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.