Range Wars

As an electric car driver for nearly a year, I think that the largest mental hurdle to get past when comparing your experience to that of a combustion car is “range anxiety”. What is that exactly? Well, it’s the fear that you’ll run out of juice before you get where you’re going and have a chance to recharge. It takes a little getting used to.

Now, we use our ActiveE Buzz as our around-the-town car. It has a range of 80-90 miles on a full charge. I drive it to work everyday. We take it to Costco. We go out to dinner with it. I take the Beloved down to the airport and back in it. We go to Dog Beach in it. After a while, you develop a better sense of what “85 miles” is practically. I think the lowest we’ve ever gotten the battery is ~15 miles left — and that’s as I was pulling into my garage after a big day of driving all over the county. No problem. No anxiety. Buzz has been everything we could want out of a car and then some. And at a effective operating cost of a car that gets 95-115 mpg (depending on the price of gas), with no emissions to boot? — that’s pretty awesome.



Now, road trips are a different question. Driving a hundred miles and charging for a couple of hours hardly seems like an efficient way to go somewhere. We’re going to do a short trip on Buzz’s 1-year anniversary, but it’s something you have to plan — where and when to charge, what to do while you’re waiting… not the ideal vision of a spontaneous road trip. That’s why we have one electric car and one combustion car — all bases covered.

So, it’s been with some interest that I’ve watched the development of the Tesla cars, which are also electric but have ranges from 150-250 (depending on battery and configuration). The company’s CEO, tech guru Elon Musk, has also recently been championing the company’s more efficient (i.e. less time-consuming) “Super-Charging” stations. Musk claims that with his planned network of fast charging stations and cars with ~250 mile ranges there’s no reason that an electric car couldn’t be your only car. It’s Model S sedan has won several Car of the Year awards.

But last week, there was a kerfuffle that blew up when New York Times reporter John Broder tested the Model S and attempted to make a road trip from Maryland to New England using Musk’s super-charging network (stops in DE and CT). The article painted a depressing picture: having to drive at low speeds to conserve energy, keeping the heat off during a cold day, inefficient charging stops, and the ultimate fail: running out of juice and having to call the tow truck.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

Pretty bleak, right? Well, that’s not quite the whole story. A few days after the NYT piece was published, Musk published a blog post where he essentially says Broder lied and went out of his way to make the Tesla look bad. You see, after an episode of the BBC show Top Gear, in which the show deliberately faked running out of power to make a “better story”, Tesla keeps all the telemetrics on during review test drives. As it turns out, Broder never drove as slowly as he claimed he had to, never turned the heat off, and never ran out of power. Musk’s got data to back those claims up.

So, Broder essentially pulled a “Top Gear”, right? Faking the drama of “range anxiety”, manipulating the situation so the car looked bad — because a column that stated “Hey, it worked out fine” isn’t really all that attention grabbing, is it?

Broder replied, essentially saying that the trip happened exactly as he said (apparently, the telemetrics aren’t correct) and that he charged and drove exactly as suggested by Tesla Motors representatives.

So — who do you believe? The attention-seeking tech CEO that seems very happy to receive adulation, but no so happy to take criticism, or maybe an attention-seeking journalist that did or did not resort to some shenanigans and hyperbole to create a more “interesting” story?

As a scientist, I tend to put more clout behind Tesla’s data than Broder’s denials. Also, as an interesting addendum, CNN did the same test drive last week. Their result? No problems.

Is there a winner here? Probably not. Musk comes across as over-hyping his cars (or at least his charging network) and the New York Times seems like they’re stooping to creating the story, rather than reporting it. Either way, I hope it doesn’t turn people off to the potential of electric cars. Because while they’re probably not the perfect “road-trip” car right now, they’re getting better in real time and are going to be a great choice for a large slice of drivers. I know I plan on keeping (at least) one in The Aerie’s garage going forward!

Fill 'er up!

Fill ‘er up!

What about you? Would you be interested in an electric car? Does this kerfuffle change your opinion?

UPDATE (2/18/2013): The public editor of the New York Times has posted her thoughts on the Tesla/NYT debacle. Her conclusion is that Broder was acting in good faith, though probably made some very poor and/or naive choices when it comes to taking a road trip in an electric car.

UPDATE (2/20/2013): You guys may have seen it, but CNBC also tested the Tesla S on the same drive and it worked fine. No real problems at all. Really distilling out to either you believe Broder is a really bad test-driver or deliberately tried to game the test for a better “story”. Bad either way.


29 thoughts on “Range Wars

  1. I don’t know that I’d feel safe driving an electric car (safe in the “range war” sense, moreso than the “I live in the lightning capitol of the world” sense (though the latter would, irrationally, bother me)). Today, I had a couple errands to run, then met my Michelle and my godson for brunch, followed by a grueling drive to Sarasota for a doctor’s appointment. It’s 110 miles round trip, so I’d have had to recharge while I was down there. Also, there’s a lot of going from 65 to 85 on the Interstate. I’ve made the round-trip probably 800 times or more, and I’m used to the rhythms and sounds of my engine, as well as shifting gears. If I won the Lotto, I’d probably buy a giant Diesel pickup truck, as well as something economical, like a Ferrari Testarossa. ;-)

    • tom — Buzz has done fine in the rain… :) Actually, because EVs are heavier than “regular” cars, they actually grip the road better. I routinely drive Buzz between 70 and errr 85 on the freeways here, with no loss of projected range — actually the range is BETTER doing that than the stop-and-start that I usually have on my commute. But 110 is probably just a *little* far not to have grab some Watts — have your doctor install one.

      Did you know the Tesla sports car uses a Lotus frame? Just sayin’…

      • I wouldn’t be worried about an electric car because of the weight or the traction–honestly, few things have less drive-wheel traction than an empty pickup truck in the rain (especially with less than 3/4 of a tank of gas (there’s no weight over the back wheels then, so it’s easy to hydroplane, spin your wheels leaving red lights, fishtail, etc., on a wet road)). My irrational fear would be that the lightning would seek out the giant stack of batteries upon which I sat, and I’d be smote crispy. Note the word “irrational”: I’m reasonably certain Buzz has rubber tires, which probably ground him most effectively.

        That’s funny about the Tesla using a Lotus frame. I would no more be able to cram my Hagridian self into a Lotus than would I into a Ferrari Testarossa. That’s why I’m grateful to Saint A.J. of Foyt that Lamborghini makes a monster SUV. That’d be the only V-12 Italian job I’d be driving. ;-)

  2. I would love an electric car. However, everywhere we go around here is a good 20 mile or more round trip…which would be fine. Any trips to the lake cabin are over 300 miles. Also to visit my sister and two of my kids….around 250 to 300 miles.

    I’m sad, but not surprised that a reporter would lie to make his story more dramatic. That is the way of the media these days. Facts have little place with them. And that makes me very angry.

    • Lauri — yeah, for us, we could have never made that trip up to Cambria last month. Well, we could have, but it would have taken a day and a half. Having “one of each” has been a great solution for us. I bet it would for a lot of people that live in urban/suburban environments.

      I think the writer was either really clueless, or purposefully trying to skew the “trial” — that’s really too bad. I sort of expect better out of the NYT.

  3. One car ride isn’t scientific (as you well know). The reporter could be telling the truth and the data may read as it…read.

    I doubt I have money for it and certainly, I can’t imagine anybody putting in super-charge stations where I live. I can’t buy internet.

    That said OF COURSE I’d want something that didn’t require fuel every 2-3 days…and I drive a sub-compact.

  4. If the point of the NYT article was to cover the Supercharging stations, then why would the author not use them as he’s supposed to? If I know I’ve got to drive 40 miles yet only put 1 gallon of gas in the empty gas tank of a vehicle rated at 35mpg (under optimal conditions) I shouldn’t be surprised to not make it to my destination.

    And I’m thinking that if I’m expected to stop every couple of hours to recharge for 30+ minutes … man, I’d better plan on taking a month off work for a two week trip to Michigan. For regular commuting and short drives that you’ve been using yours for, I can see an advantage.

    • GOM — yeah, I think the question is did he purposefully screw up the drive, or is he really just a screw up? I guess it’s more kind to think the latter.

      And there’s really no way this car could be anyone’s only car, really. But it does fit in with an urban/suburban lifestyle — as long as you have a gas-car also in the house.

  5. “The public editor of the New York Times has posted her thoughts on the Tesla/NYT debacle. Her conclusion is that Broder was acting in good faith, though probably made some very poor and/or naive choices when it comes to taking a road trip in an electric car.”

    This is less than a ringing endorsement of Broder from his editor.
    I’m not sure how to reconcile “very poor and/or naive choices” with “good faith.”
    Either he did the trip, as he described it exactly, and his article stands as a valid criticism, or he flubbed the drive for a better, but less true, story.
    I’m thinking I know which one.

    • lauowolf — yeah, essentially she’s saying that in the best case, the guy did a really crappy job OF HIS JOB, which is to drive cars. I suppose it would be more kind to just think he’s a screw-up, rather than a deceitful one, but the CNN drive as a comparator is pretty hard to ignore.

  6. I am actually very happy a CEO was not just counting his bonuses, but is actively working on the product. We have gotten so used to Executives sugar coating their public image and stating ‘no comment’ that it seems out of the ordinary for a CEO to actually push back and throw some punches himself. When there are valid criticisms, they have taken them like big boys, but there have been few because they were getting into this business to disrupt the status quo. When someone flat out lies, like Top Gear, who has taken a pure adversarial role in EV technology or the NY Times author who decided to embellish his story to make it more dramatic, they deserve to be called out and their integrity questioned. Top Gear has hidden behind the excuse that they are an ‘Entertainment’ show, it appears the New York TImes has not done much better.

    • Jack — I appreciate that Musk is out in front of his products and is their main cheerleader. I think the thing that gets me about him is that he’s very happy to do the talk show circuit and be branded a “maverick” and “genius” — It seems a bit like an ego stroke but there you go.

      I think the Top Gear thing was inexcusable and they should really be taken to task for that, but Musk may have jumped the gun on some of his claims. For example, he claims that Broder “drove around and around the parking lot” trying to run down the battery of the Model S before charging it. Broder claims that it was dark, the charging station wasn’t lit and he was driving around trying to find it. Musk had the data for what Broder was doing, but assumed he knew the motivation. Tricky territory, and probably one to be cautious rather than accusatory in.

  7. Pingback: Unscientific Science-y Tuesday « We All Shine On

  8. I can barely find a gas station where I live. You ask people about electric cars and about half need me to explain the concept. Very backwoods around here. However, if we ever moved back to an urban lifestyle, I’d either get my own Buzz-ette or walk.

    That Tesla is gorgeous. :)

    • BD — I’ve seen a couple of Model Ss here in town and I’ve been surprises what a BIG car they are. That probably puts it a little lower on my list, mostly because I like a smaller car, but they are pretty sweet looking.

    • Lauowolf — the really sad part is that our ActiveE field test is only 2 years. So Buzz will be going back to the big EV cruncher in the sky (well, Germany) in Spring 2014.

  9. Ideally, Ï would like to have no car at all…live in a place where everything is a walk away, and take public transportation to anywhere else.
    However, if I must have a car, I would love to have it as a combination of electric and gas – I would have severe range anxiety that would kill the pleasure of driving, I’d feel more comfortable with a gas backup.

    • I can’t really imagine a life without a car — which I guess makes me very American. I would feel too constrained by the need for public transportation. Even if I didn’t use my car very often (I like the idea of walking and PT) I’d still want it for non-standard events, I think.

  10. I began to fall in love with the concept untll I saw that Buzz was a BMW. Oh dear me. Now if it was a Jag or a Mini (and I mean an original, not a small car) then perhaps I might’ve been in favour. ;)

    • Sarah — ahh well, too bad, I suppose we’ll make do with what we have… ;) — though I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more manufacturers getting into the act… :)

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