The Tesla S Debate: Elon Musk vs. John Broder

CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, has created what he claims to be “the best car in every dimension that matters.”  With the introduction of his Model S sedan, Musk is redefining the idea that electric cars and high performance automobiles are mutually exclusive.  The baseline Model S is able to achieve acceleration from 0-60 MPH in 5.6 seconds with a top speed of 125 MPH.  If the consumer is willing to shell out the extra dollars for the Performance model, acceleration time from 0-60 MPH is decreased to only 4.4 seconds.  The Model S has seating for 5 adults and 2 children.  Both the Performance model and the standard Model S boast a range of 300 miles on one 85 kWh battery charge.  This figure is on par with the typical top range of 300-400 miles per tank for traditional gasoline powered vehicles.

New York Times writer, John Broder, recently published a review of the Model S that was critical of Tesla’s claimed 300 mile range.  In his review, he details a road trip with the Model S from Washington, D.C. to Boston, which was cut short in Connecticut when the vehicle ran out of charge.  Broder, who had been given the task of trying out Tesla’s new East Cost Supercharger network, blamed the cold temperatures for the decrease in range.  Rusk was quick to respond to the writer’s claims via Twitter:

“NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.”

Rusk went on to summarize the key facts of Broder’s test drive on his website. Rusk claims that Broder created a “no-win scenario for any vehicle, electric or gasoline.”  The key facts in Rusk’s accusations were backed up with trip logs that disagree with Broder’s claims in his original review.  For example, Broder claimed an average speed of 54 MPH, contrary to the range of 65-81 MPH shown by the logs.  Furthermore, Broder claimed to have decreased the cabin temperature when the vehicle’s battery was low, but the logs show he actually increased the cabin temperature.  Musk further stated that Broder repeatedly neglected to charge the car fully (against the advice of Tesla personnel), made “an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan,” and “drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot.”  Most shocking of all, “the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck.”

Peter Valdes-Dapena, writer for CNN, recently duplicated Broder’s trip and did not experience the difficulties Broder encountered.  Valdes-Dapena admits that the trip was not completely anxiety free, “the scariest part of the trip: the 200 miles between charging stations in Newark, DE and Milford, CT.”  Valdes-Dapena also makes some important distinctions between his trip and that of Broder: it was 10 degress warmer during his trip, the CNN writer completed his trip in one day whereas Broder took two days, and most notably, Valdes-Dapena used the “load of instructions” provided by Tesla to maximize battery life and “followed them pretty well.”

Broder has written a rebuttal to Musk’s accusations.  In the article, Broder offers a point-by-point refutation of Musk’s claims.  Broder claims to have communicated with Tesla several times during his trip, and that no one gave him “detailed instructions on maximizing the driving range, the impact of cold weather on battery strength or how to get the most out of the Superchargers or the publicly available lower-power charging ports along the route.” 

The main point to be gleaned from the back and forth squabble between Rusk and Broder is that driving a Tesla Model S, or any electric vehicle, requires the consumer to be aware.  The consumer needs to understand how their behavior (changing cabin temperature, charging the vehicle properly, driving at higher speeds, etc.) affects the battery’s charge, esepcially during long distance road trips.  This observation is key if the electric car is to ever gain a substantial foothold in the market.

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One response to “The Tesla S Debate: Elon Musk vs. John Broder

  1. Great post. It’s always fascinating when conflict and competing narratives arise from the same set of “facts.” I think you hit the mark with your comments regarding consumer education. Consumer behavior is something that is difficult to change, especially with regards to something as ingrained as driving. Many people have gotten into their cars, and had the exact same driving routine, for decades. Most of the time drivers function on autopilot.

    Professor Webber has talked before about the need for “smart consumers” to create a truly functioning smart grid. Tesla faces the same challenges that utilities and policymakers face getting consumers to understand and accept necessary behavioral changes. Even minor changes can be extremely disruptive, and preparing customers for these adjustments will be crucial to Tesla’s success. Based on Broder’s review, they have some work to do regarding their consumer education strategy.

    It’s also worth noting that a substantial part of Tesla’s competitive advantage is the superior range of its vehicles. Most electric vehicles produced today have shorter ranges, and require overnight charging. Tesla has placed a huge bet that the electric car market will pay more for superior range. The infrastructure required for these “Supercharger” stations is extremely expensive. If Tesla can’t effectively convince the market of these benefits, or if consumers are not educated well enough to exploit them, Tesla’s investment will be for naught.

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