Ecocentric

It’s Not About the Range: How the Tesla/New York Times Controversy Misses the Point About Electric Cars

An electric car company accuses a venerable newspaper of faking a review of its flagship car. But both sides should realize that battery-powered vehicles need to a fill a different niche than gasoline cars.

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The Telsa Model S sedan, driven by company CEO Elon Musk

Over at Techland, Matt Peckham has a nice rundown on the ongoing feud between the electric car company Tesla and the New York Times. Short version: Times reporter John Broder took an East Coast road trip in a Tesla Model S sedan, driving between two fast-charging electric stations in Delaware and Connecticut. The idea—for Tesla, at least—was to prove that fast-charging stations can help alleviate the range anxiety associated with electric cars, allowing drivers to go long distances, just as they can with conventional gasoline-powered cars.

According to Broder, though, things didn’t quite work out that way. Broder’s Feb. 10 was nothing short of scathing, reporting that the Tesla Model S seemed to lose charge much faster than it should have, forcing him to drive slowly and turn down the heat despite the cold winter weather (which likely impacted the battery life of the car as well). In the end the car ran out of charge, forcing him to spend some of his journey in the cab of a flatbed tow truck on the way to another charging station. If the Times’ test drive had been meant to show that Tesla drivers no longer needed to worry about “range anxiety,” it was a total disaster.

But Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk didn’t take the article lying down. He accused Border of essentially faking the article, and promised to release data logs from the test drive that would prove it. You can find a Tesla post from Musk elaborating those claims here—essentially he argues that Broder purposefully ignored guidelines from Tesla staff in an effort to drive the car into the ground, all to support a story that would make Tesla and electric cars in general look bad. Musk noted that Broder had written earlier articles skeptical of the viability of electric cars, and suggested Broder was willing to bend the facts on his test drive to prove that he was right:

When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts. Our request of The New York Times is simple and fair: please investigate this article and determine the truth. You are a news organization where that principle is of paramount importance and what is at stake for sustainable transport is simply too important to the world to ignore.

The New York Times is doing just that—Broder tweeted that he was working on a point-by-point response to Musk’s own point-by-point critique. Meanwhile sides are already being taken on Twitter, mostly along the lines of what people believed about electric cars (and perhaps the mainstream media) in the first place. 


(MORE: Are Electric Cars Safe?)

Who’s right? Considering I don’t have access to the raw data from Tesla—which they have not yet released, despite calls to do so—and I wasn’t in the passenger seat with Broder during his test drive, I can’t really say. A post at the Atlantiby Rebecca Greenfield made what seems to be a pretty strong case that Tesla’s data doesn’t match its accusations of journalistic fraud. Her 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.

It’s also worth noting that the blog Jalopnik tracked down the tow truck company that picked up Broder’s Tesla, and they report—contra Musk’s own blog post—that the Tesla was essentially out of juice when the tow truck showed up. Though even that’s not as simple as it appears—a commenter at Jalopnik notes that the car might have still had some power, but that the battery powering the accessories and electronics seemed drained. When Broder shut down the car—not a surprising thing to do if it seemed to be out of juice—the parking brake locked and he was stuck.

I suspect this back and forth will continue going…back and forth for some time. But the argument over the details of exactly how Broder drove and what he wrote misses the larger point. Even if Tesla is mostly right that Broder didn’t operate his Tesla S for maximum efficiency, the reality is that electric cars—even ones that can supposedly get 300 miles to a charge—aren’t ready to drive long distances. The infrastructure that would support long-distance driving—rapid charging stations that are almost as common as gas stations—isn’t even close to being there. In a gasoline-powered world, it’s not reasonable today to expect an electric car to operate in the same way as a gasoline-powered car—just as it’s not reasonable for Tesla to expect drivers to change their behavior to fit a new technology. Broder made it clear to me at least in his review that he was trying to test out his Tesla S in real-world conditions—and real world drivers won’t always follow the rules to the letter. Think of all the work tech companies like Apple have put into making their gadgets essentially idiot-proof. Tesla doesn’t seem to be there yet.

(MORE: Energy: Why the U.S. Isn’t a Better Place)

And maybe it doesn’t have to be. Barring major leaps in either battery capacity or charging speed, electric cars will always lag behind gasoline-powered vehicles when it comes to long-distance travel. That’s because gasoline is, for all its negative environmental consequences, a really, really efficient way to store energy—much more so than an electric battery. It’s also much easier to store, and of course, we already have nearly a century’s worth of gas stations and other fueling infrastructure built up in the U.S.

But most of us don’t spend much of our time driving up and down the Eastern seaboard. (Which, if you have experienced the sclerotic, Sbarros-ridden wonder that is I-95, is something you should be very, very grateful for.) The average American drives about 37 miles a day—well within the range of electric cars that are much cheaper and less advanced than the Tesla S. All-electric cars will serve a different function than gasoline-powered vehicles. Shorter drives, brief commutes, urban travel—not long distances. And that’s where electrics can have an advantage over gas cars, especially if more cities follow New York’s example and create special parking spots for battery-powered cars. Electrics need to be thought of less as a “car”—because that promises performance it can’t always deliver—than a new and often more efficient way of getting from most of the point As and point Bs of our lives.

Of course, the Tesla S costs at least $50,000—and that’s with the $7,500 federal tax credit—which makes it a very expensive way to get from A to B. Especially if part of that trip is on the back of a flatbed truck.

(MORE: More on Rare Earths: Looking for a Way out From Under a Monopoly)

91 comments
TimeToStandUp
TimeToStandUp

Do any of you know about the NESEA 1996 Tour de Sol contest where the Solectria Sunrise EV got 375 miles per charge, the Ford EcoStar got 225, and the GM EV-1 got 125? This is real. The EV has been ready for a very long time,but the gas and oil conglomerates have been destroying or squelching anything that may threaten their money tree. They have a huge propaganda machine going and a huge lobbying effort going including buying of politicians.

TimeToStandUp
TimeToStandUp

What if the cars did not need hardly any outside charging ?

What if they had consistent trickle charging always going on ? What if they had:
1) PV built into the body providing consistent trickle charge anytime any light is present (i.e., thin film like the new one that uses ALL incoming light and has a +90% efficiency),2) permanent magnet DC high efficiency generators in the wheels so trickle charge also occurs every time the wheels move, 3) Ultra capacitors used in order to cut down on battery drawdowns during high power demand times such as initial acceleration (these can extend a battery charge up to 15 times when used with portable power tools), 4) low efficiency magnetic field inducing generators used in regenerative braking for recapture of some energy (or maybe try some flywheel technology, which I haven't seen used yet, the other items however are all ready to go), 5) Altairnano Nanosafe nano coated titanium dioxide batteries do not heat up, test up to 20,000 recharges, charge in 10 minutes,operate in extreme temperatures and can be stacked to provide extended ranges, and
6) High efficiency motors by UQM or Dyson. Such a car would rarely need to be "plugged in" to the grid. It would sell very well throughout the world, put more money back into the hands of the people because they would not have to be buying unneeded outside produced polluting energy, erasing much carbon presently being produced alleviating some of the climate change, change the geopolitical structures throughout the world, i.e., middle east, Iran, Venezuela, ETC., help alleviate the need for us to be spending such great sums of money and precious resources including military on the Middle East, cut down on polution and the attendant health problems and costs incurred by such. Yeah, I guess it makes too much sense and the greedy oil and gas barons and their lackeys in Congress, their lobbyists and their trolls cruising the internet won't allow it.

LaurenGlenn
LaurenGlenn

All I can say is that people still aren't seeing the bigger picture with electric cars..... if you can't dispose of batteries in junk yards due to environmental concerns, how much effort is it to recycle a battery or even if they become more mainstream, how will you do it on a mass scale?  Plus, I know that electric cars are cheap to fill up now, but wait until the governments lose all of that revenue from electric cars..... want to see the taxes go up on your electric car?  Power won't be too cheap then.

No one has taken to electric cars in mass and this is one reason why.  Here you have a company that didn't (as you properly put it) make the product idiot proof (for lack of a better term).  I write software and can tell you that people will try stupid things and you will need to fix the software.  People think that you should always design a software package the way they see fit and that you shouldn't plan for a contingency.  I deal with this every day.  If you give a product to a reputable newspaper for review, you might want to make sure that they can get it to work without set guidelines otherwise the product just isn't ready.  All this proves is that Tesla isn't ready for primetime.  This article has it spot-on. 

It doesn't matter if they followed the rules that Tesla put out.  They set up a challenge that required you to follow a set list of rules in a controlled experiment.  Even a layman who doesn't know how to review something will try to use it the way that THEY would use it.  If Tesla gives you set guidelines, then it's a controlled experiment and not an honest review.  They just want you to do exactly what they want so you'll give them the response that they want.  Good reviews need to be earned, not controlled.  Even if they redid the test to the letter of what you expected, it wouldn't be a honest test and no one should spend this amount of money on this vehicle if everyone at the company would just wash their hands of any problem by saying you didn't follow the rules to the letter.

ManuelRosa
ManuelRosa

I also had a dishonesty problem with Amy Harmon, NY Times reporter who wrote the article "Seeking Columbus’s Origins, With a Swab"http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10.... Half of the information in the article was provided by me and through me, yet not a single word was mentioned about her source nor about the 20 years I spent doing my research on Columbus. In the end I thought it was a simple oversight, but when I called her attention to this, she simply ignored my several emails and to this day has not acknowledged her usurping of my work on "COLÓN La Historia Nunca Contada" [COLUMBUS. The Untold Story] as the source for her article. Sooner or later these dishonest reporters shoot themselves in the foot and their integrity becomes crippled.http://goddesschess.blogspot.c...

lmf5000
lmf5000

Here's what I think. People place too much weight on what the media says. When I read a car review, I take it with a pinch of salt, because at finally it's only one person's opinion that matters: mine. That's why before I buy any car, I go on a test drive - and if necessary rent one for a week. If I was considering a Tesla Model S, I wouldn't take Broder's word for it, I'd rent one myself and see how it handles my actual commute in practice, and how much I like every other aspect of the car (maybe it has seats that are uncomfortable? Or pedals that make your legs cramp? Or there's an unbearable glare from the angle of the windscreen? Only YOU know what YOU need in a car).


People have to stop treating these journalists as the ultimate authority about anything. They're just human beings like everyone else, and they all have their personal opinions and biases.

LorinThwaits
LorinThwaits

How is gasoline an efficient way to store energy if we lose 70% of that energy upon using it?  Only about 30% of the energy in combustible fuel ever makes its ways to the tires.  And further it's a stretch to say it's a way to store energy since we only consume oil, we don't create it.

Meanwhile electric vehicles really do store energy, and their overhead is only about 10%.  In other words, 90% of the energy you put into an electric vehicle makes it to the wheels.  You can't get much more efficient than that.

RaffyInfra
RaffyInfra

@TIME "electric cars will ALWAYS lag behind gasolin-powered cars", also misses point. A new Mr Ford-like innovator is what we need! Imagine!

EVOwner
EVOwner

I have followed electric car developments for years, including the formation of Tesla. I recently bought an EV from a company called Think, which began its life as a division of Ford. It was divested, and has changed hands several times. Think recently went Chapter 11, and as a result I was able to get one of their cars (model "City") for 70% off list price. With the federal tax credit included, my net price was $8,500. A far cry from Tesla's net price ranging from $50,000 to $95,000.

Think claims a range of 100 miles, but is honest enough to tell you that the winter range will be closer to 70 miles. My cold-weather range is about 65 miles, but I'm in the Pacific Northwest where winters aren't as cold as in the East. Back there, I'd expect my car to get about 50 miles on a charge, the reason being that cold weather reduces the range of lithium-ion systems, plus the heater takes a lot of power. Tesla's claimed range at the top end is something like 275 miles, but in the conditions described by the New York Times writer, I think it'd be fortunate to achieve half that.

I read through the original article, Elan Musk's response, and the N.Y. Times writer's rebuttal, and wind up with a mixture of amusement and irritation toward Tesla. They did a data dump in response to the article, with most of the information being not material. Some of it was even misleading, such as Musk's denial that the car's battery had ever been fully discharged. That's undoubtedly true; any computer or cellphone will shut down before fully discharging a lithium-ion battery, and so will an electric car. You don't want such a battery to go truly to zero. Software is designed to shut off the device to conserve a little bit of charge for the battery.

Rather than get lost in specifics, I'll say a couple of general things. One is that Tesla's arrogance is typical of the computer companies of California that want to blame everything on user error. The other is that, if this is how that company's CEO will act when the spotlight is shining, could you imagine being an ordinary Tesla customer who's car didn't work as expected? You'd be buried in minutae, while the company slithered off the hook. What an end-user nightmare!

I'm a happy EV driver, but there are nits and nats. These cars are all in the early versions. The New York Times report was fair and factual in its material representations, while the company's response was arrogant and evasive. It ought to speak volumes to anyone considering a purchase of Tesla's products. Fortunately, even in bankruptcy, the Think car company is 180 degrees different than Tesla. They've stepped up to the plate and faced problems head on. I wish the government had given Think the hundreds of millions of dollars instead of Tesla, but I guess Think didn't have the same hype machine.

skippy
skippy

Electric cars are totally new and different vehicles comparing to gasoline based cars.  They shouldn't be tested or evaulated by a jounalist, such an amateur for this.  electric cars don't charge or refill like typical ones.  The drivers need to be educated for this. The report is just one opinion in one abnormal situation due to how it was handled.   Electric cards shouldn't be driven like any gasoline automobile.  It was wrong Tesla didn't properly set the right level of expectation before given it out for this test.  Time to do damage control.

iKronologizer
iKronologizer

Is it just me who wonders why we could ever expect another Time writer to not back up his fellow journalist on this?  The reality is that Media sells out to BIG OIL everyday and that's what I believe is taking place here. Just like with this simple fact of the Tesla on BBC's Top Gear. The reality is BBC makes their living off BP BIG OIL MONEY!

Sorry about that... but it's the truth and it's so obvious that's what took place here. I'm not saying John Broder took a bribe, I'm saying that Big Media just so happens to be in palm of Big Oil hands. That is way too obvious when you look at how BP has been soft gloved back into the Lime Light of Mr Good Guy Big Oil so soon after destroying the Gulf Coast. Where's all that money they promised to spend to make things right? Has anyone that was really affected by that Gulf Oil spill had their lives restored back to what it was before it happened? NO!!!! 

So we have an American company that's defying Big Oil Interests and making an electric car that actually works. It's not even a first.... and then we have (like with Top Gear) a Media Giant putting their Top Gasoline Automotive Reviewer taking one on a so called proof of concept and design of this marvelous feat of engineering leaving too many questions on how he run this test review. Not unlike the bogus BBC (BP sponsored) disparaging show on Tesla two years ago.  John Broder blames it all on the cold weather and Electric Cars not being able to compete with Gas Powered Automobile Industry. Now if that isn't an Opinionated Review of the Competition by a biased writer, I don't know what is!!!

ColinGilsenan
ColinGilsenan

@MotoringLifeMag @TIME The upside is the infernal combustion engine aint goin no where.

ezracolbert
ezracolbert

uh, even better would be to make private cars illegal; indeed, if you think personal private cars shold be allowed, you are not, by definition an environmentalist

which will occur more or less in the next 10 - 20 years; we simply have to many people on the planet for private cars

manuelmdr
manuelmdr

Bryan Walsh misses the point, this is about a journalist trying to push a narrative and a engineering company proving them wrong with hard data. There is nothing else to this story.  

zachary.shahan
zachary.shahan

Are you kidding me. The only point to take from this story is that someone (with an agenda) deliberately ran the car to dead. You can do that with any car you want. It's quite absurd to come to any other conclusion.

dklloyd
dklloyd

It seems that the future world of short-distance commuting could involve very small cars with a car-sharing system where u drive from point A to point B.On this scale,the chances are better for having the infrastructure to accomodate electric cars and other means besides large cars.

It is very impractical to impose large cars and heavyduty traffic on cities and small towns.They are for highways.

There are 2 different scenarios here-1)short trips in areas with high density and other means of transport e.g public transit and bikes and 2)long distance commuting.

There would be some overlap between the 2 scenarios in cities but we are way behind other developed countries in good quality public transit and support for bike commuting and other means.We are overly dependant on large cars and clogged up with traffic snarls and long highway commutes.

JKBullis
JKBullis

There are two real points about electric cars, but this article misses. 

Yes, they are too expensive, and the obvious implication is that they will not sell in large numbers.  But the important ramification of this is that they are not a meaningful course of action for our government to pursue, at least not yet.  Bribing people to buy (subsidizing) products that are not otherwise viable is bad policy, unless there is really an imminent good thing that would result.  Government financing of the company and assistance in tricking the stock market to also put up money through misrepresentation of the effect of the electric vehicle is also bad policy.  True, the conversation is usually about range, but the fake MPGE formula is bound to mislead some car buyers.

Rotosnitter
Rotosnitter

I agree for now gas cars are far superior. In about 10 years battery capacity may approach the energy density of gas. They still will have the same environmental impact as gas cars unless charged from nuclear or renewable sources.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

I'd love an electric car for my commute (about 40 miles round trip). They just need to come down in price.

JPScoopZ
JPScoopZ

Information was released on the Tesla blog yesterday 


GodshuffledhisfeetAnovel
GodshuffledhisfeetAnovel

Tesla-Space X-and Elon Musk to save mankind!!Fun and fast paced new science fiction novel

A must read--God Shuffled His Feet—A Novel by Mark Ellenbogen

Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads.

Exciting fun novel with a humorous apocalyptic twist.  Elon Musk-Tesla and Space X help save mankind from total destruction!  Meet astronomers Ravi Najir and Sam Klein, two PHD doctoral students from Humboldt, California, about to have their world turned upside down----literally. The duo wins a $250,000 grant and a coveted year long viewing slot using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the heavens. Little do they know that what they are about discover, will rock the Earth, their lives, and the heavens all at once!  

High in the far reaches of space, up where the Crab Nebula is supposed to be, a new solar system has formed and Klein and Najir are about to discover it.  Within minutes of accessing their chosen Hubble coordinates, two new celestial bodies are discovered where none existed before!! 

Dubbing their discovery the Master Kush Formation; the two unlikely heroes are quickly rocketed to fame and glory over night. A new sun and a fully habitable blue-green planet have taken the place of the Crab Nebula.  God plans to wipe the Earth clean and start over!!!

The clock is ticking and time is running out.  Only a few will make it.  The boys enlist the help of Elon Musk, Tesla and Space X to manage the technology and transport the saved.   Do you have what it takes?  Open up God Shuffled His Feet for the ride of your life!!  Peppered with interesting trivia, thoughtful humor and some suspenseful science fiction God Shuffled His Feet will entertain while provoking some thought in the process.

SamuelH
SamuelH

CNN completed this same trip with no issues whatsoever. What's wrong with Broder?!!

DeepElemBlues
DeepElemBlues

Bottom line: People who can easily and happily benefit from adding an electric car to their household, should do so. Only then will the technology be able to improve to be superior in all conditions. And, don't drive it like a dummy: charge it fully, drive it as expected.

Lastly, delete and ignore any story or article written by Broder in the future, he is obviously not a journalist with any integrity. I think I'll shy away from a lot of NYT info in the future too, I had no idea they would publish such junk, but now I know and I can't un-know it.

qitcryn
qitcryn

gosh.. i'm sick of this story.  Tesla is embarassing the auto industry. Some people get EV and some don't. If this idiot didn't fully charge the car.. DUH!!. what did you expect..  Who charges their cell phone hald way then blame the phone company for a bad cell phone. It's stupid..   I want a Tesla

Logical_Thinker_
Logical_Thinker_

CNN just re-tested the exact same trip, and guess what: They finished with many miles of range remaining.

NYT reporter himself admitted he didn't charge the car FULLY. 

News Flash: Electric Cars must be FULLY charged for FULL range.  Kind of like Gas cars must be fully filled for full range.

Funny how that works, hey?

money.cnn.com/2013/02/15/autos/tesla-model-s/