What to Make of Tesla’s Latest Media Feud?

By · February 15, 2013

Model S Snow Test

A recent New York Times article called into question the Model S's performance in cold climates. Tesla CEO Elon Musk wasted little time in firing back at its author.

Yesterday, Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder hashed out a dispute over Broder’s February 10 article titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway”. In the piece, Broder reported running out range and having to call for a tow at the end of a two-day drive that saw him attempting to travel from suburban Washington, D.C., to Groton, Conn., then back to New York using Tesla’s new East Coast Supercharger network.

Tesla claims that Broder is an established EV hater who set out to intentionally run out of range in an attempt to sensationalize what was supposed to be a piece about the Supercharger network’s use of solar power and storage to reduce emissions and energy costs from charging. Broder says that the Model S fell short of range expectations and that Tesla provided confusing and at times contradictory instructions that contributed to his eventual stranding during the home stretch of his trip.

You can read the squabble in its entirety over at Tesla’s blog and on NYTimes.com, but I’ve singled out here what I consider to be the three central claims of the original article:

1. The Model S’s range is severely hampered by cold weather

Tesla says: Broder never charged to capacity and engaged in range-depleting driving habits like setting climate control as high as 74 degrees.

Broder says: Tesla instructed him that his charges would be sufficient to make it to his destinations but the car failed to live up to its range calculations.

This point has never really been under dispute. Tesla has estimated in the past that the Model S loses 10-20 percent of its range in cold weather, an estimate which increases or decreases depending on temperature and other factors like heater use.

2. The Model S lost 65 miles of calculated range while parked unplugged overnight.

Tesla says: This wouldn’t have been an issue if Broder hadn’t aborted his most recent charge early.

Broder says: The range calculator gave him every reason to believe he’d be able to make a 61-mile drive the next morning with the 90 miles of estimated range he had the night before. By the morning, the range calculator displayed just 25 miles of remaining range.

On this point, Broder may have a legitimate complaint—not just about the Model S but about electrics in general. Leaving EVs unplugged overnight in below-freezing temperatures causes their battery heating systems to kick in, which steadily depletes power from the car as it sits. The night of Broder’s trip, temperatures in Groton, Conn., hit a low of 6 degrees (well below historical averages,) likely forcing the system to work harder than usual.

3. The Model S died before Broder could reach his final Supercharger stop, turning what should have been a 1-hour drive into a 5-hour ordeal.

Tesla says: Broder created the issue by only charging to 72 percent during his second Supercharger stop and then charging to just 28 percent the next day during a necessary (but unplanned) Level 2 charge.

Broder says: He dutifully followed Tesla’s over-the-phone charging instructions, charging for “about an hour” at the Level 2 station before attempting to make it 61 miles to the next Supercharger stop.

Broder may or may not have been cleared by Tesla to leave the Level 2 charging station in Norwich with just 32 miles of calculated range (Tesla says he wasn’t,) but regardless of what his instructions were, he made an error that no EV owner and very few competent adults would ever make. Regardless of whether this was a simple mistake or a planned subterfuge as Tesla claims, the Model S bares almost no blame for Broder requiring a tow.

What Does it All Mean for EVs?

Broder’s article highlights two valid criticisms of EVs: decreased energy efficiency and a loss of range from overnight parking in cold climates. However, neither of these observations are particularly new, nor are they likely to seriously impact the regular driving habits of a Model S owner. More importantly, had Broder practiced smart driving and charging habits during his trip he wouldn’t have run out of charge before reaching his destination.

The squabble between Musk and Broder has everything to do with the personalities and prejudices of its participants and relatively little to do with the Model S or electric vehicles themselves. In the long run, this dispute will likely be forgotten and have little impact on the success or failure of the car.

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