Tesla's Elon Musk & NY Times: Disturbing Discrepancies On Model S Range Reporting

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2012 Tesla Model S

2012 Tesla Model S

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Turns out nothing ignites the Internet quite like a rapid-fire online spat between Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and The New York Times, the Grey Lady of establishment journalism.

Like many such controversies, common ground turns out to be easier to find than you might think: It's a fact that electric-car range falls in colder temperatures.

The details, however, show claims in the Times article are contradicted by the data logs of the Tesla Model S in question--raising disturbing questions about the accuracy of a widely-read article in one of the nation's premier newspapers.

Let's recap.

Winter trip falls short

It all started with a piece in last Sunday's Times with the ominous title Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway. It was written by John Broder, who reports on energy and the environment for the paper.

He described his attempt to drive a Tesla Model S all-electric luxury sport sedan from Washington, D.C., to Boston, using the new SuperCharger network of DC fast-charging stations now being rolled out by Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].

Spoiler alert: He didn't make it.

He didn't much enjoy the drive either.

Read the article for details, and don't miss the snazzy map graphic that accompanies it.

Ironically, the article was proposed to the Times by Musk himself because he'd liked its earlier long-distance Model S drive report, Charging Ahead on an Electric Highway, which covered a 531-mile journey from Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles last September.

Musk tweets back (of course)

Musk wasn't nearly so fond of Broder's article.

Monday he fired out three tweets (1, 2, and 3) calling the article "fake," saying Broder didn't fully recharge the battery pack and that he took a "long detour" he hadn't written about.

'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: Elon Musk arrives in a Tesla Roadster

'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: Elon Musk arrives in a Tesla Roadster

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Musk promised a blog post from Tesla Motors, with further details from the car's data log, would be "coming soon." Data logging, he noted, has to be approved by customers, but it's always turned on for journalists.

Tesla also plans, Musk said on Monday, to invite other journalists to replicate the trip.

Media piled on

Later Monday, Musk tweeted a more conciliatory message, saying he was "not against [The New York Times] in general" and that the paper was "usually fair," linking to its September piece on the California drive.

By the end of Monday, Musk had appeared on CNBC calling the article "unreasonable," and New York magazine had noted the drop in Tesla Motors stock price.

Even The Atlantic--that bastion of the liberal East Coast chattering-class media elite--criticized Musk's critiques of the article, saying they weren't helping Tesla.

Author responds

Then, Tuesday afternoon, Broder published a lengthy post on the Times Wheels blog in which he responded to Musk's tweeted claims.

2012 Tesla Model S

2012 Tesla Model S

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He noted that the car's dash display had said "Charging Complete" at a pack capacity of 90 percent, and that he wasn't told he should also switch to "Max Range" setting and wait another half-hour or so to add the last 10 percent of capacity--which shortens battery life.

To maximize battery life, the Tesla limits recharging to 80 or 90 percent of total pack capacity (reducing range) unless the driver specifically directs it to do otherwise. The "Max Range" setting provides the highest possible range for road trips and/or cold temperatures.

Broder claims his "long detour" was a brief stop in Manhattan that added just 2 miles to total distance.

The real crux of the problem came from an overnight cold soak at a hotel stop in Groton, Connecticut, where he awoke to 10-degree temperatures.

Broder parked the Model S with 90 miles remaining, and awoke to find it showing 25 miles--which fell to 19 miles after he conditioned the battery for 30 minutes at the direction of a Tesla employee.

Things degenerated from there.

Not plugged in overnight

"Virtually everyone says that I should have plugged in the car overnight in Connecticut, particularly given the cold temperature," Broder writes in his followup.

Plugging in the car overnight, even on 110-Volt power, lets the Tesla Model S use grid power to warm its battery pack, keeping it at a temperature that maximizes range.

He then defends his decision not to do so by noting that he was supposed to be testing the SuperCharger network--and that the car showed sufficient range to return to the nearest SuperCharger location.

2012 Tesla Model S

2012 Tesla Model S

Enlarge Photo

"This evaluation was intended to demonstrate [the Model S's] practicality as a 'normal use,' no-compromise car, as Tesla markets it," he continues.

And he sneers at the idea that Model S buyers will all be "electric-car acolytes who will plug in at every Walmart stop," if Tesla expects to be a "mass-market automaker."

We find that line of reasoning a little disingenuous with the Tesla Model S on sale less than a year. 

Electric cars are still an almost unknown quantity among mass-market buyers--who generally don't look at luxury sport sedans whose prices start at $59,900 and can reach $100,000 anyhow.

Data logs, graphs, maps, and annotations

Late last night, the Tesla Motors post, A Most Peculiar Test Drive, finally appeared with Musk's name as author--scooped merely minutes beforehand by the Wired Autopia blog.

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