Tesla, the Times, and how to drive an electric car

Tesla and The New York Times step up their war of words, but lost in the battle are the unique factors that go into driving an electric car.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read
2012 Tesla Model S
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This week's Tesla versus The New York Times flap came to a climax yesterday when Tesla released the logs it promised on its Web site, and the newspaper responded with a point-by-point refutation.

Tesla's post says that New York Times environmental reporter John Broder misrepresented the Model S' performance. Broder argues that he was simply following advice from Tesla personnel during the drive.

The original New York Times story painted the Model S with a negative brush, but as I wrote Wednesday, a close reading of the article shows that the Model S operated exactly as you'd expect for an electric car. What's more, both the logs Tesla published and the Times response reinforce that conclusion.

Tesla's logs show a lot of braking and accelerating, which is normal for a journey on a busy East Coast Interstate highway. That type of driving will adversely affect the range of any car, electric- or gasoline-powered.

As an experienced car reviewer for CNET, I'm surprised that Broder set out on a 61-mile trip with the car only showing 32 miles of range, but I understand his explanation. Tesla personnel convinced him the car would show more range once the battery had warmed up, or had been "conditioned," as he writes.

My experience driving electric cars would have lead me to conduct that test differently.

Range loss
Broder went for his drive on a cold winter day. But all cars suffer range loss from cold weather and bad traffic. And because electric cars tend to have less range than gasoline cars, that range loss becomes more noticeable.

The Model S is the range king among electric cars, but in EPA testing it only went 265 miles. That's about 150 miles short of many equivalent gasoline-powered cars.

From my electric-car reviews, I know that the best range will come at steady speeds of 30 to 50 mph. Get on a 65 mph freeway, and the range will take a hit.

I found the Model S interesting in the way its accelerator operated, which is very different from other cars. Instead of using accelerator and brake pedal, the braking regeneration comes on so strong when you lift off the accelerator, I could usually get by without touching the brake pedal. Understanding that dynamic is very important to maximizing the car's range.

Power and battery
Some time ago, a former Tesla PR person told me I should treat the car, referring to the Roadster in this instance, as I do my phone: plug it in when I come home at night. In planning any long trip in an electric car, I would make charging coincide with overnight stops.

The Model S has an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack. That's a huge amount of juice, and it's going to take a lot of time to charge. Even at Tesla's Supercharger stations, it takes half an hour to add 180 miles of range.

The upshot is that you cannot treat an electric car, given current technology, like you would a gasoline-powered car. You need to be much more mindful of range issues, where you can charge, and how long it will take.

There are some very good use cases for electric cars. For example, if you have a 30-mile commute and a garage with a charger at home, most production electric cars will get you to work and back, and leave a little overhead for lunch runs or other errands.

In fact, I'd expect that people living with these conditions would grow to use an electric as their primary mode of transportation, while the old gas guzzler sits moribund in the driveway, only trotted out for trips to the relatives' houses or vacations.

However, if you live in the middle of a city and do not have a parking spot, or live far away on top of a mountain, an electric car is probably not the best choice, and you might end up stranded, like in the New York Times article.