Since we were not-so-happy owners of an all-electric Nissan Leaf before we sold the car and leased a Chevy Volt (battery powered, with back up gas generator), I"ve been following the fascinating tale of a New York Times automotive reporter's test drive of the $101,000 Tesla Model S sedan with considerable interest.
The title of the story wasn't good news for Tesla's marketing efforts: "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway." Nor was the story itself.
John Broder relates the horrors of trying to drive the Tesla, which has an estimated 300 mile range, between charging stations 200 miles apart -- seemingly well within the Model S capability. He ended up running out of electrons and needing a tow.
Tesla’s New York service manager, Adam Williams, found a towing service in Milford that sent a skilled and very patient driver, Rick Ibsen, to rescue me with a flatbed truck. Not so quick: the car’s electrically actuated parking brake would not release without battery power, and hooking the car’s 12-volt charging post behind the front grille to the tow truck’s portable charger would not release the brake. So he had to drag it onto the flatbed, a painstaking process that took 45 minutes. Fortunately, the cab of the tow truck was toasty.
At 2:40 p.m., we pulled into the Milford rest stop, five hours after I had left Groton on a trip that should have taken less than an hour. Mr. Ibsen carefully maneuvered the flatbed close to the charging kiosk, and 25 minutes later, with the battery sufficiently charged to release the parking brake and drive off the truck, the car was back on the ground. A Model S owner who had taken delivery the previous day watched with interest.
After the story was published the Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, challenged Broder in an excessively inflammatory way. Musk went so far as to claim that Broder drove the Tesla in circles upon reaching a charging station in order to show that its battery became completely deleted.
His evidence was the auto equivalent of a "flight recorder" installed in the car. Broder then responded to the negative review of his negative review in "That Tesla Data: What It Says and What It Doesn't."
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla Motors, has now responded in detail to the account of my test drive of his Model S electric car, using the company’s new East Coast Superchargers, that was published in The Times on Feb. 10. His broadest charge is that I consciously set out to sabotage the test. That is not so. I was delighted to receive the assignment to try out the company’s new East Coast Supercharger network and as I previously noted in no way anticipated – or deliberately caused – the troubles I encountered.
An independent analysis of the charges, counter-charges, and counter-counter-charges by Rebecca Greenfield was tellingly titled "Elon Musk's Data Doesn't Back Up His Claims of New York Times Fakery."
I agree. Methinks Musk would have been better off if he'd apologized to Broder for the trouble with the Tesla, and left it at that. The more fuel that gets added to the reporting of the disastrous test drive, the more attention will be paid to it by prospective Tesla buyers.
A TIME story points to the point of this brouhaha: "It's Not About the Range."
In a gasoline-powered world, it’s not reasonable today to expect an electric car to operate in the same way as a gasoline-powered car—just as it’s not reasonable for Tesla to expect drivers to change their behavior to fit a new technology. Broder made it clear to me at least in his review that he was trying to test out his Tesla S in real-world conditions—and real world drivers won’t always follow the rules to the letter. Think of all the work tech companies like Apple have put into making their gadgets essentially idiot-proof. Tesla doesn’t seem to be there yet.
...The average American drives about 37 miles a day—well within the range of electric cars that are much cheaper and less advanced than the Tesla S. All-electric cars will serve a different function than gasoline-powered vehicles. Shorter drives, brief commutes, urban travel—not long distances. And that’s where electrics can have an advantage over gas cars, especially if more cities follow New York’s example and create special parking spots for battery-powered cars. Electrics need to be thought of less as a “car”—because that promises performance it can’t always deliver—than a new and often more efficient way of getting from most of the point As and point Bs of our lives.
But electric cars like the Volt enable drivers to enjoy the best of both worlds. Most of the year we've been getting 35-40 miles of battery power from our Volt; less in cold weather. After that the gas generator kicks in seamlessly and we cruise along just like we're in a regular car.
Our experience with the all-electric Nissan Leaf was akin to Broder's -- though we never ran out of battery power (my wife came close once, but managed to get home). In the Leaf, as with the Tesla, you'll never be able to forget that you're driving an electric car.
If you run out of juice, "filling up" is nowhere near as easy as getting a few gallons of gas. Charging stations are few and far between. They don't always work. Another electric car could be using the charger(s). It usually takes hours to fully charge up; only half an hour or so with a Level 3 charger, but these are rare at the moment (being expensive).
I'm a big electric car enthusiast. I hope the Tesla is a success. However, Tesla's CEO should have acknowledged that we're in the infancy of electric car infrastructure and acceptability. It takes a pioneering spirit to be an owner of one.
We had to admit to ourselves that we weren't willing to be one of those pioneers. That's why we sold our Leaf. But last I heard, the new owner of our car was happy with it. And we're very happy with our Volt. Likely the day will come when electric cars are commonplace. Broder's test drive just shows that between now and then, there will be bumps in the road.