A dispute between Tesla Motors and the New York Times over a review of the maker’s Model S sedan is taking on an increasingly strident and noisy life of its own raising questions about just what the California-based battery-car start-up hopes to accomplish.
Clearly, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk has been angered by what he has dubbed a “fake” story by veteran Times reporter John Broder. But more than a few observers warn that Musk’s decision to angrily fight back could backfire and raise even more concerns about battery-car technology.
It certainly has gotten investors skittish, Tesla’s stock taking a sharp drop from its nearly $40-a-share peak last week – though it has rebounded slightly since the he-said/she-said battle began.
Complicating matters, it appears that Tesla chief Musk called to apologize to the NY Times scribe before turning around and blasting him in a series of Twitter posts.
The dispute was touched off by an article by Broder that tracked his journey from Washington, D.C. to Boston in a new Tesla Model S battery-electric vehicle. The reporter was supposed to recharge at two of the carmaker’s new high-speed Supercharger facilities en route, but according to Broder, the batteries ran out of juice and the Model S had to be delivered by flatbed to the last charging station.
Musk, it now turns out, called Broder to apologize for the problem the reporter ran into – then turned to Twitter to blast the NY Times scribe, describing the article as a “fake,” and accusing Broder of varying from the prescribed route and driving procedures needed to help him make it between charge-ups.
In a subsequent appearance on Bloomberg’s TV news program, Musk said, “He did not charge the car to full capacity, not even close. He then took an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan, through heavy traffic, instead of going on the interstate to the charging station. He also exceeded the speed limit quite substantially, which decreased his range.
“If you do all those three things, which we were clear should not be done and obviously common sense suggests should not be done, then you will not be able to go as far,” he added. “If you did not fill a gasoline car’s gas tank far enough, then went on a detour and ran out of gas, you should not be surprised if that occurs.”
Musk has promised to back his claims by releasing the log information from the Tesla’s onboard data computer – something he revealed the company turns on whenever a journalist drives one of its vehicles. So far, however, the maker has not released that information.
The news that Tesla has been monitoring reporters’ driving hasn’t exactly gone down well with the media – many of whom have already had run-ins with the carmaker’s public relations department. Tesla has been notably frugal with test vehicles, providing rides to only a handful of reviewers – though garnering some strongly positive results, including the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year trophy.
Musk himself has been especially prickly about those who were less kind, suing the BBC’s widely popular Top Gear program when it claimed an earlier battery car, the Tesla Roadster, ran out of juice during a taped test drive. Tesla sued but the courts rejected its claims.
Whether Tesla will take things to that level this time remains to be seen, but the fact that it has decided to aggressively challenge Broder and the Times is generating some mixed responses.
Investors seem worried and unsure about the battle, concerned that if it results in the impression of problems with the Model S Tesla’s long-term future could be injured.
For his part, Jim Hall, of automotive consulting firm 2953 Analytics, is more upbeat.
“People are lined up 10-deep for the car,” he contends, insisting the battle “won’t lose them sales.”
While the old argument was that you don’t fight someone who buys ink by the barrel, said Hall, “Maybe the NY Times shouldn’t argue with someone with so many electrons.”
Analyst Dave Sullivan, of AutoPacific, Inc., contends the real question is what the supposed data logs will show. If the reporter clearly failed to drive the Model S reasonably then Tesla could come out looking good. On the other hand, if the route it demanded Broder take was so limited that it “wasn’t indicative of what people do in the real world,” then the Model S might look like it’s not ready for prime time.
Sullivan says he understands Musk’s concerns but also contends “a logical, well thought out (response to the Times) would have been better, rather than using Twitter.”
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