Did N.Y. Times Reporter Deliberately Sabotage Tesla Model S Road Test?

New York Times reporter John Broder recently wrote of a harrowing experience test driving the Tesla Model S, but data logs taken during the test drive suggest he may have sabotaged the test drive for the sake of a more provocative story.

Broder's review of the Model S had little positive to say about the electric vehicle that has garnered Car of the Year recognition from several leading automobile magazines. According to Broder, the car seriously underperformed in cold weather. His devastating review reported that the battery drained so rapidly that even though he drove excruciatingly slowly and turned off the heat, the car still died before making it to one of Tesla's Supercharger stations. Broder was forced to call a tow truck.

Tesla seemed to be facing its first public relations quagmire after a string of great reviews, including in the Times last September. Apart from its upmarket pricing (it retails for between $52,400 and $72,400, depending on battery strength), no one had found fault with the vehicle until Broder.

In naming Model S its Car of the Year, Motor Trend wrote that the vehicle "is one of the quickest American four-doors ever built. It drives like a sports car, eager and agile and instantly responsive. 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. Oh, and it'll sashay up to the valet at a luxury hotel like a supermodel working a Paris catwalk. By any measure, the Tesla Model S is a truly remarkable automobile..."

And of vast significance for the future of the industry is this additional fact: In its 64-year history, Motor Trend has awarded its most prestigious honor to 63 vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

So when Broder panned the vehicle for failing to accurately display its remaining range while grossly underperforming, many commentators were surprised. Still, the story ran in the New York Times, the 162-year old, 108 Pulitzer Prize winning, "All the News That's Fit to Print" paragon of journalistic integrity. Surely the paper of record had gotten its facts straight.

Unfortunately for Broder and the Times, Tesla kept a data log of the drive, and Broder's story just didn't add up. In a blog post, the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors Elon Musk laid out a series of facts that contradicted Broder's version of events.

First, the Model S battery never ran out of charge at any time, even when Broder called the tow truck. Second, while Broder claimed he set cruise control to 54 mph and was ultimately forced to limp along at a paltry 45 mph, he in fact drove between 65 mph and a speed limit-exceeding 81 mph for most of the trip. When Broder said he turned the temperature down, he in fact turned it up, and enjoyed a toasty average cabin temperate of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even more bizarrely, when he reached Tesla's Milford, Conn. Supercharger station (after driving the car hard and taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a lift), the mileage display said "0 miles remaining." Instead of plugging the vehicle in, Tesla's data log shows that Broder drove in circles for over half a mile in the parking lot, and the car still didn't die.

Was Broder intentionally trying to sabotage the car so he could be the first reviewer to pan the Model S? That's what Musk thought. "When I first heard about what could at best be described as irregularities in Broder's behavior during the test drive," he wrote, "I called to apologize for any inconvenience that he may have suffered and sought to put my concerns to rest, hoping that he had simply made honest mistakes. That was not the case... When the facts didn't suit his opinion, he simply changed the facts."

Moreover, Broder is on record for personally disliking electric vehicles. "The state of the electric car is dismal," he wrote last March, "the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate." Furthermore, as a commenter on Reddit pointed out, Broder is not a car expert but instead writes extensively about the oil industry and pipelines.

Broder has since published a rebuttal defending his original story. Interestingly, he confirmed that Musk called him before the article went up to apologize for the car's poor performance. According to Broder, however, Musk added that the East Coast charging stations should be 140 miles apart, rather than the current 200 miles, because traffic and temperature are both more extreme on the East Coast than the West Coast.

Musk tweeted this week that Tesla does indeed plan to install more Superchargers on the East Coast in the near future, which will make this debate mostly moot. Still, one wonders whether Broder had an axe to grind with Tesla, and whether the Times gave him the opportunity to grind it.

Image credit: Al Abut, Flickr