Tesla Model S Review Controversy: Can Elon Musk Vanquish The Electric Car Stigma?

Analysis

on February 18 2013 12:34 PM
Tesla Model S Electric Sedan
NASCAR will introduce two new Tesla racecars on April 7, which will officially debut at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2015. teslamotors.com

What started out as an innocent test drive and review of the 2013 Motor Trend “Car Of The Year,” the Tesla Model S has suddenly become the center of controversy after the test vehicle ran out of fuel on its drive from Washington to Boston.

The New York Times’ reviewer John M. Broder said he had “creeping range anxiety” during his entire drive, and believes the cold weather is what ultimately doomed his trip before he could arrive at his final destination. Tesla Motors and its CEO Elon Musk have vocally refuted the New York Times’ claims, calling them “bogus” and “ridiculous,” citing the vehicle’s own data logs that show excessive speeding and an unplanned detour through “downtown” Manhattan, which was not agreed on for the initial test drive.

The New York Times maintains its review is accurate, but Tesla Motors firmly believes the Times is wrong. It’s innovation versus information, and it’s not quite clear who’s right.

Over the past week, many have come to support Tesla, including customers who have recreated the New York Times test drive from Washington to Boston, committing themselves to the same path and refueling stations and blogging about their experiences. On Friday, CNN’s Peter Valdes-Dapena also attempted the same drive, live tweeting the event and even mocking his rivals at NYT in the process.

 

Room For Improvement

Even though most non-NYT reviewers reached their final destinations in their Model S sedans, unfortunately for Tesla, there are still several kinks to be worked out. Chief among them are the lack of Tesla Supercharger stations (nine in the U.S.), the waiting times at those stations, as well as the car’s battery life in general.

“That 200 mile stretch between Newark, Del. and Milford, Conn., seems needlessly sweat-inducing,” Valdes-Dapena said after his test drive. “It also limits flexibility, reducing the system to simply a way of shuttling cars between two distant points.

“Adding more Superchargers will allow drivers a little more leeway to, perhaps, take a side trip every now and then. (There actually are some really beautiful spots in New Jersey, you know.) Tesla says it's working on getting more Superchargers up and running.”

Test drivers of the Model S have been kind enough to lend their car’s telemetry data to the Web via Twitter, but some of the data we’re seeing is indicative of the prime complaint among users: Distress about the car’s range.

In his review, Broder said he dispensed with “battery draining amenities” like keeping up with traffic and heating his car in the cold winter weather. In CNN’s review, even though the test drive was successful, Valdes-Dapena said that driving the Model S long distances still isn’t a polished process. Even though Tesla sweetens the deal by providing electricity through its Supercharger services for free, the car takes anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour to charge.

“Driving a fully electric car a long, long way still requires forethought, planning and commitment,” Valdes-Dapena said. “Gasoline powered cars just require gasoline.”

Pushing The Electric Car Forward 

Chris Paine, director of the 2006 film “Who Killed The Electric Car?”, told IBTimes that Tesla’s key challenge will be to expand its product line to lower the cost of cars and fleet sales, make money, and stay in the public eye. Even though special interests – specifically car lobbyists and oil companies – helped kill California’s electric car program two decades ago, Tesla can pioneer the electric car in the new millennium with better advertising.

“It’s easy to exploit fears or doubts if you are threatened by a disruptive technology like the electric car, whether in the U.S. or anywhere else,” Paine said. “People are skeptical about buying technology they don't fully understand, especially when it is a big purchase like a car.  For some (including myself) one test drive experience is enough to convince you.  For others, it takes longer or you just don't want to change from what you know and love (even if it runs on imported oil). It's not an overnight transition as makers of horseless carriages discovered a hundred years ago.”

Growing pains are a natural trade-off when trying to spearhead a new technology, particularly one that threatens the status quo, but Paine believes this particular controversy surrounding the New York Times’ review of the Model S will eventually play to Tesla’s favor.

“In the longer run, the details of this controversy will prove secondary to the exposure it gives to the brand and the Model S in particular,” Paine said. “Tesla doesn't yet have the advertising resources of big car companies.  For many reading the story, this will be the first time they see the car or realize how fast and how far the car will go even with cold weather reductions.”

Fortunately, the Model S does have a fair amount of good press. Motor Trend, which bestowed the all-electric vehicle with its “Car of The Year” award, said it “drives like a sports car … but it’s also as smoothly effortless as a Rolls-Royce, can carry almost as much stuff as a Chevy Equinox, and is more efficient than a Toyota Prius,” calling it “perhaps the most accomplished all-new luxury car since the original Lexus LS 400.”

Paine pointed to automotive awards like these, saying the Tesla Model S deserves its accolades as an amazing car, not just an electric-powered one.

“I'd buy a one of these Tesla's over an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes if I was buying a car in that price range,” Paine said. “The Model S is at the apex of what you can do with car technology plus its gasoline-free.”

Ultimately, however, the technology isn't enough. Tesla needs to better advertise the car’s benefits to the public and get consumers to understand why they can't live without a zero-emissions car. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that people thought they could survive without a cellphone.

“Steve Jobs eventually mastered [challenges like] these in the computer business and my hunch is that Elon will too,” Paine said.

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