When you challenge the New Jersey Turnpike to a duel, it may be worth it to risk the sanctity of the paint job on a ’98 Toyota Camry, however, when the stakes involve the integrity of a journalistic institution and the future of an American electric vehicle startup, you’re asking for trouble. These are precisely the victims of this week’s press debacle involving the New York Times and Tesla Motors.
In case you missed the story, here’s a recap: a Californian automaker lends the New York Times their latest electric car for a test drive through New Jersey, with a strict list of rules to about where the car can be charged, how fast it can be driven, and what routes can be taken. The Times writer can’t resist the urge to speed on the Turnpike, which depletes the battery prematurely and eventually requires the car to be towed to a charging station. The writer pens a scathing review, and claims not to have exceeded the speed limit in the article. Tesla pulls up the data from the car’s computer which had documented the writer’s trip, and immediately sees that he did in fact exceed the speed limit a great deal (and thusly drained the battery). Tesla published the facts on their website, and The New York Times maintains that their report is 100% factual. Now it’s left to the public to decide who they trust more: writer John Broder, or Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
There are numerous problems with this scenario, outside of the obvious question of “Who gave Jayson Blair the keys?” For one thing, it’s a bit naive of Tesla to lend a car out to “scoop hungry” journalists in the Northeast in late January, especially when there are only two charging stations in the region, both of which are brand new. Developing an electric car on the mild West Coast sounds like a comfortable undertaking, but, the realities of the Northeastern roadways, the Jersey Turnpike in particular, are much more taxing and brutal on a vehicle than the Pacific Coast Highway. Sure, there’s something romantic about starting a car company in Silicon Valley, but, there’s something to be said about US automakers being headquartered in frigid Detroit. What flies in Silicon Valley dies in the Garden State.
The other major problem in this story is for anyone to claim that they maintained a 54 MPH speed limit all the way from Washington DC to Connecticut. The strip of the Turnpike that runs from the Delaware Memorial Bridge into the first 35 miles of Jersey is particularly questionable. On this leg of the writer’s trip, the notorious NJ Turnpike offers only two lanes. The “slow” lane generally chugs along at a damning 50 MPH. The “fast” lane moves at one speed and one speed only: 80 MPH. Few people can resist the temptation to be squarely planted in the fast lane along this stretch of road, especially if they’re planning on taking an unscheduled detour into Manhattan so they could, presumably, pop into the office for a free cup of coffee.
John Broder’s detour into NYC is a particularly contentious point in the story. In a NY Times blog post responding to Tesla’s publication of the car’s data, Broder wrote that, according to Google Maps, his little side trip added a mere two miles to the journey. Anyone who makes such a naive statement has no place testing an electronic vehicle, and the editors at The Old Gray Lady should know that. Driving into Manhattan at 3:45 PM on a Wednesday is very taxing on a vehicle, and a reporter from a major publication shouldn’t have made such a basic error in judgement.
It’s highly likely that a more responsible person could make this trip without a hitch, however, much of the blame for this situation going awry falls on Tesla. With a brand new car on the road and only two charging stations in the region, why are they allowing people who have never operated an electric car before to take long distance road trips? The customers who are going to spend between $61,000 and $100,000 on a Tesla Model S are going to be a little more cautious and responsible with their vehicles than a sloppy journalist.
Numerous publications are faulting CEO Elon Musk for lashing out at the reviewer. Perhaps they’re right, but regardless, he and his car company have my full respect in the matter. The actions and goals of Tesla Motors are beyond noble. They’re a company that deserves to be treated with care by the American press. Most people know that rechargeable batteries suffer serious performance issues in cold weather. The editors and writers at the New York Times are apparently oblivious to this fact, but then again, facts aren’t their strong suit.