Teslas, Superchargers, and The Old Gray Lady

Sections: Fuel Economy, Powertrain

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There has been big controversy between Tesla Motors and a New York Times reporter John M. Broder.  He was reviewing a Tesla, specifically the Supercharger network.  The network consists of privately-run charging stations specifically meant to ‘refuel’ Tesla vehicles on the interstate system.  The review was less than glowing, and the denouement concludes with the Tesla on a flatbed truck.  Unable to release enough energy to release its electric parking brake.

However, Tesla founder Elon Musk has access to the press vehicle’s telemetry.  That became a standard feature on press cars ever since the guys at British Top Gear said they ran out of juice on their test track.  They didn’t- running out of juice was in the script because they thought it would be a good gag.  Musk counts quite a different tale.  Even going so far to show the vehicle was plugged in for way less than the suggested recharge time.

We are going to put two accounts below:  One from Musk, one from a New York Times editor.  Either way, we can come up with the reasonable explanations on why both are right.  For example, it shows a spike of speed when Broder said he was doing the speed limit.  But Broder concludes he was going downhill.  Sounds sorta reasonable.  But 80?  I think I gotta lean toward’s Musk’s telemetry data.  Granted, Tesla could have doctored the results.  But more interesting was the convoy of Tesla owners who recreated the trip and proved Broder wrong.  One blogger, Xander Walker notes “The participants in this journey freely admitted that there are small problems with the car and that they are early adopters. They are the kind of people that send error reports on their computer – happy to take a minute to send feedback to engineers and participate in the improvement of a product over time. The owner that had the problem in Delaware commented “you must be this tall to enter this ride”- implying you have to have a certain level of intelligence and common sense to own this car. If you are competent you can use this car without ending up on a flatbed. They are thankful to Tesla and Elon Musk for having the courage and vision to create this company and believe that Tesla is the only chance EV’s have in America. They believe that Tesla is the only manufacturer committed to revolutionizing personal mobility, not just producing EV’s and hybrids as a publicity stunt or to meet efficiency standards. They hold these beliefs strongly, and they have seen this story before. They know that there are people who want to see this fail, and they are willing to make a show of force to prove their point.

What do I think?  I think you need to use your head, but an electric vehicle can be an awesome addition to your fleet.  Or even a replacement to your current ride if more forethought to your journeys are given.  I’m in.  If you thought high speed driving was thrilling, try hypermiling for the ultimate road rush.

From the Tesla Blog:

By Elon Musk, Chairman, Product Architect & CEO

You may have heard recently about an article written by John Broder from The New York Times that makes numerous claims about the performance of the Model S. We are upset by this article because it does not factually represent Tesla technology, which is designed and tested to operate well in both hot and cold climates. Indeed, our highest per capita sales are in Norway, where customers drive our cars during Arctic winters in permanent midnight, and in Switzerland, high among the snowy Alps. About half of all Tesla Roadster and Model S customers drive in temperatures well below freezing in winter. While no car is perfect, after extremely thorough testing, the Model S was declared to be the best new car in the world by the most discerning authorities in the automotive industry.

To date, hundreds of journalists have test driven the Model S in every scenario you can imagine. The car has been driven through Death Valley (the hottest place on Earth) in the middle of summer and on a track of pure ice in a Minnesota winter. It has traveled over 600 miles in a day from the snowcapped peaks of Tahoe to Los Angeles, which made the very first use of the Supercharger network, and moreover by no lesser person than another reporter from The New York Times. Yet, somehow John Broder “discovered” a problem and was unavoidably left stranded on the road. Or was he?

After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives. While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story. In the case of Top Gear, they had literally written the script before they even received the car (we happened to find a copy of the script on a table while the car was being “tested”). Our car never even had a chance.

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.

Here is a summary of the key facts:

  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • On that leg, he drove right past a public charge station while the car repeatedly warned him that it was very low on range.
  • Cruise control was never set to 54 mph as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 mph. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 mph to 81 mph for a majority of the trip and at an average cabin temperature setting of 72 F.
  • At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F.
  • The charge time on his second stop was 47 mins, going from -5 miles (reserve power) to 209 miles of Ideal or 185 miles of EPA Rated Range, not 58 mins 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.
  • 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?
  • The above helps explain a unique peculiarity at the end of the second leg of Broder’s trip. When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut 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.

When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems! We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.

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.

In his own words in an article published last year, this is how Broder felt about electric cars before even seeing the Model S:

“Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate.”

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.

From The New York Times:

Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test


As promised, I’ve spent the past several days looking into the reporter John M. Broder’s test drive of the celebrated electric car known as the Tesla Model S. The article, which focused on two new “superchargers” on the East Coast, was understandably disturbing to the company and to the car’s many admirers. The test drive, it’s safe to say, did not go well. In fact, its publication was accompanied by a startling photograph of the Model S on a flatbed truck, onto which it was loaded after depleting its battery charge on the last leg of the trip.

Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has charged that the story was faked, that Mr. Broder intentionally caused his car to fail, and that issues of journalistic integrity are at stake. On his Tesla blog, he released graphs and charts, based on driving logs, that contest many of the details of Mr. Broder’s article.

Mr. Broder and The Times have maintained that the article was done in good faith, and that it is an honest account of what happened. They have gone to some lengths to respond to the charges, point by point, on The Times’s Wheels blog.

But Mr. Musk, and many readers, remain dissatisfied. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve heard from hundreds of them, either in e-mails or comments to my blog. (Some readers have also expressed their support for Mr. Broder and his article.)

One reader, Roger Wilson of Falls Church, Va., a Model S owner himself, expressed his opinion in more moderate fashion than many:

“In his article (and follow-ups), Mr. Broder states that he followed Tesla’s advice during his drive. But, if he had taken time to read the owner’s manual beforehand (which, at 30-or-so well-written pages, would have taken an hour), he would have known about:

• “The ‘Max Range’ setting, which would have charged the battery beyond the ‘standard’ range and given him 20-30 miles more range; • “The ‘Range Mode’ setting, which would have conserved battery during the drive; • “The section entitled ‘Driving Tips for Maximum Range’; • “And, the concept of plugging the vehicle in (especially during his overnight stop): ‘Tesla strongly recommends leaving Model S plugged in when not in use.’ and ‘The most important way to preserve the Battery is to LEAVE YOUR MODEL S PLUGGED IN when you’re not using it.’

“Had he employed at least one of these tidbits, he probably wouldn’t have been ‘stalled’ on the EV highway. But, then again, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a story if he made the trip successfully (and could have only complained about the inconveniences of staying at the charging station longer than he cared to or having to plug in the car overnight).

“In follow-ups, he claims that he was only ‘testing’ the supercharger network. If this had been the case, the story wouldn’t have focused on him driving 45 m.p.h. and being cold (and the infamous picture of the Tesla on the flatbed), but would have simply stated that the two current supercharger stations (which just opened recently) are too far apart and that one might have to rely on non-Tesla public charging stations until more supercharger stations are installed.

“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that Mr. Broder ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type). One can only assume that Mr. Broder’s irresponsibility in fuel management was in hope that something beyond ‘inconvenience’ would happen to make the story more interesting. (Otherwise, no one, including me, would have paid much attention to his article.)

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Over the past several days, I have questioned and listened to Mr. Broder, Mr. Musk, two key Tesla employees, other Times journalists, the tow-truck driver and his dispatcher, and a Tesla owner in California, among others. I am aware of other, much more successful test drives in recent days by Model S owners and media organizations that are intended to show that the charging stations work perfectly well (although those tests lacked an element of Mr. Broder’s drive: one of the coldest days of the year). And I’ve read hundreds of e-mails and reader comments. I’ve also had a number of talks with my brother, a physician, car aficionado and Tesla fan, who has helped me balance what might have been a tendency to unconsciously side with a seasoned and respected journalist – my own “confirmation bias.”

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

I could recite chapter and verse of the test drive, the decisions made along the way, the cabin temperature of the car, the cruise control setting and so on. I don’t think that’s useful here.

People will go on contesting these points – and insisting that they know what they prove — and that’s understandable. In the matter of the Tesla Model S and its now infamous test drive, there is still plenty to argue about and few conclusions that are unassailable.

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