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Did the NYT fake a breakdown of an electric car?

Incongruities revealed in the logs.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.