[Original column posted February 12, 12:00 p.m.] Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is all charged up over a The New York Times article claiming that his company’s latest all-electric vehicle doesn’t go as far on its battery as advertised.
On Sunday, the paper published a review of the Model S sedan by John M. Broder, who took it on a test drive from Washington, DC to Connecticut. Tesla recently installed two “Supercharger” stations along the route, 200 miles apart. That’s within the 300-mile driving range claimed by the company, and the 265-mile range estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The battery’s charge dropped precipitously while parked overnight in cold weather, however, and Broder ran out of juice trying to make it back to one of the stations.
Musk says that account is dishonest, tweeting on Monday afternoon:
NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013
The accusation quickly lit up the media, and Musk was soon doing interviews on CNBC and Bloomberg TV where he said three factors led to Broder’s breakdown: He didn’t give the car a full charge, he drove over the speed limit for portions of the trip, and he took a detour through heavy traffic in Manhattan.
“I mean, it’s just like if you had a gasoline car, if you only filled the tank up part way and instead of driving to your destination, you meandered through downtown Manhattan and through all the traffic and everything, and then raced to where you were originally supposed to go, and you ran out of gas, people would just think you’re a fool,” Musk told on CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo.
The Tesla CEO also conceded that, with his company’s stock down a couple percent on Monday, he was worried about the bottom line. Musk complained that he’d grown media-wary since a bad experience on BBC’s Top Gear program in 2008.
The show had reviewed the Tesla Roadster on its racetrack and said it ran out of juice after 55 miles. Tesla accused Top Gear of lying, claiming the car’s data logs showed that it had not, in fact, run out of charge. Since then, Musk told CNBC, the company operates on a “trust but verify” philosophy and always turns on “detailed vehicle logging” for media test drives. (He also stressed that the feature is turned on in customers’ vehicles only with their “explicit written permission.”)
Musk filed a libel suit against the television show, but it was struck down last year on a sort of technicality—the car had been driven on Top Gear’s racetrack, the Guardian reported, so there was no way a reasonable person would expect the similar results in regular driving conditions.
Mileage does, in fact, vary. A different New York Times reporter who did a test drive in California last September gave the Model S a good review, but the Los Angeles Times reported last week that even in the warmth of the West, driving fast dramatically reduces the car’s range.
In response to Musk’s allegations against Broder, CNBC’s Bartiromo and others pointed out that many people have a lead foot, take detours, and aren’t careful about topping off their fuel. And, of course, Broder mentioned that he traveled over the speed limit at times and acknowledged his detour through Manhattan, which came before his last charge, contrary to what Musk implied. The Times defended Broder in a statement emailed to reporters:
The Times’s Feb. 10 article recounting a reporter’s test drive in a Tesla Model S was completely factual, describing the trip in detail exactly as it occurred. Any suggestion that the account was ‘fake’ is, of course, flatly untrue. Our reporter followed the instructions he was given in multiple conversations with Tesla personnel. He described the entire drive in the story; there was no unreported detour. And he was never told to plug the car in overnight in cold weather, despite repeated contact with Tesla.
Musk promised to post the detailed vehicle logs from Broder’s trip on the Tesla Blog. In order for his allegations of “fakery” to stand, they will have to reveal that the reporter did more than speed and sightsee. He also posted a comment on Twitter saying that he is “lining up other journalists to do [the] same drive” that Broder did, but until more details emerge, the press should be as leery of Tesla and its litigious behavior as Musk is of the press.