In many ways, I respect Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk for his ingenuity. But his handling of the John Broder’s The New York Times review has been just awful. And that’s coming from a guy who likes Musk (the man, not the scent).
For those of you who don’t know, John Broder of The New York Times wrote a review on February 10, 2013. If you didn’t see it, then you can read it here:
Basically, Broder took the new Tesla Model S sedan (a 100% electric car) on a test drive from Washington, D.C. to Boston. But in the end, he ended up having to call a tow truck because the car never made it to Boston. The response was swift, and Elon Musk excoriated Broder in a rebuttal article which you can read here:
Sometimes people can be their own worst nightmares and Musk is proving that these days. Just because your successful in things like PayPal doesn’t mean that you do everything correctly. There is a reason that people hire solid public relations firms. This is one of those times where Musk could have used one of those good PR firms.
Musk thinks that Broder set up the test drive to fail. Why? Because in March 2012, Broder wrote an article in The New York Times talking about the difficulties of the electric vehicle (EV) scene. Musk then did something which any respectable journalist would say is hack writing: he took a single sentence from that article and made it sound like the article was anti-EV. In his vitriolic response, Musk quoted:
“Yet the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate.”
In case you want to read that Broder article, here it is:
Look, we all know that a soundbite can make the nicest guy look like a total jerk by isolating one line or sentence. If you actually read the article, it’s not anti-EV. It’s pointing out clear reasons why the industry is struggling. Also, Musk conveniently forgets to let readers know that Broder wrote that article in March 2012, which was a few months before the Tesla Model S sedan was even retailing in the U.S. Maybe if Broder had driven the Model S before he wrote that article, then he would have been more optimistic about the future of EV.
But here’s the big problem: Musk should shut up and let his car do the talking.
The Model S picked up several big industry awards including Automobile Magazine’s 2013 Car of the Year Award and Motor Trends’ 2013 Car of the Year Award. These are fantastic achievements not just for Tesla but for the future of EV.
Why should Musk shut up? Because he has invested so much of himself into Tesla Motors that he has gotten too emotional. He has become the “helicopter parent” who refuses to stand by and watch a single negative word said about his little Tesla Model S baby.
He can show us all sorts of charts, and I have actually taken the time to go through them. I agree with Margaret Sullivan of The New York Times who in a February 18, 2013 op-ed piece called those charts “sometimes misleading”. One of the ways that they are misleading is that the x-axis (the horizontal one) is done according to distance traveled. I understand why they did it this way. Because if they had instead made the x-axis for time, the curve would not have been as convincing. The point is that Broder probably didn’t take detailed notes, and so some of the times he quoted might not have been completely accurate.
But there are three things to consider. First, I think that Broder kind of expected to have an uneventful journey, and he knew that the car was being tracked by Tesla like the space shuttle (and it was). So, I don’t think that he was preparing to chronicle in minute-by-minute intervals everything that was happening. Second, it’s kind of hard to write down detailed notes while you’re also talking on the phone (and driving) and trying to figure out how not to get stranded on the highway. Third, Broder should be given some leeway here because I don’t think any of us wanted him scribbling detailed notes while he was driving his car on the highway.
The problem that Musk just somehow can’t see is that his rebuttal article hurt the Model S and the EV industry more than it helped it. Musk wrote the rebuttal thinking that if he made it sound scientific enough, people would believe it. But a funny thing happened: it backfired.
It backfired because instead of touting the fantastic features of the Model S, Musk went out to drive a stake through the Broder’s reputation. It became personal. And the things we didn’t see in Musk’s rebuttal are pretty much enough to convince any logical person that Broder wasn’t lying.
Here’s a newsflash for Elon Musk, when you want to write a convincing rebuttal, don’t give us 9 bullet points. Most people’s eyes start glazing over after the third or fourth point.
Second, misdirection doesn’t always work. Musk wrote:
“When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems!”
If you really wanted such an article, then why loan a Model S to The New York Times that you knew was going to be driven from Washington, D.C. to Boston? Why not just provide some info to the writer? The truth is that Tesla loaned the car out because it thought that it could get two articles out of the deal. The first article would talk about how great the Model S and the current Supercharger network of proprietary Tesla charging stations are. The second article would talk about the future advancements in the technology.
Everyone knows that journalism and science have one similarity: you chase down one theory until something interesting pops us that takes you down a different road. In science this happens repeatedly as researchers looking at one hypothesis notice a completely unexpected result and then focus on that result. In journalism, you can start out planning to write about the future advances of a technology, but if there is a sudden major problem, then all bets are off and the journalist has the right to go where the story is.
Another point that no one has seemed to point out are the taped phone conversations between Broder and the Tesla service representatives who tried to assist him when he had trouble on his drive. Since we know from Tesla’s own displays that everything about Broder’s drive was being tracked, why has Tesla not released copies of the phone calls between Broder and the Tesla people who were supposedly helping him? Broder claims that he made several calls trying to figure out how to solve the problem with mysteriously vanishing miles according to his mileage gauge. We know that Tesla has these taped phone conversations because Tesla is like Facebook: they never throw any info away. There is a simple reason why Tesla has not released these taped calls: because those phone calls would support Broder’s account of what happened.
I said before that Musk’s rebuttal and statements about Broder have been a public relations nightmare. Musk has committed a major sin of public relations: you don’t fight the facts, you fight the perception. Musk’s rebuttal just made anyone on the fence about getting an EV car jump off it quickly and land on the side of a hybrid or a 100% fossil-fuel-burning combustion engine.
Why? Because the average person dreams about an EV car that is like a regular gas-combustion car. This means that you can operate it easily, fill it up quickly with energy, and drive it. The car that Broder drove failed on all three of those requirements.
In his rebuttal, Musk writes, “The final leg of his trip was 61 miles and yet he disconnected the charge cable when the range display stated 32 miles.” Seriously, why the heck would anyone want to buy a car where you can detach any cables? Musk goes on to write, “He did so expressly against the advice of Tesla personnel and in obvious violation of common sense.” So, during that part of the drive, Broder magically thought, “Hey, I think that I’ll disconnect the charge cable to help me!” I don’t care what circumstance a driver is in, the need to disconnect anything as scary-sounding as a “charge cable” is a major turn-off for the average consumer.
Second, in another of his 9 bullet points, Musk writes, “Had Broder not deliberately turned off the Supercharger at 47 minutes and actually spent 58 minutes Supercharging…” I didn’t write the rest of that quoted sentence because almost every single person on the fence is going to read that and say, “Huh?” How long does it take to fill up a tank of gas for a sedan? Maybe 5 minutes? And with America as full of people with massive attention deficit problems, you think that any normal person is going to love spending 47 or even 58 minutes at an energy station? That is a tremendous turn-off, even if the electricity is free.
Third, Musk can keep saying, “As the State of Charge log shows, the MOdel S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck.” Here’s a question. If he had energy in the car, why did he even call the flatbed truck? And when the flatbed truck operator arrived, why would the operator have towed the car if it still had enough juice to continue under its own power? The general public will believe that the car just died because that is the fear of everyone who is on the fence about getting an electric car. And let’s not forget that the Supercharger technology is proprietary, so unless you plan on carrying special adapters with you, you are at the mercy of the next Supercharger station for your energy. This is exactly what we don’t want to hear.
In the end, the more I read, the less interested I am in getting an EV. I live in the cold Northeast, and I have seen numerous car batteries not start on very cold winter days. And although that might not happen with Tesla’s Model S, there is something in Broder’s article about waking up the next morning (on Day 2 of his journey) and seeing his State of Charge gauge showing significant drainage while sitting in the cold at night that resonates with the average person. We think, “Damn, if it can happen to the battery of our gas-combustion cars, what the heck will severe cold weather due to the battery of an all-electric car?”
Many articles have talked about one solution being that Broder should have received training from Tesla about how to operate the car before he drove it. That also is a strike against it. One of the reasons why Apple products are so popular is that you don’t have to know anything about computers or smartphones to quickly figure out how to use them. Heck, how many people ever read their gas-combustion car manuals? So, the idea of requiring training for how to use a vehicle is a major turn-off.
CNN did a follow-up piece shortly after Musk’s rebuttal, and it showed that there were no problems. But then people started arguing that the CNN drive was flawed because the temperature was 10 degrees fahrenheit warmer and it was done in one day (Broder took 2 days). For the average person, this is another major turn-off. How many of us are going to drive from Washington, DC to Boston in one day? So, the CNN piece just made it look like the car will function properly if you are a masochist who loves to take long 8-9 hour drives.
And then there’s the real killer of the article which is what Tesla has been hiding: the taped recordings of the phone conversations between Broder and the Tesla representatives. Again, people love Apple products because if you don’t understand how to use it, then you contact an Apple person who will give you a 1-on-1 tutorial. But in Broder’s case, the fact that Musk has not released any of the taped conversations can only point to one thing: the Tesla reps gave Broder bad info that contributed to his mishaps during his journey. Man, it’s bad enough when you have to deal with the idiots that you get connected to when you buy a product and it has a problem. But the last thing you want to do is be driving at night on a dark road, watching your remaining miles disappearing quickly and worrying that the EV customer rep is not reading stock phrases off of some cheat sheet. And what makes it even more worrisome is that if someone as important as a Times reviewer was getting such bad help from Tesla’s reps, then what happens when normal mortals need technical assistance? That’s a scary thought.
What was the better course of action for Musk? Keep the message going out to the public as a very positive one. Loan out Model S sedans to other different news outlets. Have them test it and then write their own rebuttals to Broder. Look like a CEO with complete confidence in his product rather than appearing as someone scared that his baby might have a defect.
I’ve never driven the Model S, but judging by the awards its received and all the good press, it looks to represent a real leap forward for the EV industry. One negative article would have been quickly forgotten when followed by a slew of positive ones. But by prolonging the conversation about what happened to Broder, the only thing that Musk really accomplished was to bring up all the long-standing fears that people have about switching to an all-electric vehicle. It’s a shame.