Are Journalists Trying to Kill the Electric Car?

By · March 08, 2013

Nissan Leaf

A Nissan LEAF came within 0.8 miles of making a round-trip voyage from Manhattan to Jones Beach park. The Wall Street Journal writer compared the Nissan breaking down to the "last mile" walk from death row to the execution chamber.

It’s not polite to talk about politics or religion amongst unfamiliar company. Judging from recent controversies and, in some instances, protracted legal battles, you might add discussing the pros and cons of electric vehicles to this list. The debate concerning the practicality of electric vehicles has spread like wildfire across the web, from the pages of The New York Times to across the Atlantic Ocean, where a BBC film crew was accused of scripting the ‘breakdown’ of two electric sports cars. Photos and video of EVs being pushed or towed to only add extra fuel to the argument. Are electric vehicles simply not ready for the type of real-world testing conducted by journalists? Or are the vehicles being misrepresented and, in some cases, purposefully misused in the hope of generating a scoop? Here’s a look at some of the most memorable, and contentious, journalist-meets-EV misadventures.

A New Term Enters Lexicon: Brodering

You know things are getting ugly when an automaker proposes that a journalist’s last name should be used as a term for “purposefully or with willful ignorance” running down an EV’s battery. Nowhere has the EV debate gotten more heated than in recent the war of words between Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors and The New York Times. In case you’ve been living under a rock, or have been preoccupied with the Harlem shake, the saga began earlier this year when a journalist John Broder, a political and environmental writer for The New York Times, attempted to drive a Tesla Model S from the suburbs of Washington D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts. The drive was as much a test of Tesla’s network of Supercharger stations as it was the electric-powered luxury sedan.

A photo of the Model S being loaded onto a flatbed tow truck, its battery having run flat well short of its date in Beantown, spread like wildfire across the web. Many in the electric car community believed the drive was rigged, that Mr. Broder chose not to follow simple instructions to maximize driving range—such as turning down the cabin heat and recharging for longer periods of time. Tesla’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, issued a scathing attack on the story and called into question the legitimacy of the entire test. In his response posted online, Mr. Musk bluntly stated that “when the facts didn’t suit his opinion, [Mr. Broder] simply changed the facts.”

As you’d expect, The New York Times bristled at the suggestion that journalistic ethics had been compromised to create a juicier story. After the initial verbal tit-for-tat, all available data was reviewed, including the car’s onboard diagnostics, and the Times issued a response that it stood by Mr. Broder and his review of the car. Some have countered Tesla’s surprisingly sharp criticism with the suggestion that you shouldn’t need an engineering degree to complete a drive from Point A to Point B. A more measured response by Tesla, stating that some range-saving techniques weren’t employed during this now fateful EV drive, could have arguably brought the controversy to a muted conclusion. Yet proposing a journalist “Brodered” an EV does, after all, make for a better story.

Tesla Loses Libel Suit Against BBC

Top Gear Tesla Roadster

Top Gear was accused of staging the breakdown of two Tesla Roadsters back in 2008. A script of the electric sports car running out of power was apparently penned before the drive.

This isn’t the first time Tesla Motors has countered the legitimacy of a journalist’s test drive. Top Gear, the BBC’s hugely popular automotive-themed program, prides itself on entertainment value and wild test-drives—not to mention the sharp and sometimes scathing wit of its host, Jeremy Clarkson. But Tesla said the show’s producers went out of the way to portray its high performance Roadster model as having run out of battery power. One of two Roadsters used in the episode, which originally aired in 2008, was filmed being pushed back into a garage having supposedly run out of charge. Where was the second Roadster? Well, that one was apparently already sidelined by a problem with its brakes. Top Gear’s opinion of the high performance was, to put it mildly, not what you’d call glowing.

According to Tesla, however, the pair of Roadsters always had more than 20 percent of charge remaining. The braking issue, like the dramatic loss of battery power, was all a carefully orchestrated fabrication made to make the episode more exciting. A representative of Tesla Motors’ U.K. said he’d even caught site of a script before filming had begun, with the entire breakdown scene and comments about the car’s failure all neatly laid out before the drive. Was it true that Top Gear pulled strings behind the scenes in order to orchestrate a better show and harm the image of the fledgling automaker?

The British legal system apparently didn’t think so.Tesla recently had its libel case against Top Gear tossed out of court. Despite Tesla’s claims that the episode directly impacted sales in the U.K., the court decided against the lawsuit and said “reasonable” viewers would not have been misled by the test drive.

Wall Street Journal Not Ready To Turn New LEAF

Another EV test drive leads to, you guessed it, yet another date with a towing company. This time the victim, or culprit (we’ll let you decide), is Naureen Malik, a writer for the Wall Street Journal who didn’t quite complete an estimated 75-mile round-trip voyage from Manhattan to Jones Beach State Park. Theoretically, the LEAF, which has an estimated range of 80-100 miles, should have made the journey with a few miles to spare. To the car’s credit, this time the drama unfolded only 0.8 miles away from its recharging roost back in the city, with nary a tow truck needed to haul it off the streets of trendy SoHo. Instead, the car died, leading Ms. Malik to colorfully refer to the “last mile” of electric driving range as being comparable to walking from death row to the execution chamber.

While stalling out in New York traffic is not high on anyone’s bucket list, comparing the electric power that (nearly) provided enough zero emission motivation for a beach visit, to something that will pump a gazillion kilowatts into your cranium seems, at best, a tad severe.

Nissan Leaf

Top Gear was at it again, this time staging a failed attempt to drive 60 miles in a Nissan LEAF. Data logs showed the car only started with 40 miles of charge.

Top Gear EV Breakdown, Take Two!

The Nissan LEAF makes a second appearance in our list of drained EVs, as does the BBC series Top Gear. If you can believe Jeremy Clarkson actually pays a barber to make his hair look the way it does, well, then you might believe the episode in which a LEAF runs out of battery power after only 60 miles. The only problem is that the show’s hosts, including the curly coiffed Clarkson, all somehow forgot to mention the trip began with roughly 40-percent of battery charge. That would halve the Nissan’s normal driving range to only 40-50 miles, at best, and well short of the final destination.

Except Top Gear apparently didn’t stop there, in a manner of speaking. Data logs indicated the car was driven in loops to further drain the battery and make certain it died on cue. Top Gear’s response to the entire affair has centered on the show’s entertainment value. We’ll wager that Nissan, not to mention LEAF owners and EV enthusiasts, was not amused by the staged antics.

Unfortunately, this list is most likely not finished. When will the next journalist publish a shot of an EV on the back of a flat bed, and describe the misadventures of running of juice?

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