Last week’s high-profile battle between a New York Times columnist and an electric-vehicle (EV) manufacturer has spotlighted some important issues around the adoption of EVs in the United States. On one level, the flap between Times automotive writer John M. Broder and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, raises questions about EVs’ capabilities: What does their relatively short range say about their chances of adoption? Can their environmental benefits and coolness factor overcome consumers’ “range anxiety”?
But on a higher level, the conflict emphasizes that simply putting an innovative product on the market isn’t enough to assure market adoption. EVs are being introduced into an existing context dominated by petroleum-fueled internal-combustion-engine (ICE) vehicles, by the highway system that has been designed around them, by the infrastructure that is used to fuel them and by all of the expectations consumers have grown up with about what it means to get around in a vehicle.
Frigid Temps and White Knuckles
In a Feb. 8 article titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway” in The New York Times “Automobiles” section, Broder recounted a white-knuckled journey he took on Jan. 23 and 24 in a $100,000 Tesla Model S plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) to test out Tesla’s new network of Supercharger fast-charge stations, now being rolled out. According to Tesla, the Supercharger delivers 150 miles of range on a 30-minute charge for an 85 kWh battery. Tesla has built nine 480-volt Supercharger stations in the U.S. and plans to have over 100 operating by 2015.
Broder took a Model S provided by Tesla on a two-day road trip to test out the company’s initial deployment of Supercharger stations in Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn., supposedly positioned so as to allow a quick EV trip on I-95 from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Mass. According to Broder’s account, the Model S’s range was dramatically affected by the cold January temperatures during his trip. He just barely made it to the Milford station after slowing his speed for much of the trip and turning the cabin heat down to low.
Broder spent the night of Jan. 23 farther up I-95 in Groton, Conn. When he parked the car, the vehicle’s computer said he had 90 miles left, plenty of juice to get back the next day to the charging station 46 miles away in Milford. However, he wrote, the thermometer showed 10 degrees the next morning and the remaining charge had dropped to 25 miles: “the electrical equivalent of someone having siphoned off more than two-thirds of the fuel that was in the tank when I parked.”
Broder tried to make it back to Milford with the help of Tesla technical personnel, who advised him by telephone and helped him find nearby conventional slow-charge stations. Ultimately, however, the Model S pooped out and had to get towed ignominiously back to Milford. Broder charged up there and made it to New York City, where he turned the car in at a Tesla dealership.
Not a great endorsement of the Tesla’s range and suitability for road trips.
Poor Model S “Never Had a Chance”?
However, on Feb. 13, five days after Broder’s account appeared, Tesla’s Musk responded on his company’s blog under the title “A Most Peculiar Test Drive.” Musk accused Broder of sabotaging his own road trip and misrepresenting what happened in his NYT article. Broder’s article, he charged, “does not factually represent Tesla technology, which is designed and tested to operate well in both hot and cold climates.”
Although Tesla doesn’t track its customers’ auto usage, it does maintain data logs when it loans cars to the media for test drives. Tesla’s logs show, wrote Musk, “that our Model S never had a chance with John Broder.” Musk challenged Broder’s statements that he drove slowly and turned down the heat to conserve power and implied that Broder had intentionally undercharged the vehicle to make it appear to be losing range:
For his first recharge, he charged the car to 90%. During the second Supercharge, despite almost running out of energy on the prior leg, he deliberately stopped charging at 72%. On the third leg, where he claimed the car ran out of energy, he stopped charging at 28%. Despite narrowly making each leg, he charged less and less each time. Why would anyone do that?
He also accused Broder of driving around in circles in a parking lot apparently trying to deplete the battery.
On Feb. 14, the day after Musk’s blog entry, Broder responded under the title “That Tesla Data: What It Says and What It Doesn’t.” He contested Musk’s accusations, especially his “broadest charge … that I consciously set out to sabotage the test.”
Broder gave a detailed account of his road trip with the Model S and responded to Musk’s allegations point-by-point, questioning at times the accuracy of Tesla’s data logs and at every point Musk’s assertion of Broder’s bad faith. He explained that he had driven around in circles in the Milford service plaza because he was searching for the hard-to-find Supercharger charging point.
Ultimately it will be difficult to make a definitive judgment about who comes out on top in this dispute. And ultimately that might not be the most important thing anyway.
The Wrong Controversy
Grist energy columnist David Roberts has written one of the more insightful commentaries about the Broder controversy under the title “The Tesla/N.Y. Times fight is a sideshow.” He writes that “This seems like an awful lot of attention devoted to the precise performance characteristics of this particular vehicle on this particular trip.” The Tesla’s good performance has been well-document through many tests and reviews. “What really seems to be behind this,” he says, “is a proxy argument over electric cars in general.”
In the public imagination and even in that of policymakers, “the promise of electric cars,” says Roberts, is that “an electric car can plop down in America’s current transportation system and do everything an internal-combustion-engine car can do.” Adhering to that false expectation sets up EVs to fail and misses their true potential for applications like commuting, where they make the most sense and where Americans do most of their actual traveling.
The controversy over EVs, Roberts asserts, focuses on the wrong thing, the electric vehicle itself. The real problem is in the larger system in which the vehicle operates:
The problem … is not merely that our cars consume too much oil. It’s that our transportation system consumes too much oil. A better system won’t merely involve better cars, it will involve driving less, telecommuting more, using more public transportation, sharing cars, making cars smarter, and building more and better electrical infrastructure.
Whether Broder or Musk turns out to be right about what happened during those two chilly days in January isn’t what’s really important, says Roberts: “the resolution of this dispute says roughly nothing about the need for, or the promise of, systemic changes in U.S. transportation.”