New York Times hits back at Tesla Motors over fakery accusations

"His broadest charge is that I consciously set out to sabotage the test. That is not so."

The New York Times' John Broder has responded to the claims of Tesla chair Elon Musk which accused him of deliberately driving the Tesla Model S in a way which would limit the range out of a desire to write a piece slating it.

Broder's response is a methodical breakdown of each of Musk's points. Broder details things like the timing of his decision to turn down the temperature, the reason why he drove for half a mile in a service station, and the nature of his "detour" through lower Manhattan. The vast majority of his rebuttals are convincing, and only one of the minor discrepancies remains outstanding — the question of why he says cruise control was set to 54mph when the car's logs show it travelling at 60mph.

The more interesting disagreement is in Broder's explanations of the odd choices he made. Some of them, he explains, were as a result of recommendations made by Tesla staff. For instance, when he set off from one rest stop with only 32 miles of estimated range, despite the next charger being 57 miles away, he says:

It was also Tesla that told me that an hour of charging (at a lower power level) at a public utility in Norwich, Conn., would give me adequate range to reach the Supercharger 61 miles away, even though the car’s range estimator read 32 miles – because, again, I was told that moderate-speed driving would “restore” the battery power lost overnight. That also proved overly optimistic, as I ran out of power about 14 miles shy of the Milford Supercharger and about five miles from the public charging station in East Haven that I was trying to reach.

But with others, we come to the crux of the problem: what is a realistic pattern of use for someone on a long-distance road trip in an electric car? When Broder left the second supercharger, the range estimate told him that he would have enough miles to get to his destination and back without recharging. As it happened, the battery lost charge overnight in the cold weather, and disaster ensued.

Is that a fair pattern of use? Or is it reasonable for Tesla to have expected Broder to be plugged in to the supercharger until it told him "charge complete", which happens at 90 per cent charge? If he had finished charging at each supercharger he plugged in to, it seems unlikely that he would have run out of battery; but then, he also wouldn't have run out of battery if the range estimate had been correct.

On balance, it doesn't seem unreasonable to argue that a real simulation of a long-distance trip in an unfamiliar car would involve charging well in excess of how far you are actually expecting to drive. Broder may not have intended to run the battery flat, but he also didn't make things easy for Tesla. That may be his prerogative as a reviewer, but it also understates the case for the car in real conditions. The downside of a Tesla Model S for most is that you will have to spend a lot more time in charging stations — 45 minutes, rather than 5, to fill up your "tank" — and have to plan a long-distance trip in far more detail than you would for a petrol car. Only if you push it too close to the bone will you actually end up in the situation Broder did.

But while Broder was a harsh, possibly even unfair, critic, he does not appear to have been an untrustworthy one. The NYT's public editor is looking into the matter, but Musk is unlikely to get the apology or retraction he seeks.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.