NYT v Tesla – Everybody Loses

Warning! 3,400 words here. Grab a cuppa and rest your bones.

It’s been NYT v Tesla all week in the automotive press and everyone’s been sharing their opinion. I’m not going to elaborate much more on this from my own personal point of view except to say that when Tesla owner Elon Musk made it personal, it was a PR mistake on his part.

Question observations, by all means, and let the facts speak for themselves.

Question the professional and personal integrity of an experienced senior journalist at a long-established masthead? That’s a whole new ballgame.

There are different types of people interested in EV’s. There are those who are curious, even up to the point of considering a purchase some time in the future. Then there are those who are 100% sold already, usually newly fervent to the point of being cultish. Those in the latter category, who prostrate themselves at the altar of EV sweetness and light (especially those who mock to the point of segregation when people do not have the same blind faith) more than just admire Musk’s passion and his willingness to defend his company. To the rest of the motoring world, however – including the motoring press – he simply looks like a bit of a tool.

I’m not going to go through the claims and counter-claims of the last 5 days with a fine toothed comb here. Those who have covered this story have done so with more thoroughness and timeliness that I could. Here’s a list of links and quote from the best articles I’ve seen through the week, however.

Read them all, if you’re inclined, and draw your own conclusions.

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The whole shebang started here, with the New York Times account by John M Broder of his ill-fated trip in very poor weather, testing out Tesla’s SuperCharger charging network on the east coast of the US. He was driving a Tesla Model S specced at around US$100K with the big 85kWh battery that Tesla claims has a 300 mile range. The EPA rates it at 265 miles. The distance between charging stations was 200 miles but day 2 of the trip, the return leg, saw him on the back of a flatbed truck.

Elon Musk initially fired his first thoughts on Twitter, claiming that the test was a fake, followed by some elaboration on US television. This led to some more explanations from Broder via the NYT.

When I first charged the car, which was equipped with the highest-capacity battery available, of 85 kilowatt-hours, at the Tesla Supercharger station in Newark, Del., I left it connected to the cable for 49 minutes until the dash display read “Charging Complete.” The battery meter read 90 percent full, with a range of 242 miles.

In that CNBC audio, you’ll hear Elon Musk tell them that Broder was told he had to have the battery fully charged. Broder’s recall is different and quite explicit:

I was not directed by anyone at Tesla at any time to then switch to the Max Range setting and wait to top off the battery. If I had, I might have picked up an additional 25 or so miles of range, but that would have taken as long as 30 additional minutes.

The other thing about topping it off above 90% is that it actually shortens battery life. Tesla claim that the Model S is an EV without the compromises, that you can do long trips in it. Anyone spending $100K on the biggest-battery version, however, isn’t going to deliberately shorten their vehicle’s life too often, especially when your destination is well within the projected range of the vehicle. This is the difference between real-world testing (to drive it like a normal person would) and fairyland Beta testing with a bunch of stated rules and hard parameters.

The next big step in this saga came when Elon Musk published his promised blog post on Tesla’s website, including datalogs from the car in question.

Musk’s article certainly prompted some questions and it’s only right that Broder be asked to elaborate on issues like these:

Cruise control was never set to 54 mph as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 mph.

At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F.

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.

That last one’s particularly damning and musk follows it up with this:

When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts.

That’s a massive allegation to lay at the feet of an experienced senior journalist and it’s allegations like that that have most likely prompted other members of the motoring press to look a bit harder at Musk’s counter-claims and charts.

Here’s a selection and a few relevant bits:

The Atlantic Wire examines Musk’s key claims including speed, cabin heating, and wandering around the charging station to get the car to conk out, amongst others. Their conclusion:

Not all of Musk’s data is entirely convincing and the parts that are don’t point to a malicious plot. In the end, it looks like Broder made some compromises to get from the Newark charging station to the Milford one, in both speed and temperature. Broder may not have used Musk’s car the way Musk would like, but Musk is, for now, overhyping his case for a breach of journalism ethics.

Wired ask an obvious question, one that’s been mirrored in Car and Driver as well. No-one wants to ask it directly (perhaps the journos have more respect for Musk’s integrity than he has for theirs) but the question is out there – Could Tesla’s logs be questionable?

To begin with, there’s one massive chunk of the data missing from the puzzle: GPS. According to a Tesla spokeswoman, the automaker didn’t have GPS data turned on in the car, which makes Tesla’s claims that Broder drove around in circle in a Supercharger parking lot dubious, at best.

You might be surprised (or not) but some of the best coverage on this whole NYT v Tesla story has come from Jalopnik. They tracked down the towing company and managed to refute Tesla’s claim that “the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck.”

I just spoke with Donna Rogers at Rogers Automotive & Towing in Milford, Conn., the company that was called out to tow the Model S when it ran out of juice.

She says that their records indicate the car’s battery pack was completely drained. Additionally, she says her tow truck driver was on the phone with a Tesla employee in California, and they were trying to figure out how to get the car onto the flatbed without moving it because it was so dead.

That should be the simplest of all things to figure out – was it dead or not? Could they move it or not? Musk’s claim that there was some charge left in some area means diddly-squat when you’re stuck in freezing temperatures on the edge of the highway in a car that won’t move.

Wired, again, on the cabin temperature claims:

Tesla also suggests that Broder didn’t turn down the interior temperature during the trip, but the chart it released last night shows a dip in the climate control temp from 225 to 300 miles. It might not have been exactly when Broder claimed, but he did it nonetheless.

And they’re right – the chart Tesla themselves provided shows two rather large drops in cabin temperature through the trip.

The Tesla blog also claimed that Broder was a journalist given to disdain towards electric vehicles, that he was prejudiced against them and some of his previous articles prove this. The Washington Post took a look at that claim and it disagrees.

The author of the rant against Broder, Musk, argues that in allowing Broder to test-drive the Model S, the company “let down the cause of electric vehicles.” Those words are a missionary’s, an advocate’s, and they’re evidence of a mind-set that interprets inconvenient facts as “disdain” or bias or worse.

Musk is an enthusiastic advocate for his company and that’s admirable, but fanboy partisanship is for blogs (I should know) not for CEO’s, a point that Engadget also tries to make.

Musk has stepped far beyond simple fact-checker and seems to wade into the realm of moral and ethical judge. It’s in this that he loses the hearts and minds of many — and provides us with an important lesson: When correcting others, present the facts and then step away. Let the discussion brew on its own.

Of course, Musk’s post on the Tesla blog prompted Broder to publish a response at the New York Times, looking at each of Musk’s claims in detail. For some of them, there is simply no explanation. Tesla’s logs don’t show excessive prolonged speeding but they show Broder drove a bit faster than he claimed in the story (though it has to be noted, these are not unreasonable speeds by any means whatsoever – it’s meant to be a real life test, remember).

Broder’s response is essential reading because it’s the final post that addresses specifically the allegations made by Musk. Here’s a rather long excerpt where Broder answers Musk, point by point. This is too important to shorten, so settle in (as if this article wasn’t long enough already)

• “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.”

The car’s display screen said the car was shutting down, and it did. The car did not have enough power to move, or even enough to release the electrically operated parking brake. The tow truck driver was on the phone with Tesla’s New York service manager, Adam Williams, for 15 or 20 minutes as he was trying to move the car onto a flatbed truck.

• “The final leg of his trip was 61 miles and yet he disconnected the charge cable when the range display stated 32 miles. He did so expressly against the advice of Tesla personnel and in obvious violation of common sense.”

The Tesla personnel whom I consulted over the phone – Ms. Ra and Mr. Merendino – told me to leave it connected for an hour, and after that the lost range would be restored. I did not ignore their advice.

• “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 (see images below). 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.”

The phrase “the car fell short of its projected range” appeared in a caption with an accompanying map; it was not in the article. What that referred to (and admittedly could have been more precise) was that the car fell short of the projected range, 90 miles, that it showed when I parked it overnight at a hotel in Groton, Conn.

Tesla is correct that the car did exceed the projected range of 32 miles when I left Norwich, as I was driving slowly, and it gave me hope that the Tesla employee I’d consulted was correct that the mileage lost overnight was being restored. It wasn’t enough, however, to get to Milford.

• “On that leg, he drove right past a public charge station while the car repeatedly warned him that it was very low on range.”

If there was a public charging station nearby, no one made me aware of it. The Tesla person with whom I was in contact located on the Internet a public charging station in East Haven, Conn., and that is the one I was trying to reach when the car stalled in Branford, about five miles shy of East Haven.

• “Cruise control was never set to 54 m.p.h. as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 m.p.h. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 m.p.h. to 81 m.p.h. for a majority of the trip, and at an average cabin temperature setting of 72 F.”

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 affected the recorded speed, range, rate of battery depletion or any number of other parameters. Tesla’s data suggests I was doing slightly more than 50 over a stretch where the speed limit was 65. The traffic was heavy in that part of Connecticut, so cruise control was not usable, and I tried to keep the speed at 50 or below without impeding traffic.

Certainly, and as Tesla’s logs clearly show, much of my driving was at or well below the 65 m.p.h. speed limit, with only a single momentary spike above 80. Most drivers are aware that cars can speed up, even sometimes when cruise control is engaged, on downhill stretches.

• “At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F.”

I raised and lowered the cabin heat in an effort to strike a balance between saving energy and staying somewhat comfortable. (It was 30 degrees outside when I began the trip, and the temperature plunged that night to 10 degrees.) Tesla jumped to the conclusion that I claimed to have lowered the cabin temperature “at 182 miles,” but I never wrote that. The data clearly indicates that I sharply lowered the temperature setting – twice – a little over 200 miles into the trip. After the battery was charged I tried to warm the cabin.

• “The charge time on his second stop was 47 minutes, going from —5 miles (reserve power) to 209 miles of Ideal or 185 miles of E.P.A. Rated Range, not 58 minutes as stated in the graphic attached to his article. Had Broder not deliberately turned off the Supercharger at 47 mins and actually spent 58 mins Supercharging, it would have been virtually impossible to run out of energy for the remainder of his stated journey.”

According to my notes, I plugged into the Milford Supercharger at 5:45 p.m. and disconnected at 6:43 p.m. The range reading was 185 miles.

• “For his first recharge, he charged the car to 90%. During the second Supercharge, despite almost running out of energy on the prior leg, he deliberately stopped charging at 72%. On the third leg, where he claimed the car ran out of energy, he stopped charging at 28%. Despite narrowly making each leg, he charged less and less each time. Why would anyone do that?”

I stopped at 72 percent because I had replenished more than enough energy for the miles I intended to drive the next day before fully recharging on my way back to New York. In Norwich, I charged for an hour on the lower-power charger, expressly on the instructions of Tesla personnel, to get enough range to reach the Supercharger station in Milford.

• “The above helps explain a unique peculiarity at the end of the second leg of Broder’s trip. When he first reached our Milford, Conn., Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said “0 miles remaining.” Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.”

I drove around the Milford service plaza in the dark looking for the Supercharger, which is not prominently marked. I was not trying to drain the battery. (It was already on reserve power.) As soon as I found the Supercharger, I plugged the car in.

The stop in Manhattan was planned from the beginning and known to Tesla personnel all along. According to Google Maps, taking the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan (instead of crossing at the George Washington Bridge) and driving up the West Side Highway added only two miles to the overall distance from Newark, Del., to Milford, Conn.

Neither I nor the Model S ever visited “downtown Manhattan.”

——

Phew!

The end result here is unsatisfactory for everyone concerned, but it is what it is.

Engadget tells two truths in their article:

(A trip like Broder’s) requires a lot more (preparation) work up-front, work that is just fine by me. I’m okay with such investments if it means covering 165 miles in a 416-horsepower luxury car for just 10 bucks’ worth of electricity.

That’s the lure of a ride like this in a car like the Model S. Having your cake and eating it, too.

There’s always a penalty, however, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned having written about cars for the last eight years and having met many different types of car owners in that time, it’s that car companies HAVE to design their cars for unprepared people. Why? Because the vast majority of their customers treat their cars as they treat household appliances. They get in and go.

From another piece at Wired:

Tesla positions the Model S as the first “no compromise EV” able (with the Supercharger network) to take the proverbial “Vegas on a moment’s notice” road trip. Yet after pitching the trip idea to Broder in the first place, Tesla’s own staff needed to issue carefully detailed instructions and make follow-up contact along the way to ensure he got to his destination. In doing so, they busted their own road trip myth before Broder ever left the driveway.

As Slate also note, Broder didn’t just have instructions beforehand…..

Perhaps the most convincing statistic in Broder’s rebuttal is the number of times he called Tesla personnel throughout the trip to ask for help getting the car to its destination: “about a dozen,” he says. That’s hardly what you’d expect from a man “determined” to get the car to die so he could embarrass Musk and co.

The Tesla Model S is a marvel of 21st century engineering. It’s the best electric vehicle available on the market today and it’s forging a path that MIGHT allow electric vehicles to be successful in the future.

In my original article on this story, the headline stated that the NYT test showed the Model S’s flaw. I stand by that 100%.

Whatever Broder did on that test, I don’t believe any of it whatsoever was malicious or designed to make the car fail. I believe he consulted with Tesla’s people along the way. Whether it was flawed advice, flawed technique or just plain lousy weather conditions, the Tesla ended up as a brick.

Slate, again:

The bottom line is this: For a variety of reasons, including user error, the Model S and its brand-new Supercharger network didn’t live up to expectations on one man’s road trip. That doesn’t make Broder a liar, and it doesn’t make the Model S a failure.

And Engadget, again:

The point of that article, it seems, boils down to this: In 2013 you can’t just go on a whimsical joyride to wherever you want in an EV.

…..and that’s the flaw. Whether that flaw is suitably sorted in the next 3, 5 or 10 years is something we’ll have to wait and see on. At the moment, though, it’s an unmistakable flaw and those who deride people for pointing it out do everyone, including themselves, a disservice.

——

One final postscript:

CNN journalists have just completed what is basically the same route. They had better weather conditions but ultimately made the trip with no issues (and no flatbed trucks).

Read their account at that link. It’s very encouraging for Tesla and for people interested in EV’s, no doubt.

It’s good that they proved the tech without a hitch (even if they had some anxiety along the way).

One has to point out, however, the other drawback of EV’s – even those that can use a SuperCharger network. What is usually an 8-hour drive took them 13 hours to complete. Even if you do it for just $10 of electricity, that’s a lot of time sitting around waiting.

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5 Comments

  1. Everybody Loses

    or

    Welcome to the new reality where journalist and news organizations no longer can control the debate, and where they no longer are considered to always represent “the Truth” in the best interest of the “People”.

  2. I think Musk went into “roll like a hedgehog” mode because it was NYT, not any other blog or car mag read by just a few. The potential damage of the article was too big to let it pass.

    NYT/Broder insists it was not a test of the car, but the Supercharger network. Ok, then if anything else we have in fact learned that the Superchargers will give enough range to do a long trip. This also confirmed by CNN.

    But Broder took the whole thing further, the moment he decided to just part charge the battery and leave it unplugged overnight in freezing temperatures. Battery and cold just does not work, and a seasoned journalist like Broder must know this. Still he did this, and then later somehow turns it against Tesla/EVS/Supercharger.

    I am sure NYT/Broder did not expect that their story would be challenged by data logs, but to their relief Tesla/Musk took it to far…

    NYT will roll on as the steam train it is, Broder will soon be forgotten, Tesla’s uphill just become steeper. There is only one loser in this case.

  3. Agree with Ken. The NYT is at a different level from your average car-geek magazine or website. It is the “paper of record,” and that means that Tesla has to address any inaccuracies and biases before they become fact.
    Automotive journalism has always walked a fine line. Some papers won’t even give auto writers real bylines. They’re at the same level as horoscope writers: for entertainment only.

    I would never trust any vehicle’s estimated range. I’ve only ever run out of fuel once, and it was my own fault. I wanted to see if the car could make an 870km trip on one tank, and fell about 6km short. It was a beautiful summer day, and we were off-and-running again within the hour. Needless to say that I had plenty of opportunity to refuel on the way.
    I would never try something like that in the winter, and I would never try to blame the car. It’s just common sense.

    Seeing “how far past empty she’ll go” makes a great Seinfeld episode, but it’s not great journalism.

  4. For a car like Tesla it borders on miraculous if you can trust it to make a 200 mile stretch with a roughly an hour long charge. This would be when the scale tips in Tesla’s favour: Can you trust it to take you a good long way at a reasonable speed and comfort in the winter while only using the 1 hour supercharger network and not having to worry about finding any other power outlets along the way. That would have been an interesting test. Broder screwed things up when he charged only to 72 % at the second stop. He was not taking full cushion from the supercharger when he could have. Don’t know what to make of the discrepancy between Broder’s alleged 58 minute charge vs Musk’s claim that it went for only under 50 minutes.

    Hope to read more adverse condition tests for Tesla in the future. The product is adorable.

    1. Precisely. It was not rocket science – Broder had driven one almost full charge before and knew how far that had lasted, so the result of charging much less the second time, and then leaving the car out over the night, shouldn’t have surprised anyone. That is – given the deliberate positioning of the Supercharge stations, which the test-drive was supposedly about.

      There supposedly were least 65 Tesla Roadster owners in Norway around a year ago, so they should have quite some practical experience.

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