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Tesla Model S (Photograph by kenjonbro/Flickr)

In Tesla Motors-NYT Spat, Cold Realities About Electric Cars

A New York Times reporter’s white-knuckled 206-mile journey in a Tesla Model S ended with the high-end EV on the back of a flatbed truck, and his account of the drive is fueling debate this week over the potential and the pitfalls of electric cars. Tesla’s chief executive fired back at the Times, calling the story “fake,” but the flap raises issues that extend beyond the $101,000 electric sedan in question.

In the piece titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” reporter John Broder wrote of setting out to test a pair of 480-volt Tesla Supercharger stations spaced 200 miles apart on Interstate 95, each designed to deliver enough charge in 30 minutes to power 150 miles of travel in the Model S. California-based Tesla has partnered with solar installer SolarCity (where Musk is also chairman) to generate electricity at the stations, so charging up is free.

Tesla provided Broder with the top-end version of its Model S—a vehicle with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated driving range of 265 miles. Under ideal conditions at 55 mph, Tesla says the car can go up to 300 miles on a single charge. (See related story: “Range Anxiety: Fact or Fiction?“)

But things quickly went awry for Broder. He described seeing the battery’s juice (and estimated range) drop faster than anticipated; calling Tesla officials for advice; and cutting both cabin heat and speed to conserve energy before the car finally shut down on an off ramp.

Elon Musk, the CEO, chairman, product architect, and largest shareholder of Tesla Motors, had harsh words for the piece, tweeting:

NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn’t actually charge to max & took a long detour.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013

The Times (to which I sometimes contribute articles on a freelance basis) stands by the original article. In a follow-up blog post, Broder said Tesla’s black-box record of the drive may indeed show him exceeding the speed limit, but that would likely have been before he charged up at the first Supercharger. And as noted in his original piece, Broder said he did drive into Manhattan, adding two miles of stop-and-go city driving to his trip (according to Broder’s Google map) after a Tesla rep advised him to switch out of cruise control to utilize regenerative braking. (Tesla executives reportedly later informed him this was bad advice.)

(Editor’s note Feb. 14: Tesla has put up its own follow-up blog post.)

Despite all the heat of this interlude, however, it illustrates something we already know: batteries are finicky beasts, relatively speaking. That’s why so much research and development is focused on thermal management and more robust materials. It’s why automakers test electric cars in the heat of the Las Vegas desert and the frigid cold of Kapuskasing, Ontario. And it’s why Tesla’s own chief technology officer, JB Straubel, told Broder that cold weather deals a blow to range—reducing it by as much as 10 percent.

Ideally, the car’s software would accurately and precisely calculate how far you could drive before recharging, given all the variables. Indeed, Broder’s original article paraphrased Straubel saying that “some range-related software problems still needed to be sorted out.” But to set out in an all-electric car on a 30-degree (Fahrenheit) day with the heat on and experience less-than-perfect battery performance, to leave the car unplugged overnight and wake to find its charge has depleted in the freezing temperatures—this isn’t surprising, and it’s far from “fake.”

The Model S, like a growing number of electric vehicles, is a car capable of serving most, but not necessarily all of our driving needs. Is that such a bad thing? Does that make it an impractical vehicle? No. Although trips of 50 miles or more account for about a third of all the miles driven each year, fully 97 percent of daily vehicle trips in the United States are 49 miles or less, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. Seven out of 10 trips cover less than 10 miles. (See related story: “Renault Zoe, a Low-Price Electric Car, Wins Britain’s Future Car Challenge“)

Expecting electric vehicles to perform like their gas counterparts misses the point. As Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate has written over at Wired, “Road trips are a dangerous myth for the EV industry to perpetuate at all.” It’s a “perverse double-standard,” she argues, to demand that, “unlike gas cars, EVs must be able to do it all in order to be useful at all.”

At the same time, Tesla Motors is not selling an everyman’s car. Not yet. Priced at more than $100,000, the version of the Model S that Broder drove (versions with smaller batteries start around $61,000) is a sleek, fun, high-tech luxury sedan that remains aspirational for many drivers. Even factoring in fuel and maintenance savings (over the life of a vehicle, a typical American motorist spends about as much on gasoline as on the car itself: more than $22,000), six figures is a steep price. Those who go for the cream of the EV crop can probably afford alternative transportation for the occasional long road trip—whether that’s a second vehicle, a rental car, a car sharing service, airfare, or some combination. (See related post: “How to Compare the Cost of Electric and Gas Cars“)

And charging is still a challenge, especially for people who don’t have access to the same parking spot each night, and whose employers haven’t started offering workplace charging. That’s where those Superchargers come in. They would be more valuable—and longer-distance trips in electric cars would be more practical—if there were more of them, closer together. And Tesla knows that: the company plans to set up 100 of them by 2015.

Btw, more free East Coast Superchargers coming soon. Will allow lower initial charge, v high speed trip & long detours, like NYTimes drive.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013


Editor’s note: A previous version of this post said that Tesla pays for the electricity at its new charging stations. The post has been updated with information about its partnership with SolarCity.