American Culture

Tesla vs. The Times: Elon Musk dusts up with the doubters

The tiff between Elon Musk and the New York Times has turned into one of the most entertaining car reviews of all time. In case you’ve missed it, Tesla has installed “Supercharger” stations strategically along the East Coast. These are capable of quick charging batteries with the idea that Tesla owners will be able to drive from New Jersey to Boston in a manner similar to owners of liquid fueled cars. To prove it, the company gave reviewers a brand new Model S and company support. The New York Times reviewer didn’t make it, and the Times published a photo of the Model S being put on a flatbed truck. Elon Musk doesn’t like bad reviews. He once sued Top Gear for filming the hosts pushing a Roadster that wasn’t actually and completely dead. Yes, he sued a scripted comedy show known for its willingness to trash $100,000 sports cars because they weren’t properly deferential to his baby. In his petulant way, Musk personally fired back at the Times and accused the reviewer of purposefully sabotaging the review. The Tesla fanboys and electric car geeks created a run on torches and pitchforks in comment sections across the internet, pointing to the graphs based on vehicle data logs that Musk published. CNN and Tesla car club members repeated the trip successfully as evidence that the Times reviewer is in the bag for the oil industry, except that nobody else really repeated the Times trip.

The point of the charging system and reviews, as i understand it, was to prove that you can use your new $100,000 Model S (base price is $60,000) like any other $100,000 car. The failure of the Times review was that it attempted to do so, and took notes like a car review rather than a technology review. Musk complained that the reviewer used the heat too much and once even went 80mph! So CNN’s conclusion that the Model S is every bit as good as a BMW or Audi falls a little flat. At $100,000 i would expect the vehicle to be well composed at speeds far above 80, and i’m damned well going to exceed the speed limit most every chance i get. If Musk doesn’t think owners should drive so fast, he should limit the Model S to 75 or some other battery and environmentally friendly speed. The Germans generally limit at 155.

I admit to being something of a petrolhead, though a quirky one (one of my aspirational cars is to import a Lada 2104, the Riva Kombi, to be my daily driver), but i’m not philosophically opposed to electric cars. If i wasn’t philosophically opposed to buying new vehicles and had a garage to charge, i’d consider buying an electric because most days neither driver needs to exceed 20 total miles. I’d consider it even though i’d never recoup the cost premium in fuel savings. The problem would be that where we use the most fuel is to make the 450 mile drive to Detroit. In a Model S with the largest battery pack, there would need to be a supercharger in roughly Gaylord, MI and likely multiple spots along the way given that for a significant portion of the year it’s cruel and inhumane to drive the length of Michigan without heat. Even the fast charge would add significant time to an already long trip, and i would gouge my eyes out with the turn signal stalk if i had to drive the speed limit the whole way just to be able to make it. … not to mention the rage if i pulled up to the supercharger and had to wait an hour for someone else to finish before i could even start to recharge.

For $100,000 i could build a large enough garage to purchase and hold the whole collection: my BMW, import the Lada, buy/build an electric conversion Porsche 914, and a nice used VW TDI wagon for the better half and  road trips. But even for $100,000, i cannot buy an electric car that could be my only car.

Musk doesn’t appear to be interested in building a practical electric vehicle at a realistic price point for something approaching mass adoption, so his petulance when someone says that a $100,000 toy isn’t always practical mystifies me. I’d feel the same if Pagani got all bent out of shape because a reviewer decided that a Zonda is a really bad car for taking the family to visit Grandma at Christmas. We don’t need proof of concept for electric vehicles. The White Zombie Datsun proves that a properly sorted electric car will destroy most gasoline powered cars in a drag race, and that was built in a garage by a guy who converted another Datsun to electric for daily driver use. Color me unimpressed that Elon Musk did the same thing with a Lotus Elise.

The problem with electric car adoption is the charging infrastructure. Musk has successfully installed a hobby level of charging infrastructure in a few places. That’s great. It’s a start, but it’s not an achievement that makes him a world-changing genius who should never be questioned or criticized. Making something expensive and impractical is just eccentric, no matter how cool it is. So as much as it pains me to compliment General Motors, the technological platform in the Volt is a far more profound advancement in electric vehicle progression than anything Musk has ever done, because it is a fully usable vehicle at a realistic price point. While it is not technically an EV, it’s the electric vehicle i’d buy, except that i won’t even buy a used General Motors product, much less a new one. For this car guy, Musk’s antics and self-perception put Tesla in the same group as GM.

At least one article has said that Musk and Tesla are understood by the techies but not by the car guys when it comes to reviews, and i think that may hold true beyond reviewers to some degree. I don’t want a rolling iGadget, i want a car. So as good as this Truth About Cars post is,  and it’s the most interesting take on the situation i’ve read because of its perspective from automotive PR, it may miss the point if Musk isn’t building a car company but a self-propelled-tech company.

16 replies »

  1. What a Blind sheep you are…. Tesla is still in its early stages more supercharger will come very soon, and existing chargers will be improved to charge even faster.

    Gasoline can only come from OIL… electricity can be generated from many sources… have you heard of Solar?

  2. Broder not making the trip was primarily caused by not charging, as well as driving around a parking lot. The car at no point ever died I’m sick of reporters twisting words. Reporters should be informative you are not fiction writers.

    • Also have you visited tesla and done any researcher the generation three will be a mid sized sedan in the 30,000 dollar range… The model S is at a price point which starts at 52,000 when including tax credit so 100,000 car is based on if you need every package available for instance rear facing child seats. It’s an electric car with more distance than any other electric car if you don’t like it do not get it.

      • So then my listing the base price of roughly $62,000 was correct. The review vehicle was a heavily-optioned car, the big ticket item being the larger battery pack that makes the trip Broder took theoretically possible.

        Future tense on that mid-sized sedan in the $30K range, right? We’ll find out when Tesla builds something at that price point.

    • I’m not a reporter. The car didn’t die driving around the parking lot. It did die. It didn’t make it to the public charging station Broder was trying to reach.

  3. I probably would not drive a Bugatti Veyron from Washington DC to Groton, CT, (I probably would not make it as far as Baltimore) but that does not mean that the car is not an amazing car.
    Just like the Bugatti, a pickup truck, or a minivan, a Tesla model S is not for everyone. It certainly was not for Broder. To say that this means the demise of EVs is very short-sighted.

  4. Oh good, the Tesla fanbois have arrived. Any criticism of Musk or his boutique car company must be the same as hating electric cars, wanting to kill the planet, and being a sheep. I get the feeling that the four commenters above didn’t even read the piece, given that i said i’d be interested in buying an electric car even though it would never be financially responsible to do so for me, given my driving. Or that i would use part of the cost of a Model S to build an electric 914. Or that i gave props to the builder of White Zombie and Green Meanie.

    Mr. Musk’s cult of personality is amazing.

    • I admire Elon Musk, and yes I’m a Fan. With the Money he made from selling zip2 and Paypall, he could have just enjoyed live. But instead he decided to do something good for mankind. Electric cars is the way to go and Tesla proved that.

  5. Let me start by saying the words “Lada 2104” and “Riva Kombi” render the rest of your words and opinion on vehicles invalid if you ask me. In all seriousness though most electric cars so far have been pseudo-electric cars (aka Volt), the Tesla vehicles are a massive step in the right direction. Indeed you need to be more mindful of the intricacies of it being an electric only vehicle and treat it more like an “iGadget” as you put it. Treating it like a smart phone and putting it on charge whenever possible would have gone a long way to preventing the NYT test drive outcome.

    The NYT review outcome was born by a lack of effort from the reviewer. I believe Broder simply jumped in the car and drove off like it was any other normal car, he stopped at the public charge stations and nonchalantly charged it up a bit and then set off again. Had he treated it more like a gadget he would have made it no problem. We all know how it is with gadgets as enthusiasts, part of the fun of having a fancy new gadget is knowing all the cool tricks that it includes. Also the limitations and special care instructions that come along with it.

    Similar mistakes could be made with any super car if you simply drive it and treat it like a Toyota Camry. User error is what it comes down to and I think Elon Musk has every right to point that out. Contrary to the popular saying, I think… the customer is usually wrong.

  6. Several years back, it was a Friday night and I had nothing planned for the long weekend. and at 10:00pm I decided to drive to Ocean City MD from Elizabeth NJ. Got in my car a 1988 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z, the gas tank was 3/4 full. so I figured I would get Gas in Delaware. well, I got to Delaware and all the gas stations where closed. so I got stuck and like Broder I blame Dodge.

  7. Yep, I like the idea of Tesla except that, as this guy says, are still too expensive to have any problems. Hopefully, Tesla will be able to afford “the damage” because, really, the car should be able to deal with extra heat, being lost, etc. Frankly, the neg pub made me side for Tesla, anyways…
    We need machines that make the LiFePO4 battery cheaper because although slightly less energy dense as the li-ion, they can be charged and discharged faster. They also have 2,000 complete cycles (as compared to 500 for li-ion).

  8. Lex, I think your points are valid. I have one real problem with the NY Times reporter’s review. The first is that he went directly against much of the advice and recommendations of the Tesla company. This smells to me like a bias against either Tesla, or electric cars in general. It also smells like bad journalism and review practices.

  9. Lex, you say Musk doesn’t appear to be interested in building a practical electric vehicle for mass adoption. That just shows you never read what he had to say about that. It is in fact his goal.