Supercharged

Elon Musk’s data don’t back up his claims of New York Times fakery

February 14, 2013
February 14, 2013

Elon Musk’s long-awaited blog post take-down has arrived with what he claims is the data to prove New York Times John M. Broder reporter committed some sort of journalistic malpractice to run a bad review of the Tesla Model S’s range capability. The Times continues to vouch for the accuracy of Broder’s report and has another upcoming response to the latest Musk claims, a spokesperson told The Atlantic Wire. Musk, however, has followed through on his promise to publish data logs that he claims show that Broder (and not the car) was to blame for it stalling out on a cold day in Connecticut. But Musk is really going beyond that to a much more serious charge: he claims Broder deliberately set out to sabotage the test in a blatant violation of journalistic ethics.

Musk accuses Broder of thinking “the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story” (which is an odd choice of adjective for a car review) and “When the facts didn’t suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts.” Musk, who’s earned quite a following after the glowing media coverage of his impressive futuristic empire (he’s also the entrepreneur behind private space flight company SpaceX) saw his missive cheered along on Twitter, with some calling Tesla’s evidence “damning,” “amazing” and “powerful.” But do all the annotated charts, lines, and points prove Musk’s assertion that Broder staged his road trip to deliberately make the car run out of power? Let’s take a look.

Argument 1: Broder took a long detour in Manhattan, which would add up to more miles. Tesla doesn’t put any data behind that assertion, only saying he took an “an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride.”

Convincing? No. The other charts indicate the trip took a little over 500 miles, which matches up to the mileage Broder gives on his map, which total up to 529 miles. Google Maps claims, with a stop in Manhattan, the trip would take around 500 miles.

Argument 2: Broder didn’t turn down the heat in the car to save battery power, as claimed. In his article, Broder writes that after he noticed he wouldn’t have enough battery power for the trip, “I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic. I turned the climate control to low.” But Musk argues that the data logs show “At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down, he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F.”

Convincing? Partly. The crux of Musk’s argument is “at the point in time that he claims.” In his preceding paragraph, Broder writes that he was  68 miles out from the charging station in Deleware, and Musk figures that means he is 182 miles into his trip, and indeed Musk’s logs show that at that mile mark the “setpoint” (presumably the thermostat setting) of the climate control went up, from somewhere just under 73 degrees to just over 74 degrees. But Broder never claims he turned down his heat at the 182 mile mark. He says at that point he noted the car had 85 miles of range remaining “and a little mental math told me that reaching Milford would be a stretch.” He then writes, “I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines” including turning the heat down. And in the logs Musk shows, indeed 40 or 50 miles later in the trip, the setpoint drops precipitously. Update: In an email to The Atlantic Wire Broder explains this heat discrepancy. “I turned the heat up and down in a compromise between comfort and battery life. You can see from the chart that the heat was very low or off for a good chunk of the Newark-Milford trip,” he writes.

There are all sorts of questions you could ask about this data but it’s pretty clear that around the 200 mile mark of Broder’s drive, the heat was being turned lower. Maybe Broder waited too long to preserve his battery. Maybe he exaggerated how cold he was. But Musk is making a different, more damning point about Broder: he lied about turning off the heat. This chart does not show a lie.

Argument 3: Musk writes that “Cruise control was never set to 54 mph as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 mph.” This refers to the second part of Broder’s sentence about turning down the heat, “I turned the climate control to low — the temperature was still in the 30s — and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour,” and then again when he was in Norwich: “The displayed range never reached the number of miles remaining to Milford, and as I limped along at about 45 miles per hour I saw increasingly dire dashboard warnings to recharge immediately.” Musk places that first part again at 182 miles in and the second part at around mile 410. We’ve blocked off both those sections.

Convincing? Yes, then no. The speeds look a bit higher for both parts, almost reaching 70 at some points on the leg to NY, which does not jibe with the 54 mph cruise control. But the section before he broke down it does look like he chugged along at a pretty low speed.

Argument 4: Broder intentionally ran down the battery upon arrival at the first charging station in Milford to reach zero battery. Musk captions the chart below, “Detail showing car driving around in circles in front of the Milford Supercharger trying to get Model S to stop with zero range indicated,” but earlier he seems to suggest that it shows malice on Broder’s part, arguing he “worked very hard to force our car to stop running” and “Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in.”

Convincing? Not quite. It’s unclear how driving 0.6 miles at less than 15 mph would drain the battery to completion, or how it indicates he was driving with the intention of killing the car. Google Maps shows that it’s 0.2 miles from where the off-ramp starts to where the Tesla Supercharger is located (or where Google thinks it’s located—we don’t know the charging station’s exact location) in the Milford Service Plaza.

Musk is accusing Broder of driving three times the most direct route. Maybe Broder missed the charging station and drove around the McDonald’s a couple times looking for it? Update: And indeed, earlier today, Broder told Daily Intel’s Joe Coscarelli that he got lost looking for the charging station. “I was circling the parking lot in the service plaza looking for the unmarked and unlighted Supercharger port in the dark. I was not trying to drain the battery.” At the speeds shown in the logs, Tesla says Broder spent around five minutes driving around the service plaza before stopping. If he was deliberately trying to drain the battery, he did not stick to the endeavor for very long.

Argument 5: The battery never ran out of charge. In this chart he is also trying to prove that Broder didn’t charge fully on purpose, deliberately charging less with each leg, even after his bad experiences.

Convincing? No. Update: Jalopnik’s Patrick George confirmed with the towing company that picked Broder up that the car’s battery had zero juice and could not move on its own. “They were trying to figure out how to get the car onto the flatbed without moving it because it was so dead,” writes George. In an update he also explains how both Musk and Broder could be right in this case:

The high-voltage battery in the pack, allegedly, had enough power to move the car a much greater distance than needed to move the car onto a flatbed, maybe as far as five miles, but the 12V battery that powers the accessories and gets its juice from the high voltage battery shut down when Broder pulled into the service station.

When Broder decided to turn the car off, which was a mistake, the parking brake (operated by the 12V battery) was rendered unusable.

His other chart shows the mile range dipped below zero, which would indicate the car could not move. As commenters point out, the gauge could show no energy and still have some juice left.

Broder also explains that he did not charge fully because of the time it took to charge. He wanted to show the real world experience of a real driver, who might not want to endure the hour and a half it takes to charge up, when only needing a certain amount of energy to get to point B.

Argument 6: Why didn’t Broder stop at one of the many charging stations when running on low battery? “He drove right past a public charge station while the car repeatedly warned him that it was very low on range,” wonders Musk, posting all the stations on the path.

Convincing? No. That wasn’t the point of the article. Broder wanted to see how the car would do on a long range road trip relying on Tesla’s two official Supercharger stations.

Not all of Musk’s data is entirely convincing and the parts that are don’t point to a malicious plot. In the end, it looks like Broder made some compromises to get from the Newark charging station to the Milford one, in both speed and temperature. Broder may not have used Musk’s car the way Musk would like, but Musk is, for now, overhyping his case for a breach of journalism ethics.

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