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Behind the bloodsport: Tesla vs. NY Times

The contentiousness of the Tesla vs. New York Times tussle speaks volumes about the stakes involved for a taxpayer-supported electric carmaker and its founder.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
6 min read
Tesla CEO Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk CBS

Where's Don King when you need him?

It seems that everybody and their mother-in-law are buzzing about the tussle between a New York Times car reviewer and Tesla Motors. It's a good example of the kind of public dialog that can happen in the age of the Internet and instrumented devices, such as a super-fast car that is basically a computer on wheels.

To briefly catch you up, a fierce debate broke out not long after New York Times writer John Broder wrote a review reporting shortcomings in the range of Tesla's Model S electric car during a drive up the East Coast after starting out in suburban Washington. Last night, Tesla CEO Elon Musk authored a long post essentially accusing Broder of playing fast and loose with the facts.

"Our Model S never had a chance with John Broder," he added before throwing the ultimate red flag at a journalist. "When the facts didn't suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts."

Coming from Musk, an influential and media-savvy tech entrepreneur who does not shy from combat, those charges sounded damning.

A lot is on the line. Tesla, an innovative company that has been the beneficiary of taxpayer largesse via the Department of Energy Advanced Technology Manufacturing Program, has a clear interest in tamping down any concerns about the viability of electric cars. And the last thing Musk wants in the post-Solyndra era is to leave any impression that his company won't make it over the long haul. And so he went for the jugular:

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?

But less than 24 hours later, a new wave of posts casts the allegations of bias in a very different light.

The Atlantic's Rebecca Greenfield offers a more nuanced and detailed look at Musk's charges and Broder's explanations. Her finding: While each side may have an argument to make, the evidence to date points to a different conclusion:

Not all of Musk's data is entirely convincing and the parts that are don't point to a malicious plot. In the end, it looks like Broder made some compromises to get from the Newark charging station to the Milford one, in both speed and temperature. Broder may not have used Musk's car the way Musk would like, but Musk is, for now, overhyping his case for a breach of journalism ethics.

Writing in Jalopnik, author Patrick George said that he spoke with Donna Rogers of Rogers Automotive & Towing, the Milford, Conn., company that towed Broder. He quotes her saying that the shop's "records indicate the car's battery pack was completely drained. Additionally, she says her tow truck driver was on the phone with a Tesla employee in California, and they were trying to figure out how to get the car onto the flatbed without moving it because it was so dead. The whole ordeal was apparently quite a challenge."

2012 Tesla Model S: Beauty and the tablet (pictures)

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The last word -- for now -- goes to Broder, who posted his long-awaited response this evening offering a point-by-point rebuttal to Musk. Broder, who has covered energy, environment, and climate change for the Times since 2009, allowed that he didn't "fully appreciate" how freezing temperatures might impact the car's travel range. Below are a few examples of the how the debate is shaping up. The bold quotes are Musk's, followed by Broder's responses in italics.

"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 car's display screen said the car was shutting down, and it did. The car did not have enough power to move, or even enough to release the electrically operated parking brake. The tow truck driver was on the phone with Tesla's New York service manager, Adam Williams, for 15 or 20 minutes as he was trying to move the car onto a 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."

The Tesla personnel whom I consulted over the phone -- Ms. Ra and Mr. Merendino -- told me to leave it connected for an hour, and after that the lost range would be restored. I did not ignore their advice.

Tesla is correct that the car did exceed the projected range of 32 miles when I left Norwich, as I was driving slowly, and it gave me hope that the Tesla employee I'd consulted was correct that the mileage lost overnight was being restored. It wasn't enough, however, to get to Milford.

"On that leg, he drove right past a public charge station while the car repeatedly warned him that it was very low on range."

If there was a public charging station nearby, no one made me aware of it. The Tesla person with whom I was in contact located on the Internet a public charging station in East Haven, Conn., and that is the one I was trying to reach when the car stalled in Branford, about five miles shy of East Haven.

"Cruise control was never set to 54 m.p.h. as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 m.p.h. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 m.p.h. to 81 m.p.h. for a majority of the trip, and at an average cabin temperature setting of 72 F."

I drove normally (at the speed limit or with prevailing traffic) when I thought it was prudent to do so. I do recall setting the cruise control to about 54 m.p.h., as I wrote. The log shows the car traveling about 60 m.p.h. for a nearly 100-mile stretch on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. That just might have impacted the recorded speed, range, rate of battery depletion or any number of other parameters. Tesla's data suggests I was doing slightly more than 50 over a stretch where the speed limit was 65. The traffic was heavy in that part of Connecticut, so cruise control was not usable, and I tried to keep the speed at 50 or below without impeding traffic.

Certainly, and as Tesla's logs clearly show, much of my driving was at or well below the 65 m.p.h. speed limit, with only a single momentary spike above 80. Most drivers are aware that cars can speed up, even sometimes when cruise control is engaged, on downhill stretches.

"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."

Mr. Musk not only apologized, he said the charging stations should be 60 miles closer together and offered me a second test drive when additional stations were built.

A few years from now, this episode in the evolution of all-electric vehicles won't be remembered by many people other than the participants. That's because battery technology advances will resolve lingering range limitations on electric vehicles no matter the temperature outside. Indeed, last year Tesla's chief technical officer told my CNET colleague Wayne Cunningham that energy density would double in batteries within the decade. The net effect of doubling battery energy density would thus likely translate into doubling the range of electric cars.

If there is a lesson in this episode, it's keep a close eye on the mileage gauge and when driving a rather experimental car, don't always rely on the manual.