UPDATED: All charged up

Elon Musk says NYT review of a Tesla sedan was dishonest; Broder, Sullivan fire back

[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:

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.

[Update, February 12, 5:00 p.m.] On Tuesday afternoon, Broder posted a long rebuttal of Musk’s charges on The New York Times’s Wheels blog. “My account was not a fake. It happened just the way I described it,” he wrote, before going on to provide even more details about what happened on his trip.

“One final note,” Broder concluded at the end. “Mr. Musk called me on Friday, before the article went up on the Web, to offer sympathy and regrets about the outcome of my test drive. He said that the East Coast charging stations should be 140 miles apart, not 200 miles, to take into account the traffic and temperature extremes in this part of the country. He offered me a second chance at a test drive in a few months, after additional Supercharger stations come online. I’m game.”

[Update, February 14, 5:30 p.m.] As promised, Musk published the data log on Wednesday evening, along with a bulleted list of nine points explaining why he thought Broder, “simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running.”

Some of Musk’s points are nonsense. For instance, he says, “As the State of Charge log shows, the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck.” Well, that may be true, but the log also shows that the car’s range was “less than zero miles” when Broder’s trip came to an abrupt halt. It seems reasonable that the battery can hold a charge, but not enough to power the car.

Other points that Musk makes are pure semantics. For example, he says:

In his article, Broder claims that “the car fell short of its projected range on the final leg.” Then he bizarrely states that the screen showed “Est. remaining range: 32 miles” and the car traveled “51 miles,” contradicting his own statement. The car actually did an admirable job exceeding its projected range. Had he not insisted on doing a nonstop 61-mile trip while staring at a screen that estimated half that range, all would have been well. He constructed a no-win scenario for any vehicle, electric or gasoline.

Seems reasonable, but Musk is simply spinning the intent of Broder’s words, who surely meant that the car fell short of its projected range when he left the Milford, CT supercharger station the day before he broke down. At that time, the car assured Broder that he had plenty of electrons to complete the final leg of his journey.

Musk does have some valid points, however, but most of them dance around Broder’s central complaints about the Model S—that the battery’s charge dropped precipitously overnight in cold weather, that electric vehicles’ range can vary significantly, and that Tesla’s two supercharger stations can’t, on their own, alleviate electric vehicles’ range problem.

For example, it appears that Broder was averaging about 60 mph around the time he said he had the cruise control set to 54 mph. It also looks like he turned the heat up around this time, rather than down (although he did drive for long stretches in freezing cold weather with the thermostat turned down), as he reported. While these reportorial discrepancies are certainly concerning (and Broder tells me he plans to respond to the data log posting soon), it should be noted that these behaviors took place well before Broder charged up in Milford for the last leg of his trip, and thus have no bearing on his running out of juice.

Musk also alleges that Broder drove around in circles for five minutes in a parking lot next to the Milford supercharger, unsuccessfully trying to kill the battery, and that he charged the battery for 47 minutes, rather than 58 minutes, as reported. Again, the reportorial discrepancies are concerning, but even the second of these details has no bearing on what happened afterward (whether Broder charged the car for 47 minutes or 58 minutes, the car told him that he had enough charge to get back, and then the charge dropped unexpectedly and precipitously).

The most damning charge that Musk makes is that Broder was driving faster than he reported right before he ran out of juice. Rather than “limping along at 45 mph,” the data log shows a stretch where he was driving just above 50 mph, followed by a stretch where he drove above 60 mph (even briefly exceeding 70 mph at times). That surely drained the car’s battery, but again, the main problem was that most of the depletion occurred spontaneously while the car was parked overnight in cold temperatures.

In his first response to Musk’s accusations, Broder conceded:

Virtually everyone says that I should have plugged in the car overnight in Connecticut, particularly given the cold temperature. But the test that Tesla offered was of the Supercharger, not of the Model S, which we already know is a much-praised car. This evaluation was intended to demonstrate its practicality as a “normal use,” no-compromise car, as Tesla markets it.

That seems fair, but it’ll be interesting to see what Broder has to say for himself in his second riposte.

[Update, February 14, 6:45 p.m.] As expected, Broder posted a point-by-point rebuttal of all of Musk’s charges on Thursday evening, and his explanations are, for the most part, eminently reasonable. Where the reportorial discrepancies regarding his speed are concerned, he had this to say:

I drove normally (at the speed limit or with prevailing traffic) when I thought it was prudent to do so. I do recall setting the cruise control to about 54 m.p.h., as I wrote. The log shows the car traveling about 60 m.p.h. for a nearly 100-mile stretch on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. That just might have impacted the recorded speed, range, rate of battery depletion or any number of other parameters.

Broder also couldn’t explain the discrepancy between the 47-minute charge that Musk claimed and the 58-minute charge that he reported. This suggests that at worst Broder wasn’t taking notes carefully enough, but that doesn’t come close to justifying Musk’s allegations that his article was a “fake” and “a setup.” Oh, and about driving around in circles in Milford, Broder had this to say:

While Mr. Musk has accused me of doing this to drain the battery, I was in fact driving around the Milford service plaza on Interstate 95, in the dark, trying to find the unlighted and poorly marked Tesla Supercharger.

Who hasn’t been there? Following Broder’s post, Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, who’d written a inconclusive post about “conflicting assertions” earlier in the day, added this update on Thursday evening:

Mr. Broder’s detailed response to Mr. Musk’s accusations has been posted on the Wheels blog. 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.

Indeed, Musk’s allegations look like nothing more than a petty attempt to trash a reporter’s reputation for writing a review that Musk didn’t like. Hopefully, this sordid affair is now over, but it should also be a learning moment for journalists doing any sort of product review: always take detailed notes, keep different kinds of records if you can, and don’t think for a second that manufacturers won’t come after you if they perceive a threat to their bottom line.

[Update, February 18, 12:30 p.m.] After talking with Musk, Broder, and a variety of other sources, Sullivan posted her final thoughts on the test-drive feud on Monday afternoon. Sullivan said she was convinced that Broder “took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it,” but:

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: