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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.