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.
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!
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.