Tesla-Model-S

A big stink has been brewing around the Tesla’s electric Model S lately, thanks to a review published by The New York Times writer John Broder. Last weekend, he chronicled an ill-fated car trip from Washington, D.C., to Boston, which got cut short in Connecticut when the vehicle ran out of juice. End result? The reporter wound up calling a tow truck and then panning the car in a widely circulated article.

But here’s where the stink got extra “stanky”: Broder, charged with trying out the company’s new East Coast Supercharger network, blamed the frigid cold temperature for undercutting the car’s driving range. That apparently sent Tesla CEO Elon Musk ballistic. He wasted no time in digging up the driving logs and hitting up Twitter to call the whole thing a sham:

“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.”

Musk has been all over the webs, accusing the writer of misleading the public, and he believes Broder manufactured a “no-win scenario” that no vehicle — not even a gas-powered one — could successfully handle. He backed up his accusations with trip logs that refute Broder’s contentions like driving speed (65 to 81 mph, not the 54 mph he claimed) and cabin temperature (which he seemingly turned up, not down during that point in the trip). Musk also claimed the reviewer repeatedly neglected to charge the car fully, made an unplanned side trip to New York City and drove around a tiny parking lot for over a mile to wear down the battery. And perhaps one of the most stunning accusations was that Broder lied about the Tesla S having a dead battery that required a tow truck to be called. “As the State of Charge log shows,” he stated on TeslaMotors.com, “the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck.” 

Broder-tesla-s

New York Times reviewer John Broder and the Tesla Model S

This thing is turning ugly. And trying to suss out the truth is becoming a head-spinning endeavor.

Jalopnik got hold of the towing company, which confirmed that the Tesla’s battery was dead when it got there.

“…it’s possible how Broder and Musk could both be truthful but sort of wrong. The high-voltage battery in the pack, allegedly, had enough power to move the car a much greater distance than needed to move the car onto a flatbed, maybe as far as five miles, but the 12V battery that powers the accessories and gets its juice from the high voltage battery shut down when Broder pulled into the service station.

When Broder decided to turn the car off, which was a mistake, the parking brake (operated by the 12V battery) was rendered unusable. If Broder was told not to turn the car off, it’s his mistake. If Tesla told him to do it, or didn’t inform him he shouldn’t do it, then it’s their mistake.”

Engadget also made another good point: Tesla states its estimated maximum range is 300 miles for this model. The EPA, however, throws out a 5-Cycle Certified Range that’s a more conservative 265 miles. With a 35-mile difference, that’s certainly enough to put any driver on edge. (After all, it’s one thing to be out and about when your phone runs out of power. It’s quite another to be stranded on the side of the road.)

CNN even duplicated Broder’s D.C.-to-Boston trip. Notably, writer Peter Valdes-Dapena didn’t experience the problems that the NYT writer had — though, he admits, the trip wasn’t exactly anxiety-free. Where that stress comes from isn’t hard to pinpoint: 

“The most scary part of the trip: the 200 miles between charging stations in Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn. That’s not a lot of cushion, especially after I missed an exit adding a few miles to that leg.”

That looks like a nod to Broder. According to Valdes-Dapena, there were also some important distinctions between this ride and the previous one. First, it was 10 degrees warmer, and the CNN reviewer completed his trip in one day, whereas the NYT reviewer broke his trip into two days. (Gearheads also know that seemingly small things — like differences in tires — can grossly affect mileage.) What could be a major factor, however, is that Valdes-Dapena carefully followed the company’s instructions on how to maximize the battery.

Not that Broder didn’t, but his trouble seems to stem from contacting Tesla directly and asking for advice en route. In his his rebuttal to Elon Musk’s scathing accusations, he said that he communicated with Tesla multiple times, and apparently none of the representatives provided “detailed instructions on maximizing the driving range, the impact of cold weather on battery strength or how to get the most out of the Superchargers or the publicly available lower-power charging ports along the route.” In fact, many of the tips he was given were confusing and even contradicted each other. (You can get the point-by-point refutation against Musk’s allegations at the link above.)

He offers compelling explanations that shoot down Musk’s negative spin of the data logs. One of the noteworthy nuggets in Broder’s defense: When he asked for the data collected during the trip (for fact-checking purposes), he was told that Tesla had “typical diagnostic information,” but didn’t store exact car routes due to privacy issues. However, the data magically appeared when Musk needed to validate his tirade. (Note: Those logs have become standard for Tesla reviews after the Tesla Roadster fiasco with Top Gear, which staged a phony breakdown for dramatic effect.) 

 

An event data recorder, or "black box"

An event data recorder, or “black box”

Let this be a lesson for budding reviewers: There is always data. Tech journos know this, as well as the fact that performance can vary greatly depending on usage. That’s why the best of the best clearly state whether, say, a handset is being tested in an area with good or poor reception, reliant on 3G/4G or mostly W-iFi, if usage centers around a lot of video streaming, etc… And if those details seem a little off or aren’t reported with 100 percent, spot-on accuracy, you can bet more companies will cry foul. This will be even truer in the future — particularly with car companies, as they increasingly use “black boxes” and other technology to track and log driving data. 

In the end, if there’s one takeaway from this fiasco for potential customers, it may be this: Driving a Tesla S requires attentiveness. It may not be what Musk meant to do, but he highlighted this fact by digging up vehicle logs proving that Broder didn’t top up his battery or that he went fast, turned up the heat or drove donuts in a parking lot (which, the writer explains, was actually an attempt to find a Supercharger in that plaza). These are, after all, common things that many drivers would do, particularly those who are willing to drop $100,000 for a Tesla. It’s not hard to imagine this breed of driver having certain expectations and behaviors, such as high-speed driving or maintaining a comfortable cabin temperature. While that doesn’t justify Broder’s failure to disclose certain details in his original review, his article did reflect how some people might drive these cars.

Frankly, this was neither party’s shining moment. Broder allowed inconsistencies in his report. And Musk defensively jumped to conclusions that the writer was lying. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who suffers, trying to parse all the drama for whatever bits of usable information he or she can scavenge. Serving the readers is supposed to be the main point, and yet it somehow got left by the side of the road in all this petty squabbling.

Weigh in: Did the controversy change your opinion of the Tesla S, the company, The New York Times or product reviews in general? Let us know if you’re taking sides in this, or if you’re standing by, just hoping for the dust to settle.