Tesla stalker or meticulous researcher? A judge will decide

Russ Mitchell
Los Angeles Times
Tesla says Randeep Hothi, who lives near the company’s Fremont, Calif., assembly plant, struck a security employee with his car and later endangered workers testing a Model 3. Hothi says Tesla is lying.

Los Angeles — Is Randeep Hothi a stalker, a harasser, a perpetrator of violence and an imminent threat? Or is he a mild-mannered academic engaged in legal if unorthodox research for his investments?

Is Tesla’s Elon Musk an intimidator who uses his wealth, power and Twitter account to silence critics? Or is he simply trying to protect his employees from possible harm?

Those questions are being asked in Alameda County Superior Court, where Tesla seeks a permanent restraining order against Hothi.

Tesla says Hothi struck a Tesla security employee with his car at the company’s Fremont, Calif., assembly plant, and that he later endangered workers in a Tesla Model 3 who were testing driverless technology at highway speeds on Interstate 880 between Fremont and the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge.

Hothi, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and Tesla critic who lives near the Fremont plant, says Tesla is lying to smear him and shut him up.

Hothi is part of a Twitter group of short sellers and other Tesla critics known as $TslaQ. Participants monitor Tesla for flaws in its business model and evidence that the company’s stock price is far higher than it should be, based on business fundamentals.

Another member of the group, Lawrence Fossi, an investment manager who goes by the Twitter handle Montana Skeptic, set up a GoFundMe page for Hothi’s legal expenses. It has raised $118,000.

After Fossi’s identity was revealed last year, Musk called Fossi’s boss and threatened a lawsuit.

Hothi had kept an eye on production at Tesla’s assembly plant, counting cars to match against Tesla’s production claims. He often took photographs from just outside the plant, and sometimes positioned a camera (on public property, he said) to remotely record activity.

On Feb. 21, Hothi sat in his car in a publicly accessible area of the Fremont plant’s parking lot near a Tesla sales showroom. When confronted by a security guard, Tesla said in court documents, Hothi “fled the scene” and “hit Tesla’s security employee Tyler James with his car” resulting in “minor injuries.”

Fremont police reviewed the case and concluded it did not meet the elements of a hit and run, according to court records filed by Hothi’s attorney.

Hothi never returned to the Fremont plant after that day, his lawyer said.

On April 16, according to Tesla, three employees sat in a Model 3 mounted with camera equipment while testing the car’s autonomous driving capabilities. The company said in court filings that Hothi “pursued” the employees for 35 minutes, “driving ahead of, beside, and behind them, and swerving dangerously close to the vehicle,” perhaps to spark a response from the car’s autonomous system. The employees feared that Hothi’s “road conduct would cause a collision and injure them.” Hothi said those statements are false.