Tesla rebuts Times story with secret data trail from test drive

Elon Musk tends to take all things related to Tesla Motors on a personal level. Only recently did Musk stop inspecting every Model S that left the California factory; much of his wealth and private life has been poured into the company, and he's made clear that Tesla isn't just another Silicon Valley startup, but something closer to a religious calling.

So it wasn't a shock that Musk would take strong exception to a New York Times piece detailing a troubled test drive of the Model S and Tesla's new East Coast quick-charging stations. But early this morning, Musk released his full rebuttal, contending the Times writer knowingly pushed the car to fail. His evidence: A trove of data recorded by the car itself during the drive about its speed, location, recharging and even its heating controls, apparently without the writer's knowledge.

Like many luxury cars, the Tesla Model S comes with a built-in 3G cellular data connection and a GPS unit, to provide services like Google maps and locations of charging stations on its 17-inch dashboard touchscreen. But the car also regularly sends some data back to Tesla when charging, mainly to warn of potential service problems and receive software updates. Beyond that basic data, its computers can also record detailed information gathered about the car's travels as it maximize the range from its batteries — a log that makes the typical "black box" in most vehicles look like a crayon taped to a hamster wheel.

According to Musk, Tesla leaves the data logs on its customers' cars off by default, but began enabling a full data log on any media drive of the Model S after BBC's Top Gear portrayed a Tesla Roadster as running out of charge on the track when it still had energy left, a policy that wasn't known before the Times article. Using the data from the Times drive, Musk contends Times writer John Broder "did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running."

Broder reported that he set the Model S to cruise at 54 mph in New Jersey when it appeared he could not reach a Tesla Supercharger station in Milford, Conn., and turned off the cabin heat to maximize range, reporting "my feet were freezing and my knuckles were turning white." Musk says the data logs tell a different story: the Model S averaged 60 mph on that leg of the trip, and the cabin heat was set to 74 degrees outside New York, before being shut off about 70 miles away from the charger.

When he reached Milford, Broder said the range on the Model S read zero miles left, which the logs confirm, but Musk accuses Broder of spending 5 minutes circling the parking lot before charging, and spent less time connected to power than he reported, shortening its range further. "When the Model S valiantly refused to die," Musk says, "he eventually plugged it in."

After a night in sub-freezing temperatures with the Model S left unplugged, Broder reported the car's range had shrunk from 90 miles to 25 — a drop reflected in Tesla's own data, and one that Broder later said a Tesla employee told him was due to "a software glitch." Broder wrote about getting an emergency charge in Norwich, Conn., but Musk says he omitted a key fact: The range on the Model S only showed 32 miles when he left Norwich — far short of the roughly 90 miles Broder had to cover to return to the Milford charger. Again, Musk says Broder went faster than he reported, about 10 mph faster than the 45 mph in the Times story. The Model S ended up traveling 51 miles before shutting down to protect its batteries from fully discharging, which could have permanently damaged them.

Broder's story emphasizes that many of his decisions were made after consulting with Tesla employees, and noted that Tesla "cleared me to resume the trip to Milford" after an hour at the Norwich recharge. And Musk's rebuttal does not address the 65-mile drop in charge while the Model S sat in a hotel parking lot overnight, a situation that highlights how many everyday challenges electric cars still face.

But it's not just the data logs that Musk says convinces him of the Times' misdeeds, but a previous article written by Broder where he wrote that "the state of the electric car is dismal," citing the litany of failures and shortfalls among electric vehicle builders to date. "We were played for a fool," Musk says, "and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles."

Whatever Broder did on his test drive, the state of electric vehicles isn't sunshine and roses. Outside of Tesla, no independent EV maker launched in the past few years has managed to build a business, and many vehicle and suppliers have closed shop. Musk's evangelism for electric vehicles has created a flock of supporters, whose fervency of the newly converted lacks any equal in the automotive world. While Musk has been willing to confront glitches in the Model S, and has always vowed fixes, some Tesla acolytes are prone to seeing any critical story as an anti-EV hatchet job or the work of Wall Street short-sellers. The Times story will reinforce that impulse, but the ultimate test for Tesla will be how many buyers come to its graces through how well its cars work — rather than faith alone.

UPDATE: John Broder posted his own lengthy rebuttal to Musk's claims late Thursday. He reiterated that he was in contact with Tesla engineers throughout the trip, and says two Tesla employees told him over the phone to leave the Norwich charging station and start a 90-mile drive to Milford even though the car's range showed just 35 miles, saying "the lost range would be restored. I did not ignore their advice."

Broder says the parking lot circling was due to him looking for the Tesla charging station in the dark. He says his reporting of the speeds and times were reflective of his notes, and that Tesla never made him aware of another charging station before the car shut down. As for the personal bias Musk alleges Broder holds against electric cars, Broder says he was "delighted" to get the driving assignment, saying he in "no way anticipated – or deliberately caused – the troubles I encountered."