Tesla Motors Pours Cold Data on New York Times ‘Model S’ Review

Tesla Motors promised to release the logs detailing New York Times critic John Broder's road trip in the Tesla Model S electric car. They're finally available and, if they're accurate, it doesn't look good for Broder.

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Noah Berger / Reuters

A Tesla Model S electric sedan is driven near the company's factory in Fremont, California, June 22, 2012.

It’s not unusual for writers to say negative things about products they don’t like. It is slightly unusual for the companies that make said products to respond to negative reviews publicly. And it’s extremely unusual for said companies to outright brand a review from a highly respected newspaper “fake.”

But the latter’s exactly what happened in an electric car kerfuffle between New York Times writer John Broder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Broder recently took a road trip in Tesla’s critically acclaimed Model S sedan, then wrote a scornful review, which would probably have been the end of the tale, but for Musk’s unexpectedly sharp reaction.

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“NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake,” wrote Musk in a no-holds-barred tweet three days after the Times review went live. “Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”

Broder reacted to Musk’s admonishment with another lengthy Times piece, batting back the insinuations of journalistic flimflammery, one by one.

Musk promised to make good on his allegations and release the actual vehicle logs, and so he has, folding them into an official Tesla Motors blog post Wednesday evening titled “A Most Peculiar Test Drive.”

Like Broder’s carefully crafted review, Musk’s rejoinder is a fascinating read, in part because we’re ostensibly looking at the actual logged vehicle data (sort of like when aviation or railroad officials talk about recovering operational information from a “black box”). Some vehicles nowadays come equipped with computer chips and sensors capable of monitoring and logging everything from how fast or slow you were traveling along a given stretch to precisely how much force you used when applying the brakes at a stoplight. (Musk stressed in a followup tweet that “Tesla data logging is only turned on with explicit written permission from customers…”)

Let’s walk through a few of Musk’s rebuttals and compare notes. According to Broder in the review, toward the end of his road trip, the Model S ran out of juice completely, leaving him temporarily stranded.

…as I limped along at about 45 miles per hour I saw increasingly dire dashboard warnings to recharge immediately … “Car is shutting down,” the computer informed me. I was able to coast down an exit ramp in Branford, Conn., before the car made good on its threat.

At this point Broder actually called Tesla to help him tow the car, thus providing the Times‘ dramatic article-headlining photo of the tow-person standing beside the Model S loaded onto a flatbed truck — a situation further complicated, according to Broder, because the Model S wouldn’t allow the “electrically actuated” parking brake to be released off a dead battery. That reportedly added 45 minutes to the flatbed loading process.

But according to Musk, the Model S actually had juice at all points during Broder’s test:

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.

It’s not clear what “never ran out of energy at any time” really means, of course, so we can’t call it flatly in conflict with Broder’s account, which was simply that the vehicle’s display indicated the car was out of juice. Was the display calibrated correctly and working properly? Musk doesn’t say. Batteries that appear to have run out of oomph can still hold some charge. Anyone who’s reset the D-cells in a standard-size flashlight to get a couple more seconds of light knows this.

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But at an earlier point in the trip, Broder writes in his review that he “noticed that the estimated range was falling faster than miles were accumulating,” at which point he writes he tried to follow Tesla’s guidelines for maximizing range, including dropping the temperature and setting the cruise control at a more efficient speed (in this case, 54 miles per hour). “Buicks and 18-wheelers flew past, their drivers staring at the nail-polish-red wondercar with California dealer plates,” he quips.

Not so, says Musk, stating that the logs indicate Broder never set the cruise control to 54 m.p.h., never “limped along” at 45 m.p.h., and “in fact drove at speeds from 65 mph to 81 mph for a majority of the trip and at an average cabin temperature setting of 72 F.” At the point Broder claims he turned the temperature down, Musk says the logs indicate he actually turned it up to 74 F.

Now we’re getting into the sort of detail and specificity I’m having a hard time imagining someone explaining away to interpretation or misunderstanding (again, assuming Musk’s data is both accurate and properly aligned with Broder’s timeframe).

It gets worse: Broder indicates in the review that he charged the car at Tesla’s solar-powered Supercharger stations until the display read “charge complete,” but Musk says the car’s logs tell a different story, showing that Broder repeatedly failed to fully charge the car and at one point actually disconnected the charger on a 61-mile stretch despite the range indicator showing that only 32 miles worth of power had been charged up.

“Despite narrowly making each leg, he charged less and less each time,” writes Musk, adding “Why would anyone do that?” Again, if the data’s being properly interpreted here, it’s a reasonable question.

But the most alarming point in Musk’s rundown is probably his last, where he surmises Broder intentionally attempted to sabotage the vehicle’s range by driving in circles:

The above helps explain a unique peculiarity at the end of the second leg of Broder’s trip. When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said “0 miles remaining.” Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.

[Update: In an email to Daily Intelligencer, Broder claims this is because he was hunting for the “unmarked and unlighted Supercharger port in the dark” and that he was “not trying to drain the battery.”]

To be honest, after Musk’s initial tweets, I was feeling defensive of Broder. Here was a seemingly well-crafted review (say what you will, Broder’s an enjoyable writer) of Tesla’s wunder-car that happened to come down hard on Tesla. Assuming Broder’s writing was on the level, that’s just how product reviews sometimes go.

That said, having now absorbed Tesla’s log-driven response, and assuming the vehicle’s sensors were accurate and that Musk isn’t himself misreporting anything, it’s much harder to square Broder’s report.

Bear in mind this wasn’t a “taste” review, so you can’t really play the “opinion” card. Broder speaks briefly (and with high praise) of the Model S’s aesthetics, but the bulk of the review comes down to operational metrics and hard numbers, which is why Tesla’s pushing back so forcefully. Musk believes the numbers are on Tesla’s side, and while Broder deserves a chance to respond in kind, staring down all that data, I’d hate to be in his shoes just now.

[Update: Broder has published his point-by-point response to Musk’s data-related allegations in the Times‘ “Wheels” section, in which he in so many words says he was following Tesla’s advice by way of several phone calls made during the trip, thus indicating the choices made about when to recharge and how much to recharge were in fact based on advice from Tesla personnel. Broder also points out, it seems reasonably, that at least a few of Musk’s extrapolations from the vehicle log data are misinterpretations or misrepresentations of what he wrote in his original review.]

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