Californian electric car maker Tesla Motors - well known for tangling repeatedly with the BBC (and the Register) over coverage of battery vehicles which it did not deem positive enough - is now in a row with the New York Times after one of the paper's journalists wrote a stinging review of its new Model S.
Still with range anxiety fitted as standard
The NYT article chronicles an attempt by scribe John M Broder to drive a new Model S from Washington to Boston with stops to make rapid recharges at two new ultrafast charging stations set up by Tesla on the route between the two cities, which should have made the journey nearly as quick and simple as it would be in a fossil-fuelled vehicle.
Unfortunately things didn't work out that way for Broder. He reached the first charging station without trouble and left the car plugged in for most of an hour, which should have furnished easily enough juice to reach the next one. Unfortunately, on the next leg of the trip the dreaded "range anxiety" syndrome set in.
Despite turning down the heater to the point where the Model S' interior became "freezing" and driving at 54 mph, Broder only just reached the second charging station, rolling in having gone past zero on the range remaining readout with emergency captions flashing on the dashboard.
The NYT journo then intended to make a 125-mile overnight round trip into Connecticut before returning to that station for a final charge prior to returning the Model S to Tesla. He departed the station with a range reading of 185 miles, which should have been more than enough to do the job.
At first all seemed to go well, but when Broder returned to the parked car after his overnight stay he found that two-thirds of the battery charge remaining in it had apparently dissipated during the cold night, leaving him unable to get back to the Tesla fast-charging station.
Company reps directed the luckless journo to a different - and, like most EV charging points, much lower-powered - station nearby. After an hour there he set out again - following Tesla advice - but the Model S never looked like reaching the Tesla fast-charge point. Broder desperately attempted to reach another, nearer charging point but disaster struck:
The Model S had other ideas. “Car is shutting down,” the computer informed me. I was able to coast down an exit ramp in Branford, Conn., before the car made good on its threat.
Anguished Tesla reps despatched a tow truck to haul the crippled e-car to the company fast-charge station, though the truck driver was nearly stymied by the fact that the Model S' parking brake could not be made to release in its de-powered state. After a struggle, however, the locked-down car was got aboard the truck and later deposited at the Tesla charge point to be restored to running order. It was then able to make it to the handover back to its makers without trouble.
Broder wryly quoted US energy secretary Steven Chu, who loaned Tesla $465m of federal cash to develop the Model S, saying:
"Driving by a gasoline station and smiling is something everyone should experience.”
"I drove a state-of-the-art electric vehicle past a lot of gas stations. I wasn’t smiling," noted Broder.
Tesla Motors has a long record of clashes with the media over what it sees as insufficiently positive coverage. It got into a general row some time ago about the "range anxiety" issue, following a similarly nightmarish journey undertaken by another journalist in one of its cars, in that case a Roadster sports model. It has also twice locked horns with the BBC, once over Top Gear's famous Roadster report and again when a Beeb journo had another chilly odyssey from London to Edinburgh in a non-Tesla battery car. Even the Reg has suffered a torrent of abuse ("yellow journalism", "hysterical", "scandalous" etc) from Tesla PR staff after we highlighted an issue with the Roadster which could lead to "smoke and possible fire" (this according to the company itself).
Unsurprisingly the combative company has gone for the NYT with all guns blazing, saying that vehicle logs from Broder's Model S contradict his account of the journey. Tesla - in the person of the company's famous tech-zillionaire chief, Elon Musk - says that the reporter took an undisclosed detour through city traffic instead of staying on the highway, and that he didn't charge the car up to full during his stops.
However reading Broder's account he does seem to mention the city break ("after a short break in Manhattan") and nowhere does he claim to have charged the car up to full. He only claims to have charged up to where the range readout showed plenty of juice to reach his next charging point. And it has to be said, a superfast charger which can't fully charge a vehicle in 49 minutes is not exactly super fast.
Charge time is of course the great Achilles heel of EVs (with battery service life, for now, just a cloud on the horizon). Many people are under the impression that battery vehicles can top up rapidly: some also believe that they can usefully be charged from ordinary domestic sockets.
But in fact, even at a specialist high-power station (very rare) it will take well over an hour to fully charge a Model S or any other battery vehicle. A normal US wall socket will take well over two days to do the job, according to the company's own specs. It was a similar story with the preceding Roadster.
Electric vehicles may well be capable of short range, mostly stationary jobs such as daily commuting (if well within range - or, ideally, to and from - powerful charging points). There's no sign that they'll really be practical for other tasks any time soon.
Elon Musk has shown himself to have excellent engineering judgement and ability on the far more advanced technology concerned with space launch - his other firm SpaceX has been almost unbelievably successful, introducing entirely new rockets and capsules from a standing start in less than a decade at fractions of the cost that might be expected. It's odd that he remains so passionate in defence of Tesla, which has by contrast taken a long time to deliver vastly less impressive things, and done so at rather high prices. ®