Cars Tesla's Elon Musk Challenges New York Times

Published on February 15th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Actually, Tesla’s Elon Musk Could Be Smiling Over That New York Times Review

February 15th, 2013 by  

Unless you’ve been tied up watching marathon sessions of House of Cards all last week, you are probably aware that John Broder of The New York Times wrote a scathing review of his experience driving a Tesla Model S electric vehicle from Washington, D.C. to Boston, to which Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk promptly wrote a scathing reply. So, why do we think that Musk might be secretly having a happy over the whole episode?

It’s this: regardless of who wins on the evidence (we think Elon, but whatever), the only thing that Broder actually accomplished was to prove that you have to try really, really, really-really hard to get a well designed electric vehicle to fail your expectations.

Tesla's Elon Musk Challenges New York Times

 Tesla’s New York Times Test

To recap the basic complaint, Broder ran out of electricity short of his destination, and had to call for a tow truck. He attributed the problem to the manufacturer’s failure to account for cold weather driving conditions when calculating range and charge times, among other issues.

In reply, Musk cited “hundreds” of successful test drives under all sorts of weather conditions, including a test by another Times writer. Tesla Motors had also equipped the car with a data log that shows, according to Musk, significant discrepancies with Broder’s description of events (e.g. that he drove in circles in a parking lot, didn’t fully charge the vehicle when he knew he needed to, and actually turned the heat up when he said he turned it off).

How to Get Your Moment of EV Derp

Broder did issue a strong rebuttal to some of Musk’s major points about the data log, but even if you give him the benefit of the doubt his excursion fails the smell test.

Never mind Tesla, just put yourself in the shoes of a typical first-time EV owner, any make, any model. You’ve just plunked down a huge chunk of change on cutting edge, state-of-the art automotive technology that you’ve had little or no experience with before. You’re planning a 400-mile jaunt along some of the most heavily trafficked parts of the Northeast Corridor in the dead of winter, and given all the hazards of driving any kind of car in that region in that season, you decide it would be wise to do some local driving first.

That way, you’ll get used to assimilating the critical information you’ll be getting from the dashboard while on the road, particularly information about the battery. You’ll also familiarize yourself with charging protocols, and you’ll get a heads up on any range problems that the manufacturer failed to disclose.

Before you head out for an extended trip, you’d probably also pinpoint the exact location of all the charging stations along your route (Google Maps, much?) along with directions for reaching them, so you won’t have to make panicky phone calls to Customer Service while you’re on the road.

On the other hand, if you really want to experience that moment of EV derp, just jump in the car and go.

Does John Broder Really Hate Electric Vehicles?

Mr. Broder has been accused elsewhere of hating on EVs, and at least one of his recent articles seems to bear that out. Barely one year ago, on March 25, 2012, he wrote this rather depressing rundown of the state of the EV market:

“Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate. General Motors has temporarily suspended production of the plug-in electric Chevy Volt because of low sales. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf is struggling in the market. A number of start-up electric vehicle and battery companies have folded. And the federal government has slowed its multibillion-dollar program of support for advanced technology vehicles in the face of market setbacks and heavy political criticism.”

For the record, GM maintains that the Volt production suspension was related to increased production and technology upgrades, and it resumed a few days earlier than scheduled (on April 16, just a few weeks after Broder’s article appeared).

The Nissan Leaf might be struggling, but if you look at the way Ford’s C-MAX sales have been going, that could be the result of emerging “buy American” competition from a new crop of domestic hybrids in addition to new domestic EVs like the all-electric Ford Focus and yeah, the Tesla.

As for start-up failures, those are a dime a dozen in any industry (just look at the early history of the U.S. automotive industry).

Broder’s assessment of a slowdown in federal EV support was premature, by the way. Just a couple of months ago, the Obama Administration launched the fifth in a series of major public-private research efforts called Energy Innovation Hubs, and this one was aimed squarely at improving EV battery efficiency.

The Administration also just recruited a whole raft of major companies including GE, Eli Lilly and 3M (as well as Nissan, GM and Tesla) to its new Workplace EV Charging Challenge, with the goal of increasing the number of U.S. employers offering EV charging to employees.

Workplace charging is part of a broader public-private Administration initiative called EV Everywhere, which just like the name says, is a platform for launching EVs into the mass market (including more affordable EVs), along with building a national charging infrastructure to support them.

Edmunds Gets the Last Word

Just last week we took a look at a comparative test of EVs undertaken by Edmunds under real driving conditions, namely rush hour traffic in California. Edmunds found that some of the EVs exceeded the EPA’s mileage rating, while others pretty much met expectations and others were somewhat disappointing.

For what it counts, among those beating expectations was the Tesla Model S.

Image (cropped): Tesla Model S courtesy of Tesla Motors

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • I’m afraid that Broder’s driving technique is a lot closer to the way an average American would handle such a vehicle than tech-savvy test drivers. A “range indicator” should have more than one number displayed. It should display a min/max value to account for maximum electrical load with interior heating and headlights at one end and minimal load daylight driving on the other. Most Americans rarely check their tire pressure or oil. Designers should take these tendencies into account.

    • Anne

      In short, it wasn’t his driving style, it was mostly his consistent habit of not charging the battery to full. Simple operator error. Given the fact that the car displays its state of charge clearly enough, I have a hard time imagining how he could have missed it.

      The ‘errors’ are so obvious and stupid, that it bears all the signs of a rigged test.

      • mds

        The logged evidence makes it clear “beyond a reasonable doubt” (as they say in legalese) that he was deliberately trying to foil the car ..and having a hard time doing it.

    • Ross Chandler

      Broder was deliberately trying to test it to the red line. He also creatively interpreted & ignored advice from Tesla to continually try to have the car gasp home on each leg of the trip. It makes for good copy but it isn’t normal driving.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Creatively interpreting and ignoring advice or deliberately attempting to make the car fail, only Broder knows for sure.

        Lying about what he did should get him fired.

        • mds

          No, it’s clear from the logged data evidence recovered from the car that his whole experience and article is a deliberate fraud.

    • Shiggity

      You’ve already missed the point. The original assessment in the original article was that electric cars COULD NOT complete a long range trip. Yes you have to make sacrifices to get the necessary range, but that is another debate entirely.

      The range updates in real time with many selectable variables. This isn’t an issue of technology, it’s an issue of a user using it completely wrong, then lying.

    • mds

      You’re nuts. Broder’s experience is like deliberately ignoring your gas gauge. Most American drivers would not do that, let alone one trying out a new car. …and it’s clear he did a lot more than that trying to deliberately show the Tesla model S did not work. Gee, that guy is really …ummm unethical. Clearly stronger language should be applied.

    • mds

      btw Gasoline and deisel vehicles don’t even give you a predicted range, just an indication of how much is left in your tank. You have to figure out remaining distance on your own. Why should the Tesla have to give a min/max it already gives a predicted distance and clearly it does that with a considerable range left. For somebody named “Nancy Drew” you’re not much for deductive reasoning.

    • Tina Casey

      Thanks for your comment but I don’t see how your point about the “average American” makes for a cogent argument. You seem to be arguing that EV tech is beyond the capabilities of the average driver, but then you state that “most Americans” don’t even attend to the routine basics of maintenance for any vehicle, namely tire pressure or oil, which strongly implies that conventional vehicle technology also is beyond the reach of the average driver. Obviously, most drivers exercise at least some common sense about maintaining their vehicles, otherwise the roads would be littered with stall-outs and breakdowns. The only thing that Broder proved was that an average driver with an average skill set and an average amount of common sense would have familiarized themselves with the car before taking it on a two-day road trip.

  • moseslonn

    One thing is unexplained. Just when did Rupert Murdoch buy the New York Times? This whole thing smacks of his particular brand of ‘journalism.’

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