New York Times Reporter To Tesla: I Was Just Following Your Terrible Advice

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S is a beauty, but taking a road trip in one requires some careful planning.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

UPDATE, Feb. 15, 8:59 a.m.: A reporter for CNN Money just took his own Tesla road trip from Washington, D.C. to Boston, with strikingly different results. Peter Valdes-Dapena writes:

As I drove into Connecticut, I realized something amazing. Not only did I have enough battery range left, I had plenty. I had at least 40 miles – more than an entire Chevy Volt’s worth of electricity – left to play with. I sped up, cruising over 70, riding in the left lane, mashing the gas pedal just to feel how fast the car could shoot from 65 to 80. I was practically giddy.

In the end, I made it – and it wasn’t that hard.

UPDATE, Feb. 14, 6:26 p.m.: As promised, John M. Broder has just posted a point-by-point response to Musk’s claims on the Times’ Wheels blog.

According to Broder, a lot of the charging decisions that Musk criticized were actually specifically recommended by the Tesla representatives that Broder spoke to. That includes the seemingly self-defeating decision to leave the public charging station in Norwich, Conn. after charging the battery only to 28 percent. Broder writes:

It was also Tesla that told me that an hour of charging (at a lower power level) at a public utility in Norwich, Conn., would give me adequate range to reach the Supercharging station 61 miles away, even though the car’s range estimator read 32 miles – because, again, I was told that moderate-speed driving would “restore” the battery power lost overnight. … To reiterate: Tesla personnel told me over the phone that they were able to monitor the state of the battery. It was they who cleared me to leave Norwich after an hour of charging.

Broder adds that the Tesla personnel he talked with before the test drive, including CTO JB Straubel, did not give him detailed instructions on how to get the most out of the vehicle’s range or the charging stations. One could argue that Broder should have asked, but the fact that Tesla’s reps knew his planned route and did not offer that advice suggests that they didn’t think it would be a problem.

As for some of the numerical discrepancies between Tesla’s data and Broder’s account, Broder didn’t have a great explanation other than that he wrote what he had taken down in his notes. That leaves open the question of whether he fudged things a bit or whether Tesla’s data is wrong. But Broder points out that the car came with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires rather than 21-inch wheels and summer tires, which in theory could help explain why some readings were slightly off.

Meanwhile, the auto blog Jalopnik offers a possible solution to the mystery of how Broder could think that the battery died entirely at the end of the ill-starred journey, while Musk insists that it had charge remaining. A source told the blog that a secondary battery that powers the control panels might have run out of juice first, and once Broder turned off the car, he couldn’t turn it back on because the 12-volt battery is needed to unlock the parking break. That would be a mistake, but again, not something you could expect Broder to know without being told.

Perhaps the most convincing statistic in Broder’s rebuttal is the number of times he called Tesla personnel throughout the trip to ask for help getting the car to its destination: “about a dozen,” he says. That’s hardly what you’d expect from a man “determined” to get the car to die so he could embarrass Musk and co. in his review. If Musk is angry at anyone for sabotaging Broder’s trip, it seems it should be his own employees. (Indeed, that may also be the case: The spokeswoman who arranged Broder’s test drive left Tesla shortly afterward and now works for a different Musk venture, Space-X.)

The bottom line is this: For a variety of reasons, including user error, the Model S and its brand-new Supercharger network didn’t live up to expectations on one man’s road trip. That doesn’t make Broder a liar, and it doesn’t make the Model S a failure. If anything, it shows a slight dark side to Musk’s unshakeable confidence in his product’s ability to do things no one expects an electric car to be able to do. It’s that confidence, of course, that has made Tesla the talk of the auto world in the first place. But Musk’s apparent refusal to entertain the idea that anything could go wrong opened the door for a reporter like Broder to poke a hole in the hype (whether that was his original intent or not). And his continued insistence that his product is idiot-proof—in the face of mounting evidence that it is not—has allowed a single bad review to balloon into a major controversy.

Original post: The New York Times said Thursday it is reviewing claims by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that its damaging review of Tesla’s new Model S sedan contained deliberate fabrications intended to make the car look bad. Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told me the paper stands by the article and that Broder and his editors are working on a detailed response to Musk’s incendiary blog post, which he published Wednesday night.

At stake are, to varying extents, the reputations of longtime Times reporter John M. Broder, Musk, Tesla, and to some extent the fledgling electric-car industry as a whole. Tesla’s Model S has won multiple car-of-the-year awards and been hailed as the strongest evidence yet that plug-in electric cars have a bright future. But Broder’s test drive, in which he reported nearly running out of electricity several times and finally stalling out altogether in the course of a road trip, hurt the high-flying startup’s stock and may have some potential buyers rethinking their options. “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,” Broder wrote in the review, headlined “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.”

Musk fired back on Monday via Twitter, calling the review a “fake” and promising to release Tesla’s own data logs of Broder’s trip. Broder responded in a post on the Times’ Wheels blog on Tuesday, adding more details about the trip, which he said “happened just the way I described it.”

I’ve followed the back-and-forth with interest, especially since I was scheduled to take a somewhat similar road trip in a Model S shortly after Broder’s. (The company canceled on me, apologizing and reporting that the vehicle had been in an accident.)

On Wednesday night, Musk made good on his promise to release the data logs as part of a lengthy blog post in which he again called into question several of the assertions Broder made in the article. Among other things, Musk said the data logs showed Broder driving in circles around a small parking lot for five minutes while the vehicle’s charge read zero, which Musk interpreted as an intentional bid to get the car to stall out. “When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in,” Musk wrote. “On the later legs [of the trip], it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.” Musk said the vehicle’s logs also belied Broder’s claims to have turned down the heat and set the cruise control at 54 mph in order to avoid running out of batteries. And he said the battery never ran out of charge entirely, though it’s not clear whether that actually rebuts Broder’s assertion in the article that the vehicle ultimately shut down on him.

It will be interesting to read Broder’s response. On one hand, the data logs do seem to suggest that he may not have been trying quite as frantically to avoid running out of batteries as he implied in his review. On the other hand, Musk is, let’s say, not as well-known for his commitment to objectivity as is the Times. Several of the discrepancies he cites in his blog post appear somewhat trumped-up themselves. (For instance, Broder never said he set the climate-control on low at precisely the 182 mile mark.) And Musk attributes sinister motives to Broder that seem implausible. The fact that Broder once wrote a sentence that critically assessed the state of the electric-car industry certainly does not prove that he has “outright disdain for electric cars.” And if the Times reporter was trying to kill the Model S’s battery in order to make it look bad, why would he do it by driving around the parking lot immediately adjacent to a charging station?

We’ll know more when the response is published, possibly as soon as this afternoon. But for now I think it’s safe to conclude three things.

1) Musk is surely right that Broder didn’t do absolutely everything in his power to keep the car from running out of batteries. If that had been his number-one goal, he could have played it extra-safe by giving the car more juice at any number of points along the way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Broder was trying to sabotage the car. It could just mean he was earnestly putting its capabilities to the test.

2) Regardless of the specifics of the case, Broder is right that Tesla still has a long way to go to solve its “road trip problem.” Even if he could have made the trip by doing some things differently—and, in fact, other drivers have made similar jaunts without a problem—it should be obvious to everyone that a road trip in an electric car today is not nearly as straightforward a proposition as a road trip in a gasoline-powered car. (Even Musk would readily acknowledge this, at least in his calmer moments.)

3) None of this should substantially alter anyone’s opinion about the long-term future of Tesla or electric vehicles in general. The company has just begun its quest to build a network of Supercharger stations, and no one should expect that network to be comparable to the nation’s vast network of gas stations anytime soon. Similarly, the company—and others in the industry—are working hard to extend the range of future electric batteries and find ways to charge them more quickly. If they succeed, we may someday look back on this episode in the same way we’d regard a story about an inconvenient road trip in a Ford Model T a century ago.

Stay tuned.