What’s at stake in the fight between Tesla and the New York Times

February 14, 2013

Over the past few years, we've seen a bunch of high-profile spats over electric cars. The subject never fails to rile up emotions. But even by those standards, the recent dust-up between the New York Times and Elon Musk's Tesla Motors is striking.

What's all the fuss about? (Bloomberg)

The short version: John Broder of the Times took one of Tesla's Model S electric cars on a trip from Washington D.C. to Milford, Conn., stopping at three of the company's "Supercharger" stations to top up his battery along the way. He then wrote a negative review criticizing the Model S's inability to stay charged. In response, Tesla's Elon Musk wrote an angry post in which he posted log data from Broder's trip and accused the reporter of misrepresenting his drive. Among other things, Musk claims that Broder didn't even fully charge his vehicle.

We'll let those two work out their differences in public — the New York Times is planning to respond at length soon enough. (Update: Here's Broder's response.) But what about the broader implications here? What's actually at stake in this fight?

It's worth noting that at this early stage, there are many different visions for what electric cars can do. The vast majority of electric vehicles coming on the market are fairly short-range: They travel less than 100 miles on a single charge and can plug into any ordinary 120-volt wall outlet (or special 240-volt outlets). Charging takes hours, but the idea is that this shouldn't matter much. Most Americans drive fewer than 100 miles per day anyway. They can commute by day and charge overnight.

Tesla is pursuing a different strategy. The company is trying to alleviate "range anxiety" and persuade Americans that electric vehicles can be good for long road trips too. So Tesla has marketed cars with longer ranges, like the $79,900 Model S, which can go 265 miles on a single charge. The company is also building a series of "Supercharger" stations along highways in California and the East Coast, allowing drivers on long drives to refuel in less than an hour.

The downside here is that trying to alleviate range anxiety is a risky move. The Model S is more expensive than other plug-in options, in part because it contains bigger batteries. And installing fast-charge stations can cost companies up to $100,000 in some cases. Electric utilities also sometimes levy an extra fee on fast-chargers if they put a heavy strain on the grid.

So Tesla's whole strategy depends on lots of people buying electric cars and using the fast-charging stations often — that will allow the company to recoup its investments. A negative review in a paper like the New York Times, whose well-heeled readers are part of Tesla's target demographic, hurts that strategy. (Note that Tesla's stock dipped after Broder's review.)

In any case, there's still lots of debate over what, exactly, the future of the electric car will hold. Kevin Bullis recently had an excellent piece in MIT Technology Review about whether fast-charge stations will ever catch on, or whether electric cars with limited range and slow overnight charging will be a more viable business model in the near term.

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Sarah Kliff · February 14, 2013