February 14, 2013
broder
One of Tesla’s graphs on John Broder’s trip.

 

Tesla Motors and New York Times reporter John M. Broder have been ripping up the Internet for days over his test drive of the company’s vaunted Model S on a long and “newly electrified stretch of Interstate 95.” The idea was to test out how smoothly this sleek automobile could travel with the assistance of something called Supercharger stations. As the review stated:

The 480-volt Supercharger stations deliver enough power for 150 miles of travel in 30 minutes, and a full charge in about an hour, for the 85 kilowatt-hour Model S. (Adding the fast-charge option to cars with the midlevel 60 kilowatt-hour battery costs $2,000.) That’s quite a bit longer than it takes to pump 15 gallons of gasoline, but at Supercharger stations Tesla pays for the electricity, which seems a reasonable trade for fast, silent and emissions-free driving. Besides, what’s Sbarro for?

As the ever-growing world of techies and greens now knows, Broder’s jaunt in the Model S didn’t make a case for emissions-free driving. It devolved into a nail-biting tale of charging anxiety, a cold cabin, frantic calls to sort out technical issues and even a trip on a flatbed truck, following an alleged exhausted battery episode.

And while President Obama and the Republicans have been debating debt and preschool and wages, Tesla and Broder have been debating charging protocols, operating instructions, average speeds, cold hands and the like. In a stunningly exhaustive attack on Broder, Tesla boss Elon Musk posted an essay plus graphs (see above) plus maps that trashes just about every dimension of the negative review. Tesla had placed monitoring technology in the car so that it could rebut any mischaracterizations in the piece — such surveillance isn’t installed for your average consumer. Based on its readings, Tesla, for instance, challenged Broder’s claims that in order to save on battery, he had to go slowly and suffer with minimal heat:

Cruise control was never set to 54 mph as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 mph. Broder 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.

Let them fight that stuff out. Whether Broder was driving in a cozy cabin or an I-95 icebox is not a question for the Erik Wemple Blog. Whether he ever slummed it at 45 mph is also not a question for the Erik Wemple Blog. And we’ll be getting more information on those fronts soon, in any case. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tweeted:

When asked for an interview, Broder responded, “We’re preparing a detailed response to Mr. Musk’s blog post. It should be up on our Wheels blog this afternoon.”

Even before that post comes online, one aspect of this spat bears checking. In his blast, Musk criticized what it nearly termed a Broderian bias against electric cars. Here’s the text:

We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry….

In his own words in an article published last year, this is how Broder felt about electric cars before even seeing the Model S:

“Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate.”

Accurate quote, inaccurate portrayal. The story in question, “The Electric Car, Unplugged,” was one of those thinky “news analysis” pieces that the New York Times plops in its Sunday Review section. If the piece reflects Broder’s disdain for the electric car, well, that disdain rests on facts prominently displayed in the piece:

General Motors has temporarily suspended production of the plug-in electric Chevy Volt because of low sales. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf is struggling in the market. A number of start-up electric vehicle and battery companies have folded. And the federal government has slowed its multibillion-dollar program of support for advanced technology vehicles in the face of market setbacks and heavy political criticism.

It also raises a far less disdainful question: “Is this the beginning of the end of the latest experiment in the electric car, whose checkered history goes back to the dawn of the automobile age?… Or is this what an emergent technology looks like before it crosses the valley of death?”

The kicker in the story comes from documentary maker Chris Paine — “Who Killed the Electric Car?” — who sees an agenda behind all the criticism leveled at electric cars: “With Americans paying $250 a month to fill up on gasoline when electricity can do the job in a Volt for $50 a month, why are we being told electric cars are failures? Who could possibly be behind this?”

On balance, a balanced piece about electric cars. Would Tesla have preferred mere cheerleading?

The author of the rant against Broder, Musk, argues that in allowing Broder to test-drive the Model S, the company “let down the cause of electric vehicles.” Those words are a missionary’s, an advocate’s, and they’re evidence of a mind-set that interprets inconvenient facts as “disdain” or bias or worse.

A Nexis search yields a number of other instances in which Broder, who works the energy and environment beat for the New York Times, has written about electric cars and federal policy toward this industry. Still looking for documentation of his alleged disdain. When asked if Tesla had cited other articles from his past, Broder responded, “Nope.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.