When a drive in a budding automaker’s crucial new model leaves a newspaper reporter waiting for a tow truck, a report on the incident is bound to cause a stir.
When the breakdown occurs on a drive up Interstate 95 to try out a network of fast-charging stations for the all-electric Tesla Model S sedan, an experience detailed by John M. Broder in the Automobiles section on Feb. 10, a strong reaction from the company could be expected.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla Motors, took to Twitter to charge that the account was “fake,” setting the Internet abuzz with a flurry of blog posts, Twitter messages and e-mail exchanges. Impassioned responses came from owners of the car that Tesla advertises as requiring “zero compromises,” from other proponents of electric cars and from the unconvinced. Commentary from automotive blogs, consumer publications, financial analysts and media watchers poured forth.
Detailed responses to Mr. Musk were posted by Mr. Broder. The Times’s public editor addressed the matter in an opinion column (with a later clarification), and the drive was re-enacted by CNN and a convoy of Model S owners.
The ensuing discussion became something of a crowd-sourced flood of information, and disinformation, on the perks and quirks of electric cars.
Mr. Broder’s original article described an anxiety-filled drive to Connecticut, after receiving a “charge complete” message at a Supercharger in Delaware, and a steep loss of battery range after leaving the car overnight in bitter cold.
Visitors to the Tesla Motors Club’s Web site were among the first to take notice. A commenter, Stevezzzz of Colorado, posted on the 8th:
“TM will have a hard time spinning this one. That’s just about the worst-case scenario I can think of: an S, driven by a journalist, dead on the side of the road because Tesla failed to prepare the author for the realities of cold-weather driving.”
More emphatic reaction followed, notably in the form of a Twitter message the morning of Feb. 11 from Mr. Musk:
Four minutes later, Mr. Musk took to Twitter again to promise:
The combination of a negative Times review and Tesla’s charges caught the attention of many on the Internet. Rebecca Greenfield of the Atlantic Wire weighed in:
“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 C.E.O. Elon Musk strongly asserted in a tweet this afternoon, it doesn’t say much about the usability of Tesla’s cars for regular people.”
Mr. Broder responded to the Tesla charges on The Times’s Wheels blog the next day, saying he followed instructions from company personnel over the phone and that his “long detour” amounted to two miles. Still, readers commenting on the post blamed him for the battery’s depletion. A reader using the handle MotoEV from Charlotte, N.C., said:
“What is so disturbing about the initial review and this follow-up post is the apparent lack of common sense and refusal to accept personal responsibility. How can you (Mr. Broder) properly report on something without doing your homework in advance of the drive?”
Resident1728 of Virginia had a different viewpoint:
“The newspaper was absolutely correct in selecting someone to test-drive the vehicle, who was not a so-called expert. I’m not sure the paper had anyone fitting that description to start with, given the unusual circumstances and rules of driving they gave out. It is the common man that auto companies should be pointing at for sales purposes, not some engineer that can fiddle and faddle with this switch, that adjustment, etc.”
Technology Web sites took notice. On Wired.com, Chelsea Sexton, a prominent advocate of electric cars, wrote on Feb. 12:
“Tesla positions the Model S as the first ‘no compromise EV’ able (with the Supercharger network) to take the proverbial ‘Vegas on a moment’s notice’ road trip. Yet after pitching the trip idea to Broder in the first place, Tesla’s own staff needed to issue carefully detailed instructions and make follow-up contact along the way to ensure he got to his destination. In doing so, they busted their own road trip myth before Broder ever left the driveway.”
The blog post promised by Mr. Musk appeared with a date stamp of Feb. 13. This detailed document, including charts of speed, charge levels and cabin temperature, included a charge that Mr. Broder intentionally tried to make the Model S fail, summing up: “When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts.”
The post was greeted enthusiastically on the Tesla site, with calls for investigations and firings. CBlack wrote:
“Looks clear that Mr. Broder intended to do whatever necessary to give a negative review of the Model S. I hope the New York Times retracts his article and gives a public apology to Tesla Motors.”
Others voiced skepticism, asking for the car’s data logs to be made available. (Mr. Musk has declined to release them.) Another point was raised by christianhgross:
“To travel 550 miles he had to charge 4 times? In other words, spend about 1 to 2 hours doing nothing? Granted maybe you want to eat a bite, but 4 times?”
“Is there an explanation at to why the 72% loss in range overnight vs. modest 20% loss in storage? And why conditioning did not improve the range?”
Reporting byJalopnik.com, a cheeky blog aimed at young car enthusiasts, turned up Rick Ibsen, the tow truck driver who picked up the Model S in Branford, Conn. — the spot where many blog commenters suggested Mr. Broder intentionally depleted the battery. Mr. Ibsen was quoted in the Jalopnik post:
“It didn’t appear that the gentleman driving the car wanted it to not work,” Ibsen told me. “I don’t think he had any desire to stand freezing on the side of the road.”
On Feb. 14 Mr. Broder responded to the Tesla post with point-by-point rebuttals. Again there was a flood of comments to the Wheels blog, many expounding on the characteristics of batteries in cold weather. Concurrently, a Consumer Reports engineer wrote a post on the magazine’s blog about his own experience with a Model S purchased for evaluation. He said he started with 240 miles on the car’s range indicator for a round trip of about 160 miles:
“When I got home with 80 miles on the trip odometer, I noticed that 100 miles got slashed from my ‘rated’ range, showing 140 miles left. Anyhow, after a seven-hour overnight park (unplugged) and temperatures dropping below freezing, the “rated” range dropped to 65 miles.”
The trustworthiness of the Model S range projections was also a topic of discussion in comments posted on the Wheels blog. Jerry from North Carolina wrote:
“Mr. Broder’s problem is that he trusted that the Tesla’s ‘range in miles’ displayed by the car was accurate. But, the range was not accurate (due to the cold), which Consumer Reports just confirmed.
“The charts that Mr. Musk himself provided prove that when the car said (charted to 100%) it has a range of 272, that the range was only 211.”
Jerry’s post also said: “If you needed further proof, there was just a group of Tesla owners that went on a road trip and prove Mr. Broder wrong, and all they did is prove Mr. Broder correct.” He also suggested that Tesla should release raw log files “instead of Tesla-produced charts.”
The plan hatched in Mr. Musk’s Twitter message of Feb. 11 — “also lining up other journalists to do same drive” — came to fruition on the 14th when a CNN reporter traveled from Washington to Boston, successfully, using the Supercharger stations — albeit in significantly warmer weather and without an overnight stay.
The caravan of Tesla owners also completed the trip, but not without a hitch. GreenCarReports.com reported:
“One Road Trip car had a problem: It would not accept a full charge at the Supercharger in Delaware, and two chargers stopped working after that car was plugged in. A quick phone call to Tesla support in California resulted in the company pushing new software codes to the ailing car and to reset both Superchargers.”
A factor of Internet discussions, of course, is sifting fact from hearsay. As an example, consider the viewpoint of a Wheels reader named Bruce from Austin, Tex., who took the charts prepared by Tesla to be the last word:
“I am not a Tesla fan; I am a fan of accuracy and integrity, which is why this is important and why many of us are canceling our subscription. I believed Mr. Broder’s review until I saw the empirical data.”
But others suggested that the data doesn’t tell the whole story. An analysis by Taylor Owen on the site of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism discussed how data was used in the dispute:
“Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot.”
The post went on to say:
“Musk clearly overplayed his rhetorical hand by arguing that the review was faked, but he also overstated both the case he could make with the data, as well as the level of transparency that he was actually providing. Tesla didn’t release the data from the review. Telsa released their interpretation of the data from the review. This interpretation took the form of the graphical representation they chose to give it.”
At Business Insider, Henry Blodget, the technology analyst, tempered praise for the Model S with doubts about the state of electric cars:
“They’re amazing machines. Awesome to look at, cool to show off and awesome to drive. But no normal driver looking for a means of reliable, flexible and convenient transportation would buy one as their primary vehicle.”
In his original article, Mr. Broder quoted J B Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, as saying, in a follow-up call after his drive, but before the article was published: “It’s disappointing to me when things don’t work smoothly. It takes more planning than a typical gasoline car, no way around it.”