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Mike Sholars: Tesla Motors’ CEO fought fire with facts, and he may have won


Paul Sakuma / AP PhotoTesla Motors’ Model S luxury sedan, the same model driven to exhaustion by John Broder for the New York Times.

This week’s highly-publicized exchange between the New York Times‘ John Broder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has become an amazing case study for the idea of truth in journalism, and the significant hurdles facing the future of electric automobiles. But first, a recap.

Elon Musk is a South African billionaire who invented the internet’s first notable secure payment system (PayPal), the world’s first commercial space flight company (SpaceX), and most recently founded Tesla Motors, the only car manufacturer specializing in completely electric vehicles; no hybrids allowed. The Tesla Roadster was the first fully-electric car in history, and its follow-up vehicle, the Model S, won the Motor Trend 2012 Car of the Year award.

That being said, the public at large is still a ways off from replacing the family van with an electric car. The Model S sells for over $50,000 at its lowest price point, and the basic infrastructure of charging stations has yet to be fully implemented outside of major U.S. cities. Tesla Motors is planning a trickle-down strategy for their cars, with each subsequent vehicle generation using technology created for the last one, ultimately pushing the price down to competitive levels. However, to get to that point, they need to survive and thrive in a market heavy with scrutiny and a North American car culture in love with gasoline.

This is a crucial time for Tesla and Musk, and the outspoken CEO has personally addressed criticism towards his company before. When the BBC’s Top Gear ran an episode about the Tesla Roadster in 2008, it ended with co-host Jeremy Clarkson having to push the apparently battery-depleted vehicle off the track. Musk filed a lawsuit for malicious falsehood and libel, citing the fact that he provided them with two fully-charged cars to use, and going so far as to say that the end of the scene had been scripted in advance, regardless of the cars’ actual performance. The case was dropped from court, mainly because the lawmakers defined Top Gear as an entertainment program (as opposed to a piece of informational journalism), and therefore they couldn’t be punished for embellishing the truth.

So earlier this week, when Josh Broder wrote a damning review of the Model S’s performance under cold weather conditions for the New York Times, it became another example of a high-profile institution delivering a potentially game-breaking verdict to Tesla Motors at a critical point in their growth.

Broder’s piece is an engaging, well-written account of his drive from Washington to New York; it ends with his Model S car dead on the side of a highway, as a tow truck crew struggles to get it onto a flatbed truck. He claims to have run out of charge prematurely, and generally complains of the difficulties he had getting the car from point A to B.

Usually, that would have been the end of it. A scathing review comes out, and the company in question has its PR team work on damage control. Instead, Elon Musk, after consulting with his engineers, called the review “fake.”

And so it began.

What Broder didn’t know was that ever since the Top Gear incident, the Tesla Motors team had taken to enabling tracking data on all cars they gave to the media. Everything from distance, to time spent at charging stations, to the speed and location of the vehicle at any given moment were recorded and stored at Tesla HQ. Musk promised he would post the data and prove all of Broder’s claims false, using the exact telemetry from his test drive.
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