Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has fired back at The New York Times, releasing vehicle logs that contradict the Times' recent story about a road trip in a Model S sedan and calling on the venerable news organization to "investigate the article and determine the truth."
Last week, New York Times reporter John Broder published a lengthy account of a troubled trip from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut in a Model S that ended with the electric vehicle being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Broder reported that the car's range fell far faster than he expected, forcing him to turn down the heat and set cruise control to just 54 miles per hour. Broder says the car ultimately "shut down," forcing a tow truck to rescue him from a Connecticut exit ramp.
Musk, in a blistering response to the article, published a lengthy blog post late Wednesday titled "A Most Peculiar Test Drive." Based on data pulled from the Model S's onboard computer, Musk wrote that Broder never ran out of energy during the drive, never set the cruise control to 54 miles per hour and kept the heat on. He also said Broder took a detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, drove the car in circles in a small parking lot and didn't allow the vehicle to fully charge.
"The final leg of his trip was 61 miles, and yet he disconnected the charge cable when the range display stated 32 miles," wrote Musk. "He did so expressly against the advice of Tesla personnel and in obvious violation of common sense."
The acrimonious back-and-forth, which pits one of the nation's most successful entrepreneurs against its most influential newspaper, is likely to continue.
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy backed the story Thursday morning, saying in an email, "As we have said previously, our story was fair and accurate." The Times plans to publish its own post on the issue in its automotive blog, dubbed "Wheels," after reviewing Musk's assertions in detail.
In an email to the San Jose Mercury News, reporter John Broder said the parking lot in question was at the Milford, Conn., service plaza where Tesla's Supercharger port is located.
"I was looking for the charger, which is not well labeled or lighted," he wrote.
Tesla's communications team originally pitched the road trip idea to The New York Times as a way to showcase the company's newly installed Supercharger stations on the East Coast. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company takes great pains to cultivate journalists and protect its formidable brand, and the high-stake dispute comes as the company ramps up production of the Model S and prepares for next week's quarterly earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
Ben Kallo, a Robert W. Baird analyst who covers Tesla, said Thursday that Musk's rebuttal to the unflattering New York Times article could have been expected because Tesla has much at stake.
"Tesla has worked very hard to overcome concerns about range anxiety," Kallo said. "They are going hard and fast over this. They don't want any perception that if I live in Minnesota, I can't own a Model S."
Broder had several phone conversations with Tesla throughout his trip, but Tesla said those were not recorded. Musk called Broder last Friday, before the article appeared online, to offer regrets about the outcome of the test drive.
But then the tone turned nasty. Musk attacked Broder via Twitter on Monday, calling the article a "fake," and called Fox Business Network Tuesday, saying The New York Times set out to write a negative article and "gain a picture of a Model S on a flatbed truck."
"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," Musk wrote in the blog post. "When the facts didn't suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts. Our request of The New York Times is simple and fair: Please investigate this article and determine the truth. You are a news organization where that principle is of paramount importance and what is at stake for sustainable transport is simply too important to the world to ignore."
Musk said that the vehicle logs show that the cruise control was never set to 54 miles per hour and that Broder kept the heat on, which drains the battery more quickly.
"At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F," Musk wrote in the blog post.
Some say that the back-and-forth will not change many opinions. While Tesla's devoted fans feel vindicated by Musk's blog post, mainstream consumers who are skeptical of electric vehicles are not likely to run out to reserve a Model S anytime soon.
Chelsea Sexton, an electric vehicle marketing expert, notes that Musk's response, while detailed, does not comment on one of the most curious parts of Broder's story: Why the Model S lost 65 miles of charge when it was parked, but not plugged in, overnight.
"I don't think the rebuttal was as robust as it could have been," said Sexton. "There's no question that there are discrepancies that need to be explained by Broder. Why did he not charge fully? Maybe the guy was stupid. But there was the 65-mile-range loss overnight. Elon didn't address that. It took Tesla three days to produce the logs. Do they prove that Broder set out from the beginning to torch Tesla? No. The longer Elon keeps fighting, the more hollow the victory."
Batteries are complex systems that convert stored chemical energy into electricity. Electric vehicle researchers say advances often involve trade-offs: Improving range may result in skyrocketing costs, or a shorter battery life.
Heat management inside batteries is the single most important predictor of battery health and longevity. And weather is a factor. In general, a cold battery exhibits higher resistance to current flow, meaning that the same amount of power at the wheels will produce much larger amounts of heat inside the battery due to internal power dissipation. This generates localized heat and, while it warms up the batteries, it also accelerates their aging process.
Battery researchers have also warned that consumers who live in colder climates are likely to see reduced driving range because using the heater in the interior cabin draws power -- sometimes as much as 25 percent -- from the battery. In a May 2012 blog post, Tesla wrote that in very cold operating conditions, drivers could see a 10 to 15 percent reduction in range.
Musk's blog post also reveals that Tesla's highest per capita sales are in Norway, where, he said, "customers drive our car during Arctic winters in permanent midnight," and Switzerland, "high among the snowy Alps."
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