KSJ Tracker February 11, 2013

NYTimes man tests Tesla in icy weather. Oh woe, its voltage goes low, he needs a tow, Angry Elon tweets WE KNOW WHERE YOU DROVE!

When a powerful media company smacks into an up and coming (and powerful) CEO, things can get interesting. It sure did today, Monday. This is a long post - so let's start by backing into it.

About ten months ago engineers for the new Made-in-USA electric supercar, the Tesla Model S, took it to Baudette, Minnesota, for tests in brutally cold weather. They say it did just fine. Their tester is in that picture and I doubt that it's driving through leftover Xmas tree flocking. A report at Green Car Journal by David Noland, filed last July, says Tesla's super-entrepreneur and rocket man chief executive Elon Musk himself estimates that if it's really really cold a Model S might lose a fifth of its range due to a cranky battery spending a lot of its energy just keeping its electrolytes from locking up. That's a lot of performance degradation  but seems normalish for electric cars - even for one that Motor Trend Magazine called the 2012 Car of the Year.

   Well in the news now is that not everybody is at all happy with Tesla's cold weather behavior. The company's stock took a downward blip today because of a review that ran on Friday.

  • New York Times - John Broder: Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway ; In which this stalwart Times environmental beat writer took the helm of a high-performance, brilliant-red Tesla S in Washington DC to try out the company's nascent network of supercharger stations, one in Delaware and another in Connecticut, that are supposed to be the cure for 'range anxiety" in Teslas with their biggest battery. Broder wrote however that its touted 265 miles estimated range was "trumped by reality, especially when Northeast temperatures plunge." After various adventures with recharging stations, and after leaving the car sitting all night in temperatures down around 10 F, he wound up with a comatose Tesla on an offramp, Tesla called a tow truck for him, his car was so low it couldn't even turn off its parking brake, wotta mess.

  So anyway the review says this is a terrific car but it's nowhere near perfect. You can bet I read it with great interest. Disclosure: I may have mentioned incessantly to friends and acquaintances that we bought a nice brown Model S, taking delivery in mid-December. It's had a few minor glitches but has been rock solid reliable in the large sense. It gets us regularly to a vacation place 150 miles away with tons of range to spare. The thing is amazing. It's not even the superfast Performance model but it takes off from a stop like a Tomahawk missile. Mrs. Tracker has a new vice - on Marin Ave, a steep hill that goes straight up the drop line of the Berkeley Hills, she briefly punches it in between the intersections just to feel it leap. And nobody suspects a thing. It's nearly silent even when you're driving like a teenager back when teenagers were car crazy. On Wednesday I'm going to take it to the service center at its birth place, the Tesla factory in Fremont, to have a strange noise from the right front wheelwell diagnosed. But it's definitely a keeper. Tesla owner, as first adopters, are almost pathologically disposed to being understanding, cheer leaders even, when the car has a hiccup or two.

    Now, back to Broder's unflattering review. Somebody else who read it is not at all happy: Elon Musk.

   Get a load of the first two tweets he put up Monday:

@Elonmusk - NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max and took a long detour.

@Elonmusk: Tesla blog coming soon detailing what actually happened on Broder's NYTimes range "test." Also lining up other journalists to do same drive.

From experience with Tesla's service and customer relations reps. They are not only friendly but they already seem to know before you tell them what's happening with your car. The thing is on line. They can upgrade the software when the owner is not looking (except the owner must actually install it - but it is all loaded, at 2 a.m. is typical -  and ready to go). The mammoth touch screen on the dash tells the driver when the latest version is ready. The other day a dash warning said our tire pressure management system needed service. We stopped on the side of Hwy 101. I used my iPhone (via the car's radio speakers and mic, natch) to call Tesla roadside assistance. The cheery voice checked out the car. It said nope, the system is actually fine. Reboot the touchscreen control computer, it said. We did. Off we went.

  So when Broder drove off in his Tesla and then wrote a review saying where he went and what he did, the car had already shared all that he had done, in real time. I am not sure it tracks you even though the machine has GPS, but it does measure how far, when, and how hard you drove (in watt-hours per mile). Some time ago a BBC TV show called Top Gear tested some Tesla roadsters, the company's first models and now out of production. The Top Gear guys complained that the cars broke down.  Tesla sued. With that background here's the third tweet:

@ElonMusk: Tesla data logging is only turned on with explicit written permission from customers, but after Top Gear BS, we always keep it on for media.

Sense some hostility there? Well, the company and its founder are at a very stressful point, and Musk didn't get where he is by  being passive. So he's peeved, and he doesn't trust media (which is what I always tell audiences wondering how to act around the reporters. Don't trust'em, I say, but go ahead and spill the beans to them anyway). Isn't it rich that Mr. Musk's people are "also lining up other journalists to do the same drive." I suppose they may get it to happen, but not many reporters can be lined up to do a story the way just the way a CEO has told his p.r. man to get them done.

One has a feeling that Musk has no p.r. guy hanging around to tell him NOT to tweet so imperiously when a spot of bad press comes his way.  I mean, this is the guy who supposedly is the inspiration for moviedom's Tony Stark, aka the Ironman who flies with rocket exhaust shooting from his footwear. It would have been far more effective  had Musk tweeted some sort of expression of regret that John Broder got stuck in the cold, a vow to find out exactly what went wrong, and then as the data logs and so on came in, had coolly sought to explain why what Broder experiences is not typical, maybe happened a bit differently. That'd be more effective for Tesla but less fun for everybody else. And if it turns out to be typical behavior of a Model S in Arctic weather, Broder gets the last laugh.

The big man's final tweet on the topic (so far) suggest he was cooling off, or that somebody had the temerity to urge the boss to dial it back a notch

@ElonMusk: Am not against NYTimes in general. They're usually fair & their own prev. Tesla test drive got 300+ miles of range!

   The new sedans are, in my humble and hardly disinterested opinion, potentially the most significant single car models ever made in the US since the Model T. They are an industrial triumph. I can't think of any other car that signaled a change in the auto industry as huge as what may now be upon us. Electric cars are a big deal for both carbon footprints and the electric grid (if the infrastructure permits, utilities may even borrow back some of the kilowatt-hours stuffed into car batteries, to tide them through power surges and blackouts).

      I'm betting on Broder and the Times to come out on top here. Tesla reps should have told Broder before he drove off exactly how to take care of the car in cold weather - including to keep it plugged in while it's sitting in sub-freezing cirumstances and don't ever cut short the charging episodes. But one bad review is not about to derail the company's chance for success.

   The tussle is getting other coverage:




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