Auto review sparks journalism debate

Make some popcorn and pull up a chair if you want to watch the best fight between a journalist and a company he covers today.

It started last weekend when New York Times’ John Broder wrote an article about the Tesla Model S sedan — an electric car — and the woes he encountered when trying to drive from Washington to Boston.

That sent Tesla CEO Elon Musk to the TV business channel circuit to complain that the article was “unreasonable.”

On his blog, the New York Times reporter denied the review was a “setup.”

My account was not a fake. It happened just the way I described it. When I first charged the car, which was equipped with the highest-capacity battery available, of 85 kilowatt-hours, at the Tesla Supercharger station in Newark, Del., I left it connected to the cable for 49 minutes until the dash display read “Charging Complete.” The battery meter read 90 percent full, with a range of 242 miles.

I was not directed by anyone at Tesla at any time to then switch to the Max Range setting and wait to top off the battery. If I had, I might have picked up an additional 25 or so miles of range, but that would have taken as long as 30 additional minutes.

I was at that point 200 miles from the other East Coast Supercharger outlet in Milford, Conn., which I barely reached by driving 10 m.p.h. below the speed limit and turning off the battery-draining cabin-heating system.

But now Tesla has released the car’s logs…

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.

This chart, the CEO claims, shows the reporter drove around in circles in a parking lot …


It’s certainly unusual that the CEO’s blog is able to provide such a scathing rebuttal to the review. It’s even more unusual to have a journalism ethics debate break out in the usually dull auto section.

  • BJ

    With millions of dollars at stake and dropping sales, you can understand the CEO being a little upset. If the ‘driving around a parking lot’ proves to be true, ouch.

    Even bigger might be this one “At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F.”

  • Tyler

    I would like to know why the New York Times thought their “oil and gas” reporter should test drive an electric car, rather than a journalist that actually covers cars.

    Check out the articles written by John Broder for the NYT.

    I try to remain skeptical about conspiracies, but I think Elon Musk has the gas industry a little skittish.

  • joetron2030

    I’m guessing that this is a press review vehicle, but the fact that the car is recording all of this data is a bit disconcerting.

    I only bring this fact up because the NTSB or NHTSA are pushing to have similar types of “black boxes” in all vehicles on the road (or have already mandated it).

    I understand the regulator’s reasons for having them in vehicles to aid in accident investigation.

    But the privacy implications are still huge.

  • Robert Moffitt

    As someone who promotes cleaner fuels and vehicles (including electrics) as part of my job, I’ve watched this fight unfold with some interest.

  • joetron2030

    Though I see from Musk’s blog post that they’ve had to institute this with their review fleet because they need to keep reviewers honest based on past experience.

  • Justin H

    To my eye, this whole episode stems from the reporters desire to have this car behave like a typical gasoline powered car, even though it clearly isn’t.

    Electric cars need to be plugged in at night, especially in the cold. The reporter did not plug the Tesla in, perhaps because it’s not what he was used to or it was inconvenient.

    Electric cars need a full charges to go long distances. The reporter did not charge the car fully, perhaps because he was impatient and familiar with a fill-up at a gas station taking 5 minutes, not 50.

    There are legitimate problems with electric cars and the lack of charging infrastructure. But expecting an electric car to behave like a gasoline powered car simply because that’s been the status quo for decades is faulty logic.

  • Tyler

    More faulty logic: expecting a car to drive 60 miles while it’s CLEARLY telling you it can only go 30. Works the same way in a gas-powered car.

  • Chris N.

    Justin, Wired Magazine’s Chelsea Sexton agrees with you. Additionally, she says that whether or not the NYT Tesla story is good reporting or bad reporting, Tesla made a mistake in the first place by trying to market the Model S as being a road-trip car. EVs are best at having high “fuel” efficiency over commute-length trips. She thinks they should focus on that strength rather than trying to prove that they can do everything a gas car can do, even if they can come close.

    The analogy she used, which I found interesting, is that it’s like comparing making long-duration calls on early cell phones vs. land line phones. Land lines don’t have to worry about battery life, and so for that purpose are superior. But that misses the point of having a cell phone, and look where the two technologies are now (especially as batteries have improved, as they will for EVs).