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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.