Did the NYT fake a breakdown of an electric car?

Incongruities revealed in the logs.

Last week, the New York Times' John Broder took a Tesla Model S — the luxury electric car which its manufacturers hope will change the image of green driving forever — for a test drive.

The drive was supposed to test the new network of "Superchargers" which the company has installed along the east coast of the US. These docking stations use high-voltage DC current to charge the battery of the car in a fraction of the time it would take through mains power, and the idea is that they allow drivers to take long-distance trips which would normally be unthinkable with an electric car.

Broder planned a trip between Washington DC and Newark, Connecticut, taking in two charging stations on the way. But, he wrote, the cold weather dramatically shortened his loan-car's battery life, leading to a litany of problems and an eventual tow-truck call-out due to a flat battery:

Tesla’s chief technology officer, J B Straubel, acknowledged that the two East Coast charging stations were at the mileage limit of the Model S’s real-world range. Making matters worse, cold weather inflicts about a 10 percent range penalty, he said, and running the heater draws yet more energy. He added that some range-related software problems still needed to be sorted out.

The company initially responded to the story with regret, which Straubel telling Broder that "it’s disappointing to me when things don’t work smoothly". But Tesla also had some doubts.

As the company's chair, Elon Musk, writes:

Our highest per capita sales are in Norway, where customers drive our cars during Arctic winters in permanent midnight, and in Switzerland, high among the snowy Alps. About half of all Tesla Roadster and Model S customers drive in temperatures well below freezing in winter.

The company has had bad experiences with reviews before. Notoriously, an episode of Top Gear gave the car a favourable test drive calling it "an astonishing technical achievement", but ended with Jeremy Clarkson saying "it's just a shame that in the real world, it just doesn't seem to work" over footage of the Top Gear crew pushing the car back into the garage. When Tesla got the car back and ran diagnostic programs on it, though, they found that at no point did either of that cars used drop below 20 per cent charge. Clarkson had presented the story he wanted to tell, and the actual facts of the matter were not allowed to get in the way.

Since then, Tesla has installed tracking software on all cars loaned out to journalists, and when it checked the car used by Broder, it found discrepancies in his story.

While some were relatively minor — Broder says he set cruise control at 54mph, while the logs show the car travelled at closer to 60mph for the same period; he says he turned the heater down, the logs show he turned it up — even they are the sort of errors an experienced reporter ought not to make. But others raise questions over whether he, like Top Gear, had a story he wanted to tell regardless.

The last two incongruities Musk highlights are the most concerning:

For [Broder's] first recharge, he charged the car to 90%. During the second Supercharge, despite almost running out of energy on the prior leg, he deliberately stopped charging at 72%. On the third leg, where he claimed the car ran out of energy, he stopped charging at 28%. Despite narrowly making each leg, he charged less and less each time. Why would anyone do that?
The above helps explain a unique peculiarity at the end of the second leg of Broder’s trip. When he first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said "0 miles remaining." Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in. On the later legs, it is clear Broder was determined not to be foiled again.

If Tesla's logs are correct, Broder didn't drive the route he said he did, didn't set the temperature to the level he said he did, and didn't drive the speed he said he did.

On the third charge, at least, Broder has a reason for only charging the battery to 28 per cent. He writes:

The Tesla people found an E.V. charging facility that Norwich Public Utilities had recently installed. Norwich, an old mill town on the Thames River, was only 11 miles away, though in the opposite direction from Milford.
After making arrangements to recharge at the Norwich station, I located the proper adapter in the trunk, plugged in and walked to the only warm place nearby, Butch’s Luncheonette and Breakfast Club, an establishment (smoking allowed) where only members can buy a cup of coffee or a plate of eggs. But the owners let me wait there while the Model S drank its juice.

Clearly sitting in a members-only establishment waiting for your car to charge is unpleasant; but even Broder admits that when he set off from Norwich, the displayed range wasn't as far as the distance he actually intended to travel. He never explains why he thought breaking down on the highway was preferable to spending a further hour in Butch's.

Before Musk published the logs, Broder gave his own pre-buttal, attempting to address what he thought the complaints might be, including the detour into Manhattan and the reason why the first charge was only to 90 per cent capacity. He did not address the reasons why the second charge was only to 72 per cent capacity, nor why he knowingly left Norwich without enough power to make it to the next charging station.

Jalopnik, looking at the story, also finds a plausible reason for why Broder may have "driven in circles" in the Milford garage, noting that:

The Milford station is on an off-ramp and it isn't at all small. A single loop around the station is nearly a 1/3rd of a mile, and if you make a wrong turn (or even hunt for the charger) and make one turn around you're at 1/2 mile.

Doubtless, we will hear something from the New York Times or Broder himself eventually. Until then, it behooves all reporters to bear in mind that sometimes, what you report on can talk back.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.