Feb. 14, 2013 at 3:53 PM ET
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk just might get in the last word as he battles with the New York Times over a potentially damaging review of the start-up automaker’s Model S battery-electric vehicle.
Musk launched what some initially thought a quixotic fight with the hugely influential paper earlier this week after it published a report by veteran journalist John Broder that noted he had run out of power during a test drive and had to have one of the Tesla Model S battery cars delivered by flatbed to its destination.
Though he reportedly offered an initial apology to Broder, Musk subsequently turned around and went on the offensive, accusing the paper of running a “fake” story, and the journalist of doing a number of things that assured he would run out of power during his test drive.
And early today, Musk and his public relations team followed up by releasing the data logs from the Model S Broder drove. The chart shows what they claim to be clear evidence that the details of the story don’t match up with the way the reporter actually drove.
“When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts,” wrote Musk.
There’s long been a love/hate relationship between automakers and automotive reviewers. Manufacturers often grin and bear it when they’re attacked over allegedly bad design, poor mileage or questionable acceleration. While a few have tried to fight back the benefits have generally not outweighed the risk.
Tesla appears to be less ready to smile and ignore its critics, especially when it comes to the critical issue of battery range. That’s a weak spot for the electric vehicle industry, in general, but Tesla has attempted to overcome so-called “range anxiety” by offering a sedan equipped with a far larger battery pack than available in competitors’ products, such as the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus EV, which generally deliver under 100 miles per charge.
In fact, the Model S is sold with a choice of three different packs which Tesla claims can get as much as 300 miles range. And to further blur the lines between a conventional, gas-powered vehicle and the new Model S, Tesla is setting up a network of so-called Superchargers, quick charging stations it plans to operate along the East and West Coasts and, eventually, in other parts of the country.
Broder’s review was intended to see if he could use those Superchargers to get from Washington, D.C. to Boston without the excruciatingly long waits normally required for recharging. In the story the Times printed, the veteran writer claimed he couldn’t pull it off, requiring his Model S be picked up by flatbed and brought to the second charging station.
Nonsense, Musk proclaimed this week, raising plenty of eyebrows and a lot of skepticism as he had previously shown himself thin-skinned, once suing the BBC over a poor review by the high-rated series, “Top Gear.”
But the Tesla Model S, it turns out, contains a so-called black box, a data recorder that, like the more complex devices found on aircraft, closely monitors the way a driver operates the vehicle. And according to a chart Tesla says was produced from that data, it would seem Broder’s driving behavior was distinctly different from what he reported.
The annotated chart shows, for example, that he operated significantly faster than the 54 mph Broder’s cruise control was supposedly set at during the first third of his journey. He occasionally spiked to 80 mph and routinely drove much faster than when the review claimed he “limped along at about 45 mph.”
Tesla claims Broder failed to properly recharge the Model S during his first Supercharger stop and operated the climate control in a way that further ran down the battery.
Some of Musk’s criticism seems excessive. At one point, with battery near zero and a charger nearby, Broder apparently drove in circles to see what would happen next. That’s something many journalists have done when testing battery vehicles.
But with the data logs now released, Tesla’s latest salvo appears to carry more weight than Musk’s first gripes.
Does it matter? A source at the NY Times is promising a “point-by-point rebuttal.” And the Atlantic Wire has already questioned whether the data log really is convincing. The mileage Broder reported appears more in line with reality than Tesla would like us to believe, it contends. And in some cases, the publication says there are apples-to-oranges comparisons that don’t look quite as convincing when more closely inspected.
“Not all of Musk's data is entirely convincing and the parts that are don't point to a malicious plot,” says the online news service of the Atlantic magazine.
To some, the dispute is just a tempest in an electric teapot. To others, such as analyst Jim Hall, it will have little impact. “They have people waiting 10-deep,” for the Model S, he contends.
But beyond the dedicated greenies who will likely keep Tesla’s assembly plant busy for the first year or so, the question is what happens when the company needs to win over more mainstream buyers? The outcome of this war of words could determine whether Tesla gets a halo or a dirty face.
When the data chart and Musk’s latest comments were issued at around 2:00 AM EST, Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendricks stressed, “Please note, no one from Tesla – including Elon – will be providing additional comment on this topic moving forward as we feel the blog speaks for itself. At this time, this post is the company’s final statement on the issue. We are happy to provide clarity however, should you have any questions.”
It appears the Times isn’t about to let Tesla have the last word, however. And with Musk’s propensity to speak out on anything that interests or concerns him it remains to be seen if this fight is even close to ending.
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