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The engineer who was fired by Tesla after condemning the company and facing Elon Musk in court

The engineer who was fired by Tesla after condemning the company and facing Elon Musk in court

Christina Balan has completed chemotherapy for breast cancer

Photograph: Cristina Balan/BBC News Brazil

A former employee of Tesla, the car company owned by Elon Musk, has been facing the billionaire and the company in court for a decade, still seeking a public apology.

Engineer Christina Balan was a rising star within Tesla in the US, so much so that her initials were engraved on the batteries of every Model S electric car.

But after reporting safety concerns about a design flaw that could affect cars' braking systems in 2014, she says company management became hostile — and she lost her job.

She won her unfair dismissal case, but was later publicly accused by Tesla of using its resources for a “secret project” of its own – an accusation that amounts to embezzlement, which is a crime under US law.

Balan has consistently denied the accusations and taken legal action, but years later, she is still waiting for her case to be heard at a public hearing in California.

Tesla did not respond to BBC requests for locations. The company did not provide any other details about this accusation.

Balan says she is determined to prove her innocence for the sake of her son. She is a single mother.

“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.

At the end of the Zoom call, Christina Balan took off her wig and told me with tears in her eyes that she had just finished treatment for breast cancer.

“I want to clear my name,” he says. “I would like Elon Musk to have the decency to apologize.”

The initials CB on the Tesla Model S battery pay tribute to Cristina Balan's design contributions

Photograph: Cristina Balan/BBC News Brazil

She says that although she is currently in remission from stage 3B breast cancer, her biggest worry is that she will not live to see the outcome of the court case.

Palan shared with BBC News several communications between her and Tesla during her time there.

It started well: She remembers talking to Musk in the lunch line in the employee cafeteria, and says she was happy and successful. Passionate about cars since her childhood in Romania, she has fulfilled her dream.

“It all went down the drain when I realized they were hiding some critical security issues,” he says.

Balan was concerned that the floor mats were wrinkled under some of the pedals — a simple but potentially fatal design flaw — and said customers complained.

“If you can't hit the brakes, someone else, outside of 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.’”

Balan says managers ignored her concerns and became hostile.

She then emailed Musk, who encouraged employees to reach out to him personally to raise any concerns that might affect Tesla's reputation.

“I sent him a couple of emails,” Balan says.

“I sent one before leaving [da Tesla]”I told him that we are all threatened.”

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

But it didn't work out, and Balan lost his job.

BBC News presented the former employee's 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.”

Balan reports that when she was an employee, she brought her safety concerns to Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Photo: Reuters/BBC News Brazil

Another former Tesla employee, Lukas Krupski, claimed to have had a similar experience, unrelated to the case, after emailing Musk about concerns about working conditions at Tesla's headquarters in Norway.

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

Her lawsuit will sooner or later be heard by the California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Balan believes this is his only chance to restore his professional reputation.

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

“I know that if I don't win [o processo]No matter how good you are.”

“Everyone will see what Tesla says about it [mim]So my career is over.”

“I don't want that to happen.”

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

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

“If not, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish the things he accomplishes,” she said in 2022.

“Yes, working with Elon is tiring. But I think it's unparalleled training.”

US attorney Gordon Schnell, of Constantine Canon, says a growing number of technology professionals are condemning companies' practices.

He adds that the risks are so high because technology products have a “very broad impact on the world.”

“It really impacts all of our lives.”

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

He highlights that “there are many protected channels across many different industries that whistleblowers can use to raise confidential concerns to the government agencies best suited to resolve those concerns.”

*Additional reporting by Philippa Wynn.

BBC News Brazil – All rights reserved. All types of copying without written permission from BBC News Brazil is prohibited.

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