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.

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