CB on the Tesla Model S battery, after Cristina Balan's design input

Ms Balan shared with BBC News several connections between her and Tesla from her time working there.

“It all went south when I realized they were hiding some critical safety issues,” she says.

Ms Balan was concerned that the carpets were curling under some of the mats – a simple but potentially fatal design flaw – and said customers had complained.

“If you can't brake, someone else, outside the Tesla, could get hurt,” she says.

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

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

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

“I sent him one before I went out [of Tesla]And tell 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 lost her job.

BBC News submitted its allegations to Tesla but received no response.

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

“We design our vehicles to exceed safety standards.”

Another Tesla whistleblower, Lukas Krupski, recounted a similar, unrelated experience after emailing Mr. Musk about concerns about working conditions at Tesla's headquarters in Norway.

Ms. Balan says other Tesla employees may be “afraid to speak out.”

Her case will eventually be heard in California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — but there's no date for that yet.

Ms. Balan says this is her only chance for professional vindication.

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

“And I know that if I don't win this, it doesn't matter how good I am.

“Everyone will look at what Tesla says [me]So my career is over.

Comment on the photo, Ms Balan took her concerns to Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Musk's leadership style is known to be unorthodox, but some who have worked with him say he gets results.

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

“Yes, working for Elon is stressful.

“But I think it’s a proving ground like no other.”

US lawyer Gordon Schnell, from Konstantin Cannon, says that an increasing number of workers in the technology sector have become whistleblowers.

He says the risks are so high because tech products have a “widespread impact on the world.”

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

But Schnell's advice, who specializes in representing whistleblowers, is to explore every possible option before making any allegations public.

“There are a lot of protected channels in a lot of different industries that whistleblowers can turn to, where they can take their confidential concerns to the appropriate government agencies that are best suited to address those concerns,” he says.

Additional reporting by Philippa Wynn

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