Vindication in the Tesla versus New York Times Debacle

by drlje

I’m sure most people remember this episode, but let’s just recap. In the early days of 2013, the New York Times put out an article by John Broder, which was universally positive in its review of the Tesla Model S except for one point, battery life. Mr. Broder was impressed with the car itself, but found that the charging network left something to be desired, namely there were not enough chargers and he found himself with a dead car just a few miles from a charging station.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, made a big deal out of this article, claiming that Broder lied and intentionally manipulated events to ensure the car ran out of energy. Of course, debate ensued and accusations were hurled by both sides. Tesla fanboys claimed that Broder was a liar while NYT’s fanboys claimed that Musk was manipulating his supposed facts and was missing the point. The truth in these situations usually lies somewhere in between, but new data may suggest that Broder’s version of events was closer to the truth than Musk’s.

Let’s be clear here. The truth is CLOSER to what Broder wrote than what Musk has claimed, but it is still not fully in either man’s court. Here is why I say that.

If you venture over to the Tesla forums, you will find this: This link takes you to  a forum section where real Tesla owners talk about a real problem in which the battery, when not plugged in, loses range. It is being referred to as the “vampire problem” and it goes something like this.

A fully charged Tesla, sitting in mild conditions in Southern California, will lose anywhere from 10 to 18 miles of charge PER DAY if it is not plugged in. Some peple have even found that the car, when fully charged, loses range WHILE plugged in. In other words, some function of the Tesla Model S causes it to lose battery charge even when nothing is being done with the car. I am sure that most people could related to a mile every few days, but 10-18 per day is astounding and even Model S fanboies are calling for a fast fix. Some rightly point out, and this is from the mouths of Model S owners, that a leaking gas tank would be fixed by the manufacturer immediately in a recall. They suggest that the lose of energy in the Model S should be treated with the same urgency.

When Broder parked his car on that fateful night, he hadn’t recharged it. There is not doubt that if he HAD recharged it that the care would have made it to the next charging station with not problem. The key here is, however, that when he parked the car that night he had more than enough range to reach the charging station, even if the battery wasn’t at full capacity, and was told by Tesla employees themselves (by chief technology officer JB Straubel himself in fact, that he had enough range. in other words, he was treating the car the way Tesla claims it ought to be treated, just like any other car.

The problem is, the Tesla is just like any other car. As fans will tell you, it is much, much better, except for the places in which it isn’t, of course. As Broder found out, the car will lose energy all by itself, unlike an ICE vehicle, which doesn’t generally leak fuel unless there is a problem. What is more, conditions affect the rate of lose and cold weather is a particular problem for this car. What is truly disturbing is what Tesla told Broder when he found that the car had lost range.

First, they suggested that he sit with the car on and the heat on low to “condition” the battery. That, they claimed, would restore range. Tell me, how does using energy restore energy? If the battery range fluctuates that violently as a result of how warm or cold the battery is, which is the only way the Tesla claim makes any sense, then they have a serious problem.It gets worse, however.

Tesla also told Broder that driving at a moderate speed would “restore” lost range. Again, the only way this makes sense is if the effective range is drastically affected by the temperature of the battery. It means, in essence, that the range of your battery could change drastically simply because ambient temperature changed, traffic has forced you to change speed, etc. This is a problem because the range on an ICE vehicle is pretty much the range no matter what the conditions.

All of this boils down to one fact: The Model S is likely to leave you stranded on the side of the road if you  trust the range indicator and try to push the battery to its limits. You cannot rely on a 30 miles to empty indicator in the Model S the way you would in an ICE car. Imagine, for instance, that your low fuel indicator light is on in your petrol car. You know, based on your particular model, that that means you have roughly 1-2 gallons of fuel left. We’ll say 1 for now and assume your car gets 25 mpg. You know that you can go about 25 miles before the car stops and so, given the abundance of gas stations, you park the car and get some much needed rest, knowing that you will still have 25 miles of range in the morning. What about the Tesla?

In the same scenario, in which the Model S indicates 25 miles of range, you cannot be certain it will still have that 25 miles when you wake up. In the best of conditions, you are doing to wake up with only 15 miles of range and in the worse of conditions, your battery may be dead. It doesn’t matter, at that point, if the supercharger was 20 miles away. You are now screwed. You should have filled up the night before.

The bottom line here is that Broder’s report was closer to the truth than Tesla’s claim. The car is not like a regular vehicle and cannot be treated as such. You WILL lose range even if the car simply sits and you WILL lose range as driving conditions change and factors outside of your control impact your driving style, ambient temperature, etc. Broder was right, the Tesla is a great car, but there are problems and it IS NOT and CANNOT be considered a replacement for the standard internal combustion engine, not yet at least.