Since New York Times reporter John M. Broder wrote his account last week describing a $101,000 Tesla Model S leaving him stranded in the cold, a virtual skirmish of insinuation and accusation has continued between the Times and Tesla.
Yesterday, Tesla issued what it said would be its final word with a bullet list of points it says were culled from data logs taken from the test car Broder drove. The company says these prove his story cannot be true.
As we noted on Tuesday, Elon Musk said the data logs the company keeps on all journalistic test drives show Broder’s story is “a fake.”
Yesterday, Tesla drew parallels between Broder’s alleged editorial hijacking and lessons learned at the hands of British auto show Top Gear in which they staged a run-out-of-juice scene of a Tesla Roadster.
“While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story,” wrote Tesla in a blog post bylined by Elon Musk, Chairman, Product Architect & CEO. He was speaking of Top Gear, but then said the same was basically true of Broder.
“The logs show again that our Model S never had a chance with John Broder. In the case with Top Gear, their legal defense was that they never actually said it broke down, they just implied that it could and then filmed themselves pushing what viewers did not realize was a perfectly functional car. In Mr. Broder’s case, he simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running,” wrote Musk.
Allowing that in other times during the past week Musk has attempted to show himself as diplomatic as possible, in blunt terms one could say the automaker is calling the New York Times reporter a liar.
Broder’s story, which he has maintained is absolutely factual, was juicy in its details that added up to fodder in support of the usual messages we hear EV critics make.
The trip he contemplated from Washington to Boston was to test the Model S and its Supercharger fast-charging stations.
He did it in the dead of winter, when true enough, electric vehicles do experience diminished charge holding capacity and range, but the 85-kwh Model S was capable of making the trip – according to Tesla, not Broder.
Broder said the car – subsidized by $465 million in taxpayer loans and costing triple an average new car that could have made it – let him down. This, Broder said as he chronicled his adventure from his influential New York Times platform toward the Model S’ alleged failure.
“As I crossed into New Jersey some 15 miles later, I noticed that the estimated range was falling faster than miles were accumulating,” he wrote of when he began to sense things might be going wrong.
“I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic,” he wrote.
“All the while, my feet were freezing and my knuckles were turning white,” he said of an experience that would immediately turn off anyone contemplating making the plunge into an electric vehicle.
“If this is Tesla’s vision of long-distance travel in America’s future, I thought, and the solution to what the company calls the ‘road trip problem,’ it needs some work,” wrote Broder.
Then while documenting his real world trip that ended by being towed to a charger on a flatbed, he noted with irony the glowing words of former Energy Secretary Steven Chu that implicitly sounded like hype. He noted the money spent by the American government on behalf of its citizens. He noted how expensive the Model S is.
Following that first story, and Musk’s initial responses, the New York Times has gone on record essentially implying it is Musk who may be lying. Broder also blogged a defense of Musk’s rebuttals, and the Times has also posted a story saying it was not sorry its negative report “sunk” Tesla’s stock – at least for the days following this drama.
“Let’s answer these assertions in turn. My account was not a fake. It happened just the way I described it,” wrote Broder in his own defense, and then proceeded to account for issues for which Musk had publicly cried foul.
Fake or Not?
Below we’ll present bullet points given by Tesla’s CEO written in a Tesla blog post yesterday and Broder’s responses follow. Actually the entire point / counterpoint section was taken from Broder’s rebuttal which quoted Musk verbatim right down the line from Musk’s blog post.
We’ll add the points Musk asserts could be considered very damaging to Broder’s story and credibility if they are indeed shown to be true. Where this saga will end, remains to be seen, but we’re just laying it out with links also in this post for you to follow.
In his lengthy rebuttal, Broder explained the timing and trip had been proposed by Tesla, he was qualified to do the job, and his position would suggest no bias or axe to grind.
“Since 2009, I have been the Washington bureau reporter responsible for coverage of energy, environment and climate change,” wrote Broder yesterday. “I have written numerous articles about the auto industry and several vehicle reviews for the Automobiles pages. (In my 16 years at The Times I have served as White House correspondent, Washington editor, Los Angeles bureau chief and a political correspondent.)”
What’s more, Broder asserts Tesla handed him the car without full explanation of the charging network and some of the car’s features and peculiarities.
So, sticking to his story that this was a good faith report, he continued to chronicle his side that three hours into the trip, he made the first of around one dozen phone calls to Tesla seeking guidance.
Here is the point / counterpoint with bullets by Musk and responses from Broder:
• “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.”
• “When I first heard about what could at best be described as irregularities in Broder’s behavior during the test drive, I called to apologize for any inconvenience that he may have suffered and sought to put my concerns to rest, hoping that he had simply made honest mistakes. That was not the case.”
Mr. Musk not only apologized, he said the charging stations should be 60 miles closer together and offered me a second test drive when additional stations were built.
After lobbing potentially painful and costly words from East to West and back, the drama has done a great job of stoking ire and passions – or disgust and disinterest – among those who have paid attention – or tuned it out.
It is clear electric vehicles have to prove themselves and are being weighed in the court of public opinion – not especially known for its jurisprudence or clarity.
Undeniable is EVs are subsidized, do cost more on average, if not a lot more, than gas counterparts. They also take longer to refuel, and there are fewer chargers publicly available to do so.
Those facts are part of the backdrop in a pointed dispute between two opinion makers – the New York Times, and Tesla’s rock star of a CEO, Elon Musk.
People on the sidelines have been offering comments siding with one or the other, while others more wisely say “show me the data.”
Tesla has now given the data, says it has nothing more to say, so now what?
This testing was done last April in Baudette, Minn., and is not related to Broder’s drive.
However this spat turns out, more certain is that if the EV will make it, it will make it on its merits, and bad news in itself, while always seeming fresh and dramatic at the moment, is really part of a sad state of affairs we have today.
And, we could add, people do love a good fight, so this surely feeds the need for those so inclined.
The Times has now refuted the refutation of Elon Musk, and in the end, whenever that is, we hope after the fear, uncertainty, accusations, and doubt, the truth will prevail.