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Musk Zaps NYT Over Tesla Model S Review

Musk Zaps NYT Over Tesla Model S Review

It's the CEO vs. the critic: Tesla's Elon Musk is on a PR offensive over a New York Times review that details battery problems during a long Model S drive. Besides questions about the wisdom of taking on a venerable journalistic institution, there's also the issue of whether Musk's tactics are actually focusing attention on possible problems with car battery technology.

By Richard Adhikari
Feb 13, 2013 12:06 PM PT

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has blasted The New York Times' negative review of the company's Model S electric sedan, which claims the vehicle ran out of electricity well before it was supposed to.

Tesla Model S

"He alleged that our report was a 'fake,' and we responded yesterday by saying that was false," New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told TechNewsWorld. "The story was completely factual and we stood by it."

Tesla Motors did not respond to our request for further details.

What Started as a Nice Long Drive

Tesla Motors offered New York Times writer John Broder the chance to test-drive the Model S on Interstate 95, between two recently installed charging points at service plazas in Newark, Del., and Milford, Conn.

The charging stations are about 200 miles apart, well within the Model S's estimated range of 265 miles as rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The vehicle's maximum range is 300 miles under ideal conditions, according to Tesla.

The charging stations take one hour to fully charge the 85 Kwh Model S that was test-driven. A 30-minute charge would give the vehicle enough juice for 150 miles of travel.

The battery apparently began losing its charge faster than it should during the drive, the reviewer noted, and the car shut down the heater before it reached the Milford charging station. More juice was lost when the car was parked overnight in cold weather in the town of Groton, and it took another recharge and a trip on the flatbed of a tow truck to get back to Milford.

Broder contacted Tesla several times during the drive to discuss the problems, he said.

"Sending people on long drives in electric vehicles is just begging for problems, because they just aren't optimized for that kind of driving," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Elon Comes Out Swinging

The Times article was a setup, and the vehicle logs showed that Broder had not fully charged the car, Musk claimed in a phone interview with CNBC.

Broder took a detour through Manhattan and drove too fast -- in some cases 10 mph above the speed limit, he also alleged.

Broder had been warned that those actions would decrease the battery's range, Musk added.

"If Tesla Motors has logs that disprove the review, they should release those logs." Enderle told TechNewsWorld. "Doing reviews is a subjective process, and the results are based on the values of the reviewer, who may weigh things very differently than you or I would, or the manufacturer would."

The Bigger Picture

Batteries don't do well in extreme temperatures, but "Tesla should have the best battery technology currently on the market, and the temperatures weren't that extreme, suggesting there might have been a problem with the battery itself," Enderle noted. "Even Boeing is having problems assuring lithium ion battery technology at scale at the moment."

The problem is a structural one and can't be laid at Tesla's or Boeing's doors. Battery technology "remained remarkably free of R&D for much of the last decade, likely because oil interests didn't want it to advance," he said. "We had a pretty big gap in electric vehicle development from the 1920s to the 1990s, and one company can't fix that."

Taking On the Times

Perhaps Musk should have taken a different approach in his response to the New York Times article, Enderle argued. "He's protecting his baby and you can't blame him, but this kind of thing pushes people to read the review, which doesn't read to me as all that unusual."

Musk's response is "likely driving people away from the cars," he said, "rather than to them."

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