Tesla Reveals Model S Logs, Says New York Times Writer Fudged Facts

February 14, 2013

Last week, the New York Times published an article by John Broder detailing his attempt to drive a Tesla Model S from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts using Tesla's new quick-charge stations. Mr. Broder reported numerous problems with the car's charging process, and in the end, he claims to have been stranded when the vehicle's battery went dead.

Now, Tesla's CEO Elon Musk -- especially eager to defend his products in the wake of the 2008 Top Gear fiasco -- has released logs from Broder's test car. And the data contained in those logs imply that Broder's report may not have been fully accurate. 

What the New York Times said

Broder noted that Tesla's quick-charge stations in Newark, Delaware and Milford, Connecticut are about 200 miles apart, a distance well within the 265-mile range of the Model S he was driving. He said that he reached the Delaware station with his battery still at half-charge and went to grab a bite while the battery got topped off. Upon his return 49 minutes later, the car's display said "charge complete".

The first sign of problems arose en route to Connecticut, when Broder noticed that his estimated battery range was dropping faster than it should have been. He called a Tesla rep, who gave him advice on how to stretch the battery life, including turning down the climate control and driving slower. 

Broder eventually arrived at the Milford charging station safe and sound -- though chilly, given the lack of heat and sub-freezing temps. After an hour, the Tesla's estimated driving range read 185 miles. Since the day was coming to an end, he decided to spend the night in Groton, Connecticut before heading back to Manhattan, where the Model S needed to be dropped off the following day.

When Broder awoke the next morning, however, his estimated range had plummeted, leaving him short of the mileage he needed to return to Milford for a charge. A Tesla rep suggested that the cold temperatures were causing problems with the battery (it was 10 degrees outside), and arranged for a charge in nearby Norwich.

After an hour in Norwich, Tesla said he was good to go, but Broder claims that the battery hadn't charged enough to reach Milford. Sure enough, in Branford, Connecticut, the car gave up the ghost. Broder had to be towed to Milford so that the car could be charged and he could complete his trip.

Thus explains Broder's headline: "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway".

What Tesla says

But not so fast. After the Top Gear incident, Tesla began keeping detailed logs on all of its media cars -- a fact that the company hadn't disclosed to journalists. Elon Musk has just released data from Broder's car that contradict the reporter's account. Here are Musk's major points of contention:

  • Although Broder says that the battery was fully charged when he left Delaware, the logs say that it had only reached 90% capacity.
  • When Broder first began worrying about his ability to reach Connecticut, he claims that he set the cruise control at 54 mph. However, the Tesla logs say that he averaged over 60 mph during that time.
  • Tesla claims that Broder actually turned up the heat when he said in his report that he'd turned it down. (This is debatable, since the logs do show that Broder turned down the heat at least twice during his journey.)
  • Tesla says that Broder left the Milford station with only a 72% charge. (That's true -- but then, Broder had waited for an hour, which seems a fair amount of time to pause at a supercharging station.)
  • Tesla admonishes Broder for leaving Norwich with only 32 miles of range for a 61-mile trip. (Though not debatable, Tesla's logic is iffy: Broder said that he'd waited in Norwich for an hour and that the battery range "never reached the number of miles remaining to Milford". So really, how long was the guy supposed to hang around?)
  • En route to Milford, Broder said that he "limped along at about 45 miles per hour", but the logs indicate that he averaged above 50 mph during that leg of the trip.
  • Tesla suggests that Broder's problems en route to Milford were related to his "having driven the car hard and...taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride".
  • Perhaps most damningly, Tesla logs show that the battery charge on the Model S never reached 0%, even when Broder says that the car shut down, forcing him to call for a tow truck.

Our take

Though Elon Musk's arguments are characteristically shrill, he wins several important points against Broder. Clearly, Broder's account of his speed doesn't line up with the car's logs, and deviating from the travel route -- if indeed he did -- would've seriously compromised the fairness of the test. Most importantly, it appears that the battery on the Model S never hit a zero charge, as Broder implies.

Tesla is also well within its rights to bring up Broder's previous reporting on electric vehicles. On at least one of those occasions, Broder wrote, "Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate." Though electric cars have indeed been the source of much political wrangling, words like "dismal", "hyped", and "flops" are pretty loaded terms. 

In Broder's defense, however, he framed his piece as a test of the East Coast's charging network -- "an ideal bookend to The Times’s encouraging test drive last September on the West Coast". To some of us, that implies that this was less a test drive and more a survey of the practicalities of charging on-the-go for average drivers. 

In such a case, it makes sense that Broder would prioritize the length of his stops over the charge of battery. Each time he recharged, Broder waited for about an hour. Sure, he could've stayed in Norwich for several more hours to make sure the battery had reached an adequate charge, but for consumers curious about the ins and outs of electric car ownership, Broder's approach -- though never explicitly stated -- seems fair.

And last but not least, there's the issue of the Model S shutdown. If Musk's logs are accurate, it's true that the battery on Broder's test car never reached 0%, but it did come awfully close. Judging from the chart, it dipped to around 4% or 5%. That's the same as it was when he coasted into Milford the previous day, but it's conceivable that the car could perform differently in similar situations, when the battery is running so low -- and when the car's projected range is perched at 0.

In short, there were issues on each side -- issues with the drive and issues with the driver. However, we'd need more evidence to say for sure whether or not the car conked out in the end.

Then again, it may not really matter. For more dissection of this incident -- and its potential effect on Tesla -- check out this article at Green Car Reports.

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