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. 

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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.

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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.

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