Feb 14 2013

Tesla, the Times, and everything in between

Well, there’s certainly has been an uproar this week concerning an article about Tesla in the New York Times by John Broder. In response, Elon Musk, Tesla’s charismatic founder and CEO, wrote a critical blog about the article on the company’s website. Musk was a little hasty to call the article a “fake” in TV interviews last week; it seems unlikely that the NY Times would ever fake an article intentionally. But he does have an important point despite his hyperbole.

First point: I’m a former science reporter. I also own a Tesla Model S.

The Tesla Model S is a great car that requires the driver to think differently about travel, for the simple reason that charging stations are not as ubiquitous as gas stations, and won’t be for many years. IOW, you need to give a little thought to planning a long-distance trip, including charging at each opportunity and understanding how the car’s batteries take a charge.

It was immediately clear from Broder’s article that he did not do either of these things. He undercharged the car (pleading ignorance after the fact) and failed to recharge when he could. Tesla understood his purpose was to test the use of its supercharging stations for long-distance trips. Instead, Broder claims his article was “intended to demonstrate its practicality as a ‘normal use’, no-compromise car”. If “normal use” means running a car to empty and then looking for a gas station, he succeeded in demonstrating that Teslas don’t respond well to the challenge. But doing so strikes me, and probably every other EV owner, as a inappropriate comparison of the state of electric recharging networks vs. those of gas refueling networks. None of that reflects on the car itself.

And, really, that seems to be why there is so much heat and confusion over the article. Broder’s experience is not a criticism of the Model S at all. He never points out anything bad about it. Instead, he implicitly criticizes the lack of easily available charging stations. “If this is Tesla’s vision of long-distance travel in America’s future…and the solution to what the company calls the “road trip problem,” it needs some work”, he writes. But that simply is a cheap shot. Tesla isn’t claiming that its two (count them, two) superchargers on the East Coast are “the” solution to the road trip problem. They are merely a start, and are expected to be part of larger, emerging charge station networks around the country. It is glaringly obvious that many more EV chargers are needed within short radii of each other before EVs can comfortably assure the general driving public that long-range trips can be undertaken without planning.

It’s highly unfortunate that Broder simply failed to make this point, and instead dinged Tesla for what is clearly not a Tesla problem. Of course the car can run out of “fuel”. So can a Range Rover, and a Dodge Dart, and a Porsche 911. If there were only two gas stations on the East Coast, I’ll bet any number of ICE cars would be flat-bedded, too. Musk is properly upset that Broder insulted his vehicle instead of the charging infrastructure.

I’m very surprised that John Broder would undertake an assignment to review a car and its driving range between the only two superchargers that exist on the East Coast without a thorough understanding of the car’s charging characteristics, battery life, range expectations, etc.

I’m astonished that he would deflect responsibility for knowing the essential facts of the car’s battery performance onto non-technical Tesla employees, as if to say that he had no obligation to learn those facts even though he intended to write about them.

I’m dismayed that he criticized the car for running out of power when he had full control over how much power the car had. Broder admits that he didn’t know of any other charging station because “no one made him aware of it”. That would have earned me a nasty comment from my editors if I had used it as an excuse.

Musk certainly overreacted, using words such as “fake” and implying dishonesty on Broder’s part. But he has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, and a poorly researched article can do enormous damage. He has every reason to be furious when a poorly informed writer undertakes a misadventure and blames his bad experience on the car, the company, the dark, and the cold.

As I’ve said before, the issue that EVs face for awhile is not really “range anxiety”, it’s “recharge time” anxiety. Tesla’s superchargers are intended to address that issue. Those superchargers are few and far between for the moment, and in the short term EV drivers will need to be thoughtful about their trips. Broder would have done well to do a little homework, understand the car and the recharging world in which it exists, and fairly present the problem. He didn’t. That’s poor journalism.