Five important lessons from the dustup over the NYT’s Tesla test drive

I’ve been quietly watching the firestorm brewing around the New York Times’ negative review of a test drive a reporter took in Tesla’s Model S electric car along the East Coast. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter and called the review “fake” earlier this week. But late Wednesday night, Tesla published data logs of the reporter’s trip that seem to contradict some of the New York Times’ reporting (almost a week after the New York Times’ piece was published last Friday), and now it’s time for me to weigh in.

In case you’re just joining us on this story, Tesla has installed Supercharger stations along the east and west coasts that will charge Tesla cars much more quickly than standard charging stations. Tesla did this to create an experience where Tesla drivers can drive beyond the range of the battery with a short stop at the fast charging station, and in effect enable the type of road trip a driver could take in a gas-powered car. New York Times reporter John Broder took one of these road trips and reported that he ended up running out of charge in the cold weather and had to have the Model S towed.

We drive the new Tesla Model S thumbnail

After Musk attacked the story, Broder responded with a follow up saying he followed the instructions that Tesla gave him and the New York Times issued a statement that they stood behind his story. Tesla’s data logs show that he drove above the speed limit (which taxes the battery more quickly than slower driving) for much of the trip, and he didn’t fully charge the battery during the stops. There’s also a hilarious graph that Tesla says shows Broder drove around in circles for 5 minutes in the parking lot trying to deplete the battery before he got to one of the Superchargers (I’ll leave analysis of that one to the lawyers). Broder tells New York Magazine that he was looking for an unlighted Supercharger in the dark.

The New York Times has yet to officially respond to Tesla’s blog post, but tells the San Jose Mercury News on Thursday morning that the story was still “fair and accurate.”Update: Broder responded to Tesla’s data log post at 330 PM PST. The New York Times Public Editor is now looking into the story.

Update: The New York Times Public Editor says “I hope to post again Friday with some conclusions but for now, based on a day’s reporting, I will say this much: I reject Mr. Musk’s central contention that Mr. Broder’s Sunday piece was faked in order to sabotage the Model S or the electric-car industry.”

There are a variety of lessons I think we can take from this interaction that shed more light on Tesla and Elon Musk, electric cars and the concept of an EV road trip, and reporting in the connected age in general.

1). Don’t f*ck with Elon Musk: A friend who’s spent a decade in the legal industry told me once that you shouldn’t start a fight unless you’re ready to take it to the mat; i.e. take it all the way. Elon Musk will always take it to the mat.

The guy has been involved in close to a half dozen lawsuits over the years at Tesla, some of them brutal and involving former employees of the company, and when it comes to journalists, he is no stranger to combat. Tesla sued U.K. car show Top Gear back in 2011 for libel and malicious falsehood. That case was ultimately dismissed — Musk doesn’t even need a winnable case to take you to court. Tesla points out an inaccuracy in the New York Times story graphic, and it seems like if the New York Times doesn’t do some sort of correction on this story, Tesla could very well take it to court. Now that the data is out, we’ll see if New York Times does any clarifications or even corrections.

Elon Musk in front of the frunk
Elon Musk in front of the frunk

2). At this early stage, an electric car road trip isn’t that great of an idea: Tesla installed these Superchargers so that its customers could feel like they can have the freedom of driving an electric car in the same way, and at the same distances, they would drive a gas-powered car. But at this early stage, driving an electric car — even an awesome car like the Model S — for hundreds of miles across multiple days just isn’t as easy as it is with a gas powered car. Supercharging can take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how depleted the battery is, compared with the five or ten minutes it takes to fuel up with gas.

Also, the chargers are only in specific areas, so test drivers (see the Verge’s test drive along the West Coast) start to get nervous and experience “range anxiety.” As electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton wrote in Wired, “road trips are a dangerous myth for the EV industry to perpetuate at all.” It’s amazing that the Model S and Tesla are enabling these types of trips with new technology, but they are just not as easy as with a gas car, and that comparison is a tricky one for Tesla to make.

Tesla's line of Model S cars

3). Data equals transparency: This type of rebuttal from Tesla to the test drive could only occur in our data-laden always-connected world. Broder drove above the speed limit most of the way of his trip, even though in his rebuttal he claimed he didn’t. Who knows if he knew he was being inaccurate? Tesla can tell his speed because there’s a cellular connection on the Model S and an onboard computer that logs all of the car’s stats. Tesla usually uses this type of data to better the driving experience for its customers, but in this case, it’s using that data to contest this review.

Green Overdrive: We ride a Tesla Model S Beta! thumbnail

4). Driving an electric car requires education: Like with all new technology, electric car drivers need time to learn how to best drive their cars and how to make the battery last as long as possible. It takes some education to feel comfortable and to know how and when to charge it. That’s why some of the reporters that take the Model S Tesla road trip test drive have gotten nervous. For many of them this is some of the first times they’ve driven an electric car, and particularly driven one over long distances.

It’s unclear if Broder knew that he was supposed to charge the Model S for a longer period of time during his stops (so that it charged the battery fully), but his original piece suggested that he had followed Tesla’s instructions on how to charge it. If we give him the benefit of the doubt that he did this ethically (he very well could have not been ethical on this) then he needed a better education on how to drive it. The road trip is like an advanced application for a new technology — there’s a learning curve that can’t be accommodated on a single drive.

Tesla logo on the Model X
Tesla logo on the Model X

5). The narrative for electric cars to fail — again — is powerful: Tesla is on the brink of leading a charge to break the electric car into the mainstream, despite the fact that there have been fits and starts for electric cars for decades. Many people have lost money over the years trying to support an emergence of an electric car sector that has failed to materialize.

But this time around, I think it’s different: the electric car is here to stay. The Model S won Motor Trend’s car of the year award for 2012, which is the first time in history that this major award has been given to an electric car. GM’s Volt and Nissan’s LEAF are selling thousands of cars per month. But many people who have been burned in the past — traditional car industry folks, auto journalists, oil execs — are very skeptical and eager to believe that the EV will once again fail to materialize.

Finally, I want to say that I’m not claiming to know the motivation or ethics of the New York Times reporter, and the New York Times has yet to come out with an official response to Tesla’s data logs. But I’ll update this when they do.

Updated at 10:55AM with Broder’s explanation of why he was driving around in the parking lot before charging at the Supercharger.

Updated at 3:30PM with Broder’s rebuttal post to Tesla’s data log post.

Updated at 4:27PM with the New York Time’s Public Editor’s initial assessment of the claim.