Sparks Fly Between Tesla and the Times, but Here's What Matters to the Rest of Us
Elon Musk is one of today’s most successful technology entrepreneurs. The New York Times is a highly respected paper of record. So when these two powerhouses get into a very public spat over the performance of electric vehicles, people listen -- millions of them.
Musk, CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors, and the Times have been trading barbs all week after an unflattering review of Tesla’s new network of East Coast supercharging stations. Musk accuses reporter John Broder of deliberately sabotaging his long-range driving test and, in a blog, showed data from the car’s on-board log to bolster his claim. Broder yesterday published a point-by-point rebuttal to explain why he ran out of juice partway through an attempted trip from Washington, D.C., to Boston.
As entertaining as this high-profile argument might be, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: this test does not reflect the reality most prospective EV drivers face today. The trip was sort of like the electric car equivalent of trying to climb Mount Everest. But most of us just want to get to the store and back. At the same time, the dust-up does provide some insight into the current state of EV technology and ownership. The bottom line is that electric cars should not be your first choice for long road trips, and weather does indeed affect the batteries’ range.
In his test drive last month, Broder suffered a number of problems, including the ultimate PR nightmare: he had to call a tow truck. A defensive Musk called the review a “fake” on Twitter, accuses Broder of not taking common-sense driving steps, and uses car log data to contradict some statements in the article, such as how fast Broder drove or the temperature settings. The Atlantic has done a detailed analysis and finds that Musk’s claims are not fully convincing. Musk, for example, claims that Broder drove aimlessly around a parking lot to intentionally kill off the batteries and make the Tesla look bad; Broder says he was struggling to find an unlit super charger at night. The Times’ public editor is investigating, so we may hear more of this drama in the days ahead.
What can the rest of us learn from this in the meantime? For starters, let’s put this in perspective. The Model S that Broder drove has a huge, 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack with an EPA estimated driving range of 265 miles. You pay a lot for that sort of range in an electric car, to the tune of $101,000. More mainstream EVs, such as the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric, cost more like $35,000 to $40,000 and have a driving range closer to 75 miles in good conditions. With that sort of range limitation, you would only take on a trip from Washington to Boston if you planned to do it over several days with lots of charge time built in. In other words, sensible EV drivers wouldn’t even attempt Broder’s test-drive trip. The Tesla Model S and super charger network are one-of-a-kind at this point, and are really meant to prove that Tesla’s high-end EV is a no-compromise car.
But long road trips are not what electric cars, as a group, are particularly good at. Commuting 20 miles to work and back or running errands around town? Then EVs fit the bill -- at a substantially lower cost per mile. Never going to a gas station again is a great benefit. On the other hand, EV ownership requires thinking ahead and some knowledge of the factors that affect range.
The Tesla-Times imbroglio also exposes a perhaps less-well-known aspect of EVs: batteries do not like extreme heat or cold. In Broder’s case, the battery charge dropped much faster than he anticipated during the cold snap that coincided with his drive. Internal combustion vehicles are able to heat up passengers essentially for free -- the warmth for your climate control system comes from the heat of the engine. EVs, on the other hand, need to draw on their batteries, and heating people in cold weather is very energy-intensive. But not everyone realizes that. If you peruse a forum of Tesla owners, you’ll see some say how surprised they were that battery charge can drop rapidly in cold weather. Some also say they wish the car’s software for estimating range could better adjust for frigid temperatures.
Extreme heat will affect range negatively as well. Nissan actually took back batteries for a couple of Leafs from owners in the Phoenix area because of complaints of plummeting range and inaccurate in-car estimates.
The good news is that battery technology is improving steadily, which can help extend the range of electric cars and allow them to operate better in extreme temperatures. But for now, EVs don’t make sense for every use, like long road trips, or for every person. Most people charge their cars at home overnight, but if you hate the idea of charging for a few hours at a public spot on a long trip, rather than gassing up in five minutes, then maybe you should sit out pure EVs for a while.
Despite their limitations, EVs still have a role, even if it’s a niche for the near future -- and of course, part-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius are already mainstream. Tesla has engineered its high-end car and supercharger network for extreme cases, such as road tripping on a whim. As impressive as that is, it’s not the sweet spot for EVs.
Nearly all -- 97 percent -- of the driving trips that Americans take are less than 50 miles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. This latest generation of battery-electric cars can handle that sort of driving without all the drama.
Image: Al Abut