February 15, 2013

The rebuttal to the rebuttal has been filed. In it, John M. Broder, the New York Times reporter who wrote a devastating review of Tesla Motors’ Model S, challenges the company’s charges that he effectively set out to trash the good name of this beautiful and acclaimed automobile.

To recap: The Broder review ran in Sunday’s New York Times; the company pushed back via Twitter and on Wednesday came forth with a monster blog post complete with graphs and data from monitoring devices on the car, much of it disputing observations that landed in the Broder review. Safe to say: Never have the mphs, the battery levels and the cabin temperatures of one man’s I-95 road trip been more carefully recorded and passed along to a greater cross-section of the American public.

Herewith an abridged rundown of Broder’s counterpoints:

*Tesla charges that the car’s battery never ran out of juice, as the article states; Broder says, in effect: Hey, the display screen said the car was kaput.

*Tesla said that at one point, Broder pulled the charge cable against the advice of company personnel; Broder says no advice ignored.

*Tesla claims that Broder set the car up for a “no-win scenario”; Broder denies the allegation, though the details are knotty. Have a close look at the text.

*Tesla charges that Broder blew right past a charging station that would have helped him; Broder responds, in effect, What charging station?

*Tesla claims that Broder actually turned the cabin temperature up when he claimed to have turned it down to preserve battery; Broder responds by citing Tesla data showing two moves to turn down the temperature. Wphfew!

That’s not an exhaustive rundown of the disagreements. There are a few others as well.

Though there’s so much rich stuff to fight over, the discrepancies that stick with the Erik Wemple Blog relate to speed. At different points in the story, Broder claims that he slowed down to prevent battery drainage. One point:

I turned the climate control to low — the temperature was still in the 30s — and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour (the speed limit is 65). Buicks and 18-wheelers flew past, their drivers staring at the nail-polish-red wondercar with California dealer plates.

Another point:

The displayed range never reached the number of miles remaining to Milford, and as I limped along at about 45 miles per hour I saw increasingly dire dashboard warnings to recharge immediately.

Tesla’s on-board super data-recorder told a different story:

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.

Broder strikes back, saying he does recall setting the cruise control to 54 mph. He continues:

I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. That just might have affected the recorded speed, range, rate of battery depletion or any number of other parameters. Tesla’s data suggests I was doing slightly more than 50 over a stretch where the speed limit was 65. The traffic was heavy in that part of Connecticut, so cruise control was not usable, and I tried to keep the speed at 50 or below without impeding traffic.

The mitigating consideration for Broder is that he was driving. Taking notes on speedometer readings would have imperiled the motorists of littoral Connecticut.

There’s also an aggravating factor for the reviewer. Data, that is. The Tesla chart on speed during Broder’s jaunt looks like this:

If Tesla doesn’t make it as a car company, perhaps it has a future in annotated polemico-forensic graph-making.

That Broder appears not to have limped along at 45 mph after saying he limped along at 45 mph has thunderous implications for the review: Having to drive 20 mph below the speed limit—and perhaps 30 mph below the actual traffic flow—is a matter of trauma even for an experienced driver. It means managing your palm sweat as you fixate on that rearview mirror, praying that the NASCAR-inclined maniacs of I-95 don’t plow into you.

In his rebuttal, Broder says that the Tesla data show that “much of my driving was at or well below the 65 m.p.h. speed limit.” Perhaps that’s the level of generality that Broder should have inserted into the original piece, instead of citing a level of specificity with serious implications for the car’s public image. There’s a difference, after all, between “well below” the speed limit and 45 mph.

As for Broder’s musing about the differences between 19-inch wheels and 21-inch wheels, the Erik Wemple Blog sent a request for comment to Tesla. Didn’t hear back right away. Earlier in the day, a company rep said that the data-heavy Broder broadside would be its final statement on the matter. We were rooting for another set of graphs.

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