A New York Times reporter’s white-knuckled 206-mile journey in a Tesla Model S ended with the high-end EV on the back of a flatbed truck, and his account of the drive is fueling debate this week over the potential and the pitfalls of electric cars. Tesla’s chief executive fired back at the Times, calling the story “fake,” but the flap raises issues that extend beyond the $101,000 electric sedan in question.

In the piece titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” reporter John Broder wrote of setting out to test a pair of 480-volt Tesla Supercharger stations spaced 200 miles apart on Interstate 95, each designed to deliver enough charge in 30 minutes to power 150 miles of travel in the Model S. California-based Tesla has partnered with solar installer SolarCity (where Musk is also chairman) to generate electricity at the stations, so charging up is free.

Tesla provided Broder with the top-end version of its Model S—a vehicle with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated driving range of 265 miles. Under ideal conditions at 55 mph, Tesla says the car can go up to 300 miles on a single charge. (See related story: “Range Anxiety: Fact or Fiction?“)

But things quickly went awry for Broder. He described seeing the battery’s juice (and estimated range) drop faster than anticipated; calling Tesla officials for advice; and cutting both cabin heat and speed to conserve energy before the car finally shut down on an off ramp.

Elon Musk, the CEO, chairman, product architect, and largest shareholder of Tesla Motors, had harsh words for the piece, tweeting:

The Times (to which I sometimes contribute articles on a freelance basis) stands by the original article. In a follow-up blog post, Broder said Tesla’s black-box record of the drive may indeed show him exceeding the speed limit, but that would likely have been before he charged up at the first Supercharger. And as noted in his original piece, Broder said he did drive into Manhattan, adding two miles of stop-and-go city driving to his trip (according to Broder’s Google map) after a Tesla rep advised him to switch out of cruise control to utilize regenerative braking. (Tesla executives reportedly later informed him this was bad advice.)

(Editor’s note Feb. 14: Tesla has put up its own follow-up blog post.)

Despite all the heat of this interlude, however, it illustrates something we already know: batteries are finicky beasts, relatively speaking. That’s why so much research and development is focused on thermal management and more robust materials. It’s why automakers test electric cars in the heat of the Las Vegas desert and the frigid cold of Kapuskasing, Ontario. And it’s why Tesla’s own chief technology officer, JB Straubel, told Broder that cold weather deals a blow to range—reducing it by as much as 10 percent.

Ideally, the car’s software would accurately and precisely calculate how far you could drive before recharging, given all the variables. Indeed, Broder’s original article paraphrased Straubel saying that “some range-related software problems still needed to be sorted out.” But to set out in an all-electric car on a 30-degree (Fahrenheit) day with the heat on and experience less-than-perfect battery performance, to leave the car unplugged overnight and wake to find its charge has depleted in the freezing temperatures—this isn’t surprising, and it’s far from “fake.”

The Model S, like a growing number of electric vehicles, is a car capable of serving most, but not necessarily all of our driving needs. Is that such a bad thing? Does that make it an impractical vehicle? No. Although trips of 50 miles or more account for about a third of all the miles driven each year, fully 97 percent of daily vehicle trips in the United States are 49 miles or less, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. Seven out of 10 trips cover less than 10 miles. (See related story: “Renault Zoe, a Low-Price Electric Car, Wins Britain’s Future Car Challenge“)

Expecting electric vehicles to perform like their gas counterparts misses the point. As Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate has written over at Wired, “Road trips are a dangerous myth for the EV industry to perpetuate at all.” It’s a “perverse double-standard,” she argues, to demand that, “unlike gas cars, EVs must be able to do it all in order to be useful at all.”

At the same time, Tesla Motors is not selling an everyman’s car. Not yet. Priced at more than $100,000, the version of the Model S that Broder drove (versions with smaller batteries start around $61,000) is a sleek, fun, high-tech luxury sedan that remains aspirational for many drivers. Even factoring in fuel and maintenance savings (over the life of a vehicle, a typical American motorist spends about as much on gasoline as on the car itself: more than $22,000), six figures is a steep price. Those who go for the cream of the EV crop can probably afford alternative transportation for the occasional long road trip—whether that’s a second vehicle, a rental car, a car sharing service, airfare, or some combination. (See related post: “How to Compare the Cost of Electric and Gas Cars“)

And charging is still a challenge, especially for people who don’t have access to the same parking spot each night, and whose employers haven’t started offering workplace charging. That’s where those Superchargers come in. They would be more valuable—and longer-distance trips in electric cars would be more practical—if there were more of them, closer together. And Tesla knows that: the company plans to set up 100 of them by 2015.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this post said that Tesla pays for the electricity at its new charging stations. The post has been updated with information about its partnership with SolarCity.

Comments

  1. george
    February 27, 2013, 2:50 am

    Where we lived a neighborhood drunk had an old FORD gas guzzler car. One day he got drunk and went out and started the car to warm it up. He put his foot on the gas and fell asleep. The old Ford roared for about 15 minutes then blew up. The pinking from the engine could be heard down the block. He woke up and said he just put his foot on the gas once. Of course his wife believed him. So a question. Can a car like the tesla survive a drunken old stupid Irish guy driving it? Tesla should be happy Broder and his brother didn’t get confused and pull into a gas station and fill the frunk with gas while lighting up a stogie and tossing the match. Maybe Broder shows some people should buy Ferraris and drive from gas station to gas station.

  2. Keith Roberts
    Orange Free State, South Africa
    February 22, 2013, 11:01 am

    Surely replaceable, interchangeable battery cells must be developed if electric vehicles are to become commonplace. Spending an hour extra on a journey while you are recharging sounds like the death knell of electric vehicles. How much simpler to pull up at a garage, exchange the depleted battery pack for a fully charged one, pay, and take off again within 5 minutes. All it takes is for Oil Companies to get involved and agree to stock the battery packs.

  3. Claude Garmon
    Gulfport, Ms
    February 21, 2013, 1:45 pm

    THE BIG FACT is that the New York Times reporter did not fully charge his vehicle and he knew he had not fully charged it. Before a long trip, the classic gas hog 50s couple says “Fill ‘er up,” before heading down the highway. Fuel efficiency was the furthest thing from their minds– and based on what IS said and focused on and what isn’t– if the NYT reporter wasn’t angling to run a “stay away from the haunted house” horror story on the car, he wouldn’t have gone down to his own abasement, saying he’d fully charged, knowing what he’d done wasn’t a full charge. HATCHET PIECE. Does the Times even THINK it’s trying to peddle the truth any more? Or are they merely fretting about “circulation” ? What readers and car buyers actually care about is not the facts the Times reporters lawyers approved to print. The car holds enough “gas” to go the distance, but the reporter was a dumb butt, who ran out of “gas” The Tesla is a sweet car. 0 to 60 in an instant, right? Am I right?

  4. Debbie K
    February 19, 2013, 3:01 am

    Oh yes, and that 10% loss due to the cold – 285 x 10% is 28.5 miles lost. Is that really going to make a big difference to your daily driving? I think not.

    If you’re going to report on EV’s, please gather your own information, don’t just regurgitate the words of others.

  5. Debbie K
    Canada
    February 19, 2013, 2:55 am

    Josie: You do have a place to charge at home – any plug will do it. A regular plug you use for a lamp will take 12 hours to charge the Model S from empty to 80% charge (granted, not ideal). Install the type of plug your dryer uses, and you have the same charge in 8 hours (sleep through that one easily enough). Then of course there is the fast charger that you can purchase for $1200 that will do the job in 4 hours. Tesla has gone above and beyond the call of duty by installing the charging network across the country and with more stations coming soon. You can go from Vancouver, Canada to the Mexican border with no range anxiety already.

    You best get shopping….

    As for the Times article – it’s hogwash to pull the charger off before the car has had the recommended time and then rant about having it hauled in on a flat bed. The article is a crock written by an anti-EV writer that had to get creative to make sure the car failed the test. Others have done it with no problem at all, yet he couldn’t. Tells me right there that something fishy was going on.

    (And yes, I was a Model S Signature reservation holder. Had to pull out when I lost my job, but I’ll be back soon)

  6. Dynamic
    February 18, 2013, 8:50 am

    Not to mention that electric power off the common grid uses more fossil fuels than gasoline after all is said and done. BUT HOPEFULLY THAT WILL CHANGE WITH THE REPLACEMENT OF BRAIN-DEAD POLITICIANS WHO HOLD OUR FUTURES IN THEIR WRINKLED, IGNORANT HANDS BY THE ENLIGHTENED AND PROGRESSIVE POLITICIANS WHO REFUSE TO SELL THEIR SOULS TO THE CORPORATE OIL-ENERGY CONGLOMERATE…just sayin’

  7. gonzalo
    United States
    February 16, 2013, 1:00 pm

    In my opinion, the way to go is with a backup gas engine just like the Chevy volt so you have the best of both worlds and no range anxiety.

  8. Brian
    February 15, 2013, 11:48 pm

    Thanks to NatGeo for making the clarifications and corrections I pointed out in the original article.

    Josie, your comment “if I could not get around easily without a car” implies that you don’t own a car. Do you own a car?

    Regardless, I really think you need to do more research on buying cars. It kind of sounds like you’re suggesting that delivery and inspection fees are somehow unusual. It’s an industry standard practice, familiar to anyone buying a car, to have transportation and prep/inspection /not/ included in the MSRP. I quote from Mercedes’ USA site, mbusa.com: “* Excludes all options, taxes, title, registration, $905 transportation charge, and dealer prep fee.”

    Tesla, as with all auto manufacturers, are quite clear about these costs – from the page I linked on Tesla’s own website:
    “Prices do not include Tesla Personal Delivery, Final Inspection, Prep and Coordination fee, taxes, license and title fees, or regionally required equipment, service, and charges.”

    Happily, and unexpectedly, Tesla did take care of my DMV temporary trip fees, which was a welcome surprise. I don’t know if I got lucky or that’s standard practice. There are other perks, too; I just returned from shopping at a mall where a Tesla store is located. For owners Tesla provides six convenient parking spots and free charging while I was shopping. They’ve been first class all the way.

  9. Josie Garthwaite
    February 15, 2013, 10:44 am

    Hi Brian. Thanks for your comment. That’s fantastic you’re having such a great experience with the Model S – lucky you! Was your “out-the-door” price different from the MSRP? My understanding from Tesla is that there are at least two fees applied to every Model S going out the door — one for delivery, and one for inspection, prep, and coordination. This adds $1,170 to the listed price. Tesla also makes clear (on the page you’ve noted) that $52,400 is *after* a $7,500 federal tax credit.

    As for the $101,000 price mentioned here: That refers to the model used by the Times in this drive, which I explain was the top-end, 85 kilowatt-hour version of a model that has lower-priced versions with smaller batteries.

    Regarding the Superchargers: Tesla does have a partnership with SolarCity, and we’ll update the post to reflect that.

    Just to be clear, I am not a “naysayer.” I have driven the Model S and other electric cars, and I agree it’s a great experience. If I had a place to charge at home or at work, and if I could not get around easily without a car, I might be seriously shopping around for an EV.

    Thanks all for jumping into this conversation. Let’s keep it going.

  10. olanmills
    February 15, 2013, 1:19 am

    Also wanted to add that the Model S is a 1.0 tech product, and most people who are buying it know that.

    When 1080p TV’s first came out, they were several thousand dollars, some even five figures (and at that stage, you could only find them at very high-end places or direct order). Now the quality is better, and they are way cheaper and everyone has them. Most products work that way. They don’t get to that mass market phase without going through an earl adopter phase first.