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Tesla, the Times, and the range war over the electric car

The New York Times raised a firestorm with a story criticizing the Tesla Model S's range this week, but the car did not really deviate from its operating parameters.

2012 Tesla Model S
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This week saw a war of words between Tesla's supporters, lead by CEO Elon Musk, and New York Times' environmental reporter John M. Broder. The issue in contention was the range of the Model S electric car during a typical East Coast winter, as detailed by Broder in the article "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway."

Broder's article could be taken as an indictment against the practicality of the Model S, but reading his account closely, I did not see anything that went outside of how I would expect an electric car to behave.

Finding no fault
I reviewed the Model S last December and have driven just about every electric car from a major manufacturer. In one memorable tour with the Model S, I burned up 100 miles of range, according to the car's computer, in 60 miles of actual driving.

And I did not find that range differential a fault of the car.

For most of that 60 miles went along a winding mountain road. I tested the Model S's capabilities by hammering the accelerator on the straights and braking hard at the turns. I knew I was chewing up the electrons at a greater rate than the EPA testing, which gave the Model S a 265-mile range, had done.

This stretch of road has the same effect on gasoline-powered cars, reducing mileage to much below a car's EPA-rated city fuel economy. The thing is, gasoline-powered cars have greater overall range than even the Model S, so the loss of range is less noticeable.

In the New York Times article, Broder was not slamming the car down a mountain highway, but driving in 30-degree weather on an East Coast highway. Although I cannot claim to know the traffic situation, I imagine it was typical for the East Coast, with cars and trucks whizzing along 10 or 20 mph above the speed limit, sudden slowdowns, and the need to get on the accelerator fast again. Ever ridden in a New York taxi? Kind of like that.

Both the cold and the traffic conditions would shave off a good chunk of the Model S's range.

In the article, Broder says that he began to get worried when he drove 68 miles and the car's range dropped 85 miles. My results, when testing the Model S's driving performance, were worse.

Electric road trips
The article was actually supposed to be less about the car and more about Tesla's network of Superchargers, fast charging stations designed specifically for the Model S. On the East Coast, those Superchargers are 200 miles apart, which Musk admitted to Broder in a follow-up article in the Times are probably too far apart.

Given that different driving styles, mixed with traffic and weather conditions, could easily knock 65 miles off the Model S's range, I would say Musk is right.

I also think the idea of taking a Model S on a road trip, while possible, is not something you want to do with the same lack of concern as jumping into a gasoline-powered car and driving across the country. Electric vehicles do not have the same range as gasoline-powered cars, and when they come close, like the Model S, it takes a huge amount of power to charge them fast.

But those facts are not a death knell for electric cars. Last year, JB Straubel, Tesla chief technical officer, told me he expected energy density to double in batteries within the decade. Straubel not only works closely with Tesla's battery suppliers, he keeps up on the latest battery technology innovations, so I expect he has good insight on the issue.

Doubling battery energy density almost automatically means electric cars double their range. Think what happens when new technologies come along that quadruple current battery capacities.

Out of gas
But back to the article that began this fight. The most dramatic point, and the hook in the headline, was when Broder ran the Model S completely out of juice.

Leaving the car out overnight in sub-freezing temperatures, the battery apparently lost 65 miles of range, going from a comfortable 90 down to a nail-biting 25. Legions of Tesla supporters have pointed out that this behavior should be expected, and that the car probably would have retained its range if it had been plugged into any sort of current. Batteries lose electricity in extremes of heat or cold, and the Model S includes a system that maintains battery temperature.

Broder does not mention how much range he got from his last charge, before the car stopped, although he does say it was five miles short of the next Supercharger, and he ignored the warning messages on the dashboard telling him to recharge immediately.

Ever run out of gas in a car? Kind of similar. If you are in the middle of nowhere and the fuel light has been on for the past 50 miles, you should probably have been figuring out what to do about 25 miles ago.

Broder's expectations for the Model S's performance ultimately seemed unrealistic, as he did not take into account how driving and weather conditions would affect the range, and the need to keep it plugged in when stopped overnight in extreme cold. Tesla bears some fault for installing the Superchargers too far apart, but it's the guy behind the wheel who needs to be mindful of his car's capabilities.

2012 Tesla Model S
Here is the Tesla Model S during a typically mild California December. Wayne Cunningham/CNET