If a New York Times reporter with an entire squadron of Tesla employees at his disposal, can't use a Model S electric car properly, as Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk strongly asserted in a tweet this afternoon, it doesn't say much about the usability of Tesla's cars for regular people.
In Sunday's Automobiles section, Times writer John M. Broder described what sounded like a truly miserable road trip with a Model S car from D.C. to Connecticut, in which he couldn't get through the 206 miles between the only two charging stations on the East Coast corridor. "My feet were freezing and my knuckles were turning white," Broder wrote, because he had turned down the heat as instructed by the Tesla representatives in an effort to preserve battery power before he eventually stalled out in Connecticut. On Monday, though, Musk suggested the problems he encountered were more about the driver, namely Broder, than with the car:
NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013
The New York Times, for its part, has vigorously denied that anything was "fake" about the story (more on that in a moment), but the antagonism in Musk's message was a marked departure from how helpful the Tesla represenatives were in Broder's story. The chief technology officer J B Straubel told him that his story was "a good lesson" because Tesla had just installed the recharging stations along I-95. "Hopefully you’ll give us a little slack in that we put in the East Coast stations just a month ago." And he suggested that Broder may have also lost some range because of the weather, admitting Tesla's battery can lose up to 10 percent of its efficiency in the cold.
Musk, however, asserts that "vehicle logs," which he says the company keeps on for media test-drives (because of a previous, similar controversy with the BBC car show Top Gear), show Broder didn't fully charge the car and also took a long detour through Manhattan.
But, in a statement to The Atlantic Wire, The New York Times has denied that Broder faked anything in his story:
The Times's Feb. 10 article recounting a reporter's test drive in a Tesla Model S was completely factual, describing the trip in detail exactly as it occurred. Any suggestion that the account was "fake" is, of course, flatly untrue. Our reporter followed the instructions he was given in multiple conversations with Tesla personnel. He described the entire drive in the story; there was no unreported detour. And he was never told to plug the car in overnight in cold weather, despite repeated contact with Tesla.
Adding a further wrinkle to the controversy is that this was not the first time that a Times writer had taken a Model S out for a long-distance drive. Last September, Bradley Berman wrote about a similar 207-mile round-trip on the West Coast and had a lovely time, with about 25 miles worth of battery charge to spare.
Musk says he will soon put up a blog post detailing how he knows The New York Times "faked" its account. When that happens, we'll update the post. For now, he's alleged that Tesla's logs show that Broder's Model S didn't start off with a full charge and that he took a "long detour" in Manhattan. Musk has not presented any evidence that Broder actively deceived his readers.
This isn't the first time the car company has gotten defensive about a bad review. Alleging similar concerns, Tesla sued for libel, after Top Gear had reported its Roadster died after just 55 miles. A judge eventually threw the law-suit out.
For now that leaves another possibility, that both Musk and Broder are telling the truth: the Tesla should technically be able to make the trip, but somehow Broder actually ended up stranded in the cold with a dead battery.
But even if the fault was with Broder (he claims Tesla brought him the car with a full charge, but perhaps he didn't charge it up right that first time, or maybe he miscalculated his mileage) these are things that the average drivers would be prone to do. Let's put it another way: assuming that a New York Times writer like Broder is a fairly intelligent person — safe assumption for a guy who has covered basically every beat at the paper — if even he doesn't know how to efficiently use a Model S, what are the rest of us, without a fleet of Tesla representatives programmed into our phones, going to do?
Musk may have made a wonderful car, but ultimately it's humans who will drive it.