Tesla warns media to watch its step

words - Jeremy Bass
US electric car maker claims a win in its brawl with a New York Times writer over cold weather range issues in its Tesla Model S

Tesla founder Elon Musk and his company don’t like bad press. Nor, indeed, are they used to it. First the Californian EV maker’s two-seat Roadster and now its Model S have drawn almost universally fulsome praise, including from motoring.com.au .

But the last couple of weeks have revealed the lengths to which the company will go to keep things its idea of nice.

When the New York Times published a less than complimentary piece about the cold-weather behaviour of its new Model S sedan, Mr Musk and his people didn’t take it lying down. Hence has the last fortnight seen one of car world’s more memorable recent stoushes unfold in a way that’s given the rest of us some none too savoury insights into the way both sides do business.

With the rollout of its first eastern US Supercharger units in Connecticut, Tesla was keen to get some press for its burgeoning quick-charge system. The company is, after all, selling its planned nationwide network of such points as the most viable solution yet for the range anxiety problem cruelling EV sales worldwide.

The idea is pretty simple. Tesla plans to put Supercharger units along major highways all across the US, at intervals regular enough for Model S drivers to make cross-country trips with no greater inconvenience than the rest stops they’d make every 200-300km anyway.

By Tesla’s calculations, the 480-volt charge stations give a top-shelf 85kWh Model S a 240km top-up in just 30 minutes – and it’s free.

To help prove its point, the company offered the Times a car to take on a longish drive and put the new units to the test. It ended up in the hands of green contributor/blogger John M Broder. On what was intended as a two-day trip, Broder set forth from his place in suburban Washington DC on a round trip taking in Supercharger posts in the Connecticut towns of Milford and Norwich.

The trouble started as he crossed into Jersey and headed for New York, watching the range numbers drop far in advance of the miles rolling away beneath him.

From there spilt forth a story of too-short range in cold conditions, too-long charge times, a fast car forced into the slow lane to go the distance, shutting down heating systems in near-freezing conditions along the way, ending up at one point on the back of a flatbed truck - and even that with great difficulty. Check out Mr Broder’s story here – you’ll find it’s an entertaining read.

Which is exactly what Mr Musk and his people are claiming was Mr Broder’s primary motivation for a story they claim was riddled with untruths. The problem for Mr Broder was that they’ve been prepared for moments like this, ever since Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear team got hold of a Model S and played the range issue for laughs, showing themselves getting out and pushing what Musk says was “a perfectly functional car”.

You can read Musk’s blog response here (http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/most-peculiar-test-drive), but here’s the crucial part: after the Top Gear experience, Tesla began switching on the data log in every press car’s brain. It’s there in every car, but inactive. Until, it seems, moments like this, when Tesla wants to validate or rebut any claims about its products. The log allows them to do that with precise activity, time and location details.

Mr Broder gave Tesla its first opportunity to use it. And the company went in hard.

“NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake,” Mr Musk tweeted three days after publication. Following it up on his blog, he claimed the log shows Mr Broder acted against the advice of handlers on numerous fronts.

With charts and graphs showing the wheres and whens, Mr Musk and his company said he hit speeds much higher than those he claimed, took an unplanned “long detour” through downtown Manhattan, repeatedly disconnected the charger before he needed to and set the climate systems higher than he claimed.

Mr Broder came back swinging, rebutting claims about disobeying instructions, pointing to expedient misinterpretations of the data, adding that he gave the car all the charge its range readout suggested it needed next to the route map. His point, he added, is that range – and occupants – obviously suffer in the cold.

Then out came the Tesla cavalry. Seven members of the Tesla Motors Club, reliving Mr Broder’s itinerary, retraced his tyre tracks (without the Manhattan detour) and found miles to spare at the end of each leg. Tweeting all the way, of course, and coining the term “brodering” for “running out of power due to human error, or generally dropping the ball when dealing with electric cars.”

It took NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan to forge a rapprochement. Under the headline “Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test”, she proffered up that Mr Broder acted in good faith but got some things wrong.

Mr Musk was placated, if not magnanimous. In his follow-up blog, he claimed the paper “reversed its opinion of its Model S” – it didn’t. You can read Sullivan’s missive here.

And he’s not backing down on matters to do with range and cold weather. But it’s odds-on the incident hasn’t escaped the notice of EV makers and battery suppliers. If another such test goes similarly awry, data or no data, nothing short of corruption charges against the scribe will staunch the fallout.

The incident also highlighted something Tesla is keen to play down while it rolls out its Supercharger network: that even with such support, EVs are yet to mature enough to preclude planning of a kind not needed for IC cars. A fair part of the company’s protest against Mr Broder hinged on accusations of bad planning. If the journalist achieved anything through the Manhattan detour, it was to remind consumers that EV drivers still have to think about things fossil-fuellers can ignore or take for granted.

The incident has also probably done lasting damage to the company’s relations with the media. Nobody likes the idea that they’re being monitored, especially not with their watcher telling them they’ll be perfectly alright unless they do something wrong. That’s a strategy every totalitarian regime has used since the dawn of time to keep its subjects living in fear.

And besides, what does Tesla do with data inaccuracies that run counter to a good write-up? Given its status as a media and showbiz darling, it’s a good bet there are many.

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Published : Saturday, 23 February 2013
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