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Why Elon Musk is hurting the electric car debate

As Tesla takes on The New York Times, its CEO could be leading a respectable discussion on battery technology. Instead, he's fueling an unnecessary fire.

By Clifford Atiyeh Feb 21, 2013 7:59AM

Few test drives turn into overnight sagas like the drawn-out battle that is Tesla versus The New York Times.


On one hand, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has enough line graphs printed from his car’s onboard data box to feed a horde of lawyers, while reporter John Broder has a few “casual and imprecise notes.” But this spat is not simply a war of words, nor is the relevance of a major media outlet in question, as Road and Track so eloquently detailed. At stake is the perceived quality and reliability of a new product.


In recap: The New York Times publishes a review on Feb. 10 stating that its Model S test car, in a drive from New York to Boston, suffered range shortages in below-freezing weather and had to be towed. The following day, Musk tweets that the story is a “fake” and goes on CNBC Monday afternoon to dispute the story. The next day, Broder responds on the Times’ Wheels blog that the newspaper supports the story and writes that had he known then “what I know now about the car, its sensitivity to cold and additional ways to maximize range, I certainly would have treated the test differently.”


One day later, Musk writes a lengthy point-by-point critique, supported by charts and graphs, that appears to contradict each of Broder’s claims. On Valentine’s Day, Broder responds again, poking some holes into Musk’s claims. Then the media go back and forth, discovering the tow-truck driver was telling the truth and questioning the speed data Musk had cited. CNN successfully recreates Broder’s journey – as so do a handful of Model S owners – in the following days. Then on Tuesday, Musk responds again, this time to a blog post from the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan, who on Monday said in a headline that the test had “problems with precision and judgment.”


Admittedly, Broder could have studied how the car worked before setting out, something he did not dispute. Tesla employees assigned to assist Broder could have studied how the car worked, too, something Musk did not dispute. What’s odd is that Musk called Broder to tell him Tesla’s Supercharger stations should have been spaced in closer intervals to account for the Northeast’s more extreme weather – before blasting him on national television.


By now, you’ve formed your own opinions on the Times story. Here's mine: I haven’t bought Tesla’s explanations. And as a CEO, Musk’s behavior is intolerable and potentially damaging for his company’s future.


Musk, as a billionaire pioneer and the underdog shoving hard against huge, established automakers, has done some impressive things. He’s yet to make Tesla profitable, but what he’s done – transforming a little shop in Menlo Park, Calif., into a national operation equipped with a first-class manufacturing plant in just three years – is amazing. The first Tesla Roadster was a modified Lotus Elise. The Model S, save for a few Mercedes switches, is entirely bespoke and leads the industry on design, technology and performance. Again, that is amazing.


I’ve driven three Roadsters – I was one of the first journalists to conduct an extended three-day test in 2009 – and I’ve come out of them blown away each time. I’ve admired how Tesla fought against the National Automobile Dealers Association, which sought to block Tesla in Massachusetts for opening a factory-owned store as opposed to licensing a franchised dealership. It won in Massachusetts, and it likely will win in New Jersey and other states where lawsuits are pending.


Musk no doubt likens himself to the late Steve Jobs, a genius head of a surging tech company with the industry’s sexiest product. Like Apple, his followers are indefatigably loyal and have plenty of disposable income. And unfortunately, that’s made Musk just as cocky and controlling.


"I don't care what you say, there is no competition at this show for us," Musk said at the North American International Auto Show last month. He was speaking about a concept car that won’t be built for another two years. He’s blurted too many obnoxious comments to list here. You can find them. But the way Musk conducted himself with The New York Times took his ego to new lows.


What does it say about a company compelled to track every journalist’s move and then release these data without consent? Why is a CEO chastising someone for turning on a heater in freezing temperatures or splitting hairs over a few bursts of speed on a highway? Since when have electric cars become a movement and a revolution, as Musk says, so that if you’re not 100 percent on board, you’re classified as an enemy, an idiot? After all, two magazines that drove Musk’s personal Model S for all of several hundred miles have crowned it “Car of the Year,” so what could ever be wrong?


I’ve never driven a Model S, and while I sent Musk an email and gave him 24 hours to respond, he didn't. (He did manage to spar with the Times' auto editor, Jim Cobb, over Twitter.) And yes, "Top Gear" got in trouble for staging a Tesla Roadster as if it had died when it hadn't, so there’s at least some understanding for Tesla’s data paranoia.


But no matter how good the Model S is, electric cars have significant problems in cold and heat. Of course, gas-powered cars suffer from increased fuel consumption in the cold and decreased power in high altitudes, but by and large, modern cars perform consistently in any climate – and they last. When I drove a Nissan Leaf in 35-degree weather, I experienced a sudden overnight range loss despite the car telling me I had enough miles to reach my destination.


I’ve tested other plug-ins during cold New England winters, including the Toyota Prius Plug-in and Chevrolet Volt, that experienced mild range loss short of their manufacturer estimates.  When I tested a newer Nissan Leaf last summer, my range was markedly improved. None of these situations is unusual. Had Broder switched the car to its maximum range setting, he might have arrived without a tow truck, but Tesla explicitly warns owners not to use this setting long-term since it is proven to degrade the battery at an accelerated rate.


That’s because modern batteries, despite advances, still have serious durability issues. Remember Tesla’s “bricked” Roadster when a customer didn’t leave his car plugged in? Remember how Leaf owners in Arizona complained of premature battery loss because of their regular 100-plus degree weather? Remember how the batteries in the Chevrolet Volt caught fire weeks after a test crash, or how the Fisker Karma and Toyota Prius caught fire when submerged in saltwater after Superstorm Sandy? (To be fair, it was just the Fisker's 12-volt battery that short-circuited.) Even Boeing couldn’t get lithium-ion batteries to work reliably on its new 787 Dreamliner, which allegedly were wired incorrectly.


Automakers, including Tesla, are required to warranty their batteries against total failure for at least eight years or 100,000 miles, but as Nissan proved, “failure” is a variable term determined by the factory. Nissan’s debacle showed that customers, knowingly or not, have to accept that their electric cars can lose more than a quarter of their range in just a couple of years. How can that be acceptable for a $40,000 car? For any car?


This isn’t to condemn the entire electric car “movement” as doomed to fail. But it’s very easy for Tesla and its wealthy owners to ignore the problems. When you can buy a $90,000 car – the price for Tesla’s high-capacity battery, along with the usual options and an uprated onboard charger – you don’t mind if the car degrades or proves fussy at times. You’ll buy version 2.0 next year and then patch over to 2.5. But for the rest of us, electric-car batteries necessitate a critical discussion in which Musk is surprisingly tight-lipped.


When electric cars arrive en masse, the conversion from fossil fuels isn’t going to be as simple as flipping a light switch. Unlike Model S owners, average electric-car drivers will not always be able to find a plug every night. They won’t all garage their electric cars next to Porsches and BMWs in $1 million homes, nor will they be clustered in California’s utopian year-round climate.


We need to remind ourselves that Tesla is building a luxury vehicle for people who have invested inordinate amounts of time and money in a single car. Average commuters aren't that extravagant. They want cars to work and don’t want to think about how or why they work. Beyond routine maintenance, they’re not going to baby an electric car or even bother to read the owner’s manual. Most Americans don't even check their tire pressure, so do you really think they're going to set aside a half-hour each morning to "pre-condition" a battery? Will they check their smartphones before each drive to ensure all systems are go?


Not a chance. An expensive, temperamental car that sways its mood with the weather is not what people expect from a modern car. When electric cars perform as consistently and worry-free as gas-powered cars, then everyone will want one.


Tesla knows this is the future. When its finances allow and the company pays off a $465 million federal loan, Tesla wants to sell a cheaper electric car. Its progress is logical, because without an expensive model to start, Tesla wouldn’t have been able to make headlines or have the capital to increase its production.


But if all automakers are to build affordable electric cars – normal, full-featured cars that cost less than $30,000 without tax breaks – they need to have an honest discussion about battery technology. They can’t act with hostility and aggression toward a perceived opposition. Toddlers and the Chinese government do that. Tesla needs a CEO that can lead an intelligent, open-ended talk on electric vehicles, one who will unite the industry around its technology while acknowledging its shortcomings. That CEO isn’t Musk.


Disclosure: I am a former Boston Globe employee and still contribute to the newspaper, which is owned by The New York Times, but that’s as far as my connection goes. I don’t even own the company’s stock in my 401(k). I’m also MSN Autos’ senior news editor.


An earlier version of the article implied the Fisker Karma's main battery was at fault during Superstorm Sandy when it was actually the 12-volt battery.

155Comments
Feb 21, 2013 1:57PM
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Clifford Atiyeh, misses the point about the problems with the New York Times. The Times journalist took on the mantle of evaluating a highly advanced piece of technology and he didn't even take the time to read the owner's manual. The writer then put out a review that clashed with the results of more than a dozen reviews from professional reviewers.

To be blunt, the NY Times article was sloppy, lazy and biased. The Times is notorious for its arrogant attitude and for playing loose with the truth. They have been caught repeatedly lying to the public.

This issue is not about the reliability of electric cars - that is a stupid conclusion. If Atiyeh wants to write about that he should do so separately from the Times grossly incompetent article on the Tesla S. This issue is about the media's arrogance, bias and incompetence.

The Times is noted for their quote "Its not news until we say it is news." In other words the factual issues about a newsworthy event are not important unless the Times says they are important.  This reeks of arrogance and self-importance and it reveals the Times agenda to control what you see in the news instead of accurately reporting news stories.

New cutting-edge experimental  batteries are on the verge of increasing their power storing capabilities 10-fold which is stunning.  If this technology matures in the next ten years electric cars will have the potential to replace gas cars because they may have a range of over a 1000 miles or more.

The only problem that remains is that the Obama administration has effectively eliminated coal-fired electric plants which will increase the cost of electricity geometrically. Already the electricity cost is slated to increase 500% in the northeast by the year 2015.  So the death of the electric car may not be the technology. The death of the electric car may occur because of the Obama administration's over-regulation of the power sources of electricity.

This is ironic isn't it? But what can you expect from the president is the most incompetent president since Jimmy Carter!

Feb 21, 2013 1:26PM
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The real answer to an alternative fuel vehicle is not the Electric Car - but the Fuel Cell car - one I keep being told is not ready for prime time....interesting that Fuel Cells are not ready for prime time when the USA has bet peoples lives on them since the 1950s in the Space Program...

 

I recall not all that long ago, Ballard Engery had a Fuel Cell genset for a home - it would provide all the power and hot water you needed for the average home....when I called to inquire on why it was not sold in the USA, I was told it was not politically correct --- sounds like - Oil Companies didn't want it...same goes for Fuel Cell Cars... Food for thought.

Feb 21, 2013 1:53PM
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"What does it say about a company compelled to track every journalist’s move and then release these data without consent?"

 

  It says that the company is using state of the art technology to monitor how their product performs under all conditions so they can fix any problems that arise and also improve the product based on real time events. Musk and Tesla weren't compelled to track Mr. Broeder, the data is collected on all Tesla products just like it is on most new cars these days. That data is available to anyone with access to the vehicle. Tesla loaned Mr. Broeder the car for him to drive, it belongs to Tesla not Mr. Broeder and they have every right to use the collected data to point out where Mr. Broeder did things incorrectly. Typical whiny East coast type trying to be the wisenheimer and got caught out. You are close behind in your bloviating. A pox on you both. Next time take a hike.  

Feb 21, 2013 1:24PM
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I believe this artical is bias as well.
Feb 21, 2013 10:34AM
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This article is obviously biased.  As a journalist and a former employee of the New York TImes you can't help but be biased.

 

When we feel passionately about what we are working on that passion will spill over into our defense of that product.  While Mr. Musk could have handled the response better, to suggest that Tesla needs a different CEO is absurd.

 

I miss the days when journalists didn't write to sensationalize an issue.

 

Feb 21, 2013 9:20AM
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Thank you for putting all of this in perspective.  I agree that Mr. Musk  missed an opportunity to provide honest appraisal and  leadership.  While Steve Jobs was equally adept with the technical and marketing aspects of Apple, Mr. Musk is in dire need of a good PR person.
Feb 21, 2013 1:39PM
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Every electric car produced costs tax payers. Without government subsidies the electric car market couldn't even get off the ground. We have pretty good hybrid technology that could be coupled with already proven safe and cheap CNG. CNG runs super clean, is safer than gasoline we ride around with in a thin plastic tank, and it doesn't require costly refineries that for years have been the cause of price hikes. A CNG hybrid would easily go 400 miles on a tank and cost no more than current gasoline hybrids to produce. CNG is going for around $2 a gasoline gallon equivalent. The Honda GX has been sold for years and you can fuel it at home safely. Also there are lots of filling stations country wide. Truckers are all converting over in droves. Fueling is safer than gasoline, no spills that can damage ground water, lead to a fire, and natural gas vapors are not a carcinogen. There is data showing more gas station fires per 1000 fill ups than CNG and a CNG fire remains contained, where a gasoline fire spreads rapidly across the ground and engulfs the area even after the supply is interrupted. Natural gas is our best chance to save our economy and start to enrich our country through exports of oil and we wouldn't have to import a drop. We have to start converting over now because oil over $40 a bbl. is killing our economy and we can't compete globally without cheap energy.

 I'm just a realist who doesn't buy into Green Energy political hype. We have enough natural gas to last us for centuries, and a few decades down the road the technology may make it economically feasible for more green energy to stand on it's own merits without costing society 30 times more to produce the same net result.

Feb 21, 2013 4:05PM
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Guess we had better be prepared for a lifestyle change because I don't think gasoline is going to get any cheaper.
Feb 21, 2013 2:06PM
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Good article about electric cars and their up hill battle to gain acceptance.  Author was totally correct on his assessment that Mr. Musk could have provided a more balanced and reasonable response to the original road trip failure.  He was also correct in describing the essential problem all electric cars face - insufficient energy storage to provide a reasonable travel range, especially in hot or cold climates where the A/C or heater needs consume battery energy away from moving the vehicle.
Feb 21, 2013 3:18PM
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Wow! A reporter siding with another reporter! That's about as rare as a lawyer siding with a lawyer, a CEO siding with another corporate CEO, or cop siding with another cop....
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It's just my opinion, you don't have to agree. My point is that Tesla should be talking about batteries so everyone can understand what they can and can't do at this point in time -- not to come out trying to incite a fight. Here's a good overview from TTAC: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/the-truth-about-battery-life/
Feb 21, 2013 4:08PM
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I have installed a solar array on my home that should be capable of supplying all of the electric energy the house needs as well as "fueling up" our next purchase, a Tesla.  My wife has an 80 mile round trip commute every day and this car will provide all of the range she needs (the alternatives like the Nissan Leaf were just a bit short on range).  No fuel bills and I'm not taking anything from the power grid.  Seems like a sensible approach.
Feb 21, 2013 3:37PM
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Hey, at least he is telling the truth, which is more than I can say for our  goverment! All are pathetic liars.

Feb 21, 2013 4:35PM
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Elon Musk is in full defense mode to the point he's offensive, for good reason.  As a concept, electric cars were proven relatively obselete by gasoline cars in 1912.  Yes, GM did kill the electric car, but its death was delt over 100 years ago.  Because it couldn't compete. 

 

Anybody with a grain of good sense wants a car with efficiency equivalent to absurdly good gasoline mileage, with zero maintenance worries and re-sale that exceeds the cost of a new cars.  And that car exists under the name "Fantasy". 

 

My hat's off to Mr. Musk -- I admire his determination to provide us the possibility of truly efficient travel.  Sadly it's not a reality now, nor will it be for a long long time, if ever. 

Feb 21, 2013 2:00PM
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That was one of the best written, sober discussions I've read in a long time. I'm a huge proponent of electric vehicles (even bigger proponent of extended range vehicles aka the Volt formula) but we need to be clear and courteous about what an electric vehicle is and is not. Snarky comments from the CEO of an electric car company is not helpful at this early and fragile stage.
Feb 21, 2013 5:06PM
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The New York Times has a long tradition of lying.
What else do you need to know?
Feb 21, 2013 6:25PM
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This author makes the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming the advance of science is linear rather than exponential.
Feb 21, 2013 6:14PM
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When will the ignorant greenies understand that existing battery technology is far, far from making an electric car practical.  The electric car of today is like trying to insert a square peg into a round hole.  Talk to any electrical engineer like me and he will show you the the math that you will not understand anyway.  And BTW greenies, the electricity that is used to charge your totally impractical electric car of today is not produced by small animals running on tread mills. 
Feb 21, 2013 6:16PM
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Any one should know that batteries are extremely affected by cold. The Prius that is suposed to get great gas milage is significantly reduced in winter. More than the gas vehicles.
Feb 21, 2013 7:17PM
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These electric cars are so stupid, first the cost of them start at around $40,000, second their battery life is only worth about 100,000 miles, and third the cost of replacing these batteries and other parts start at between $5,000 to $6,000 when the car's value will only be approximately $3,000. This doesn't even take into account that the older the batteries get the longer it takes to charge and the batteries don't hold the charge like they did brand new, nor will they get the distance they once got. The biggest arguement behind this is that by the time a person will have to replace the batteries the buyer will still be oweing money on the car and it would be cheaper to just junk (throw away) the car altogether.  

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