Wednesday, 20 February 2013

New York Times vs. Tesla

When a New York Times article is disputed for accuracy, you would hope a paper of that standing would ensure than any claimed factual errors are  either refuted or owned up to. But no. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s response to some very strong claims by Tesla CEO Elon Musk does neither. It contains an admission that the writer was sloppy on the details, but throws out an unsubstantiated allegation that Musk’s counter-attack was “sometimes quite misleading”. On what details? I would really like to know. And I am sure a substantial number of NY Times readers would also like to know.

All this is in response to a drive a New York Times writer, John Broder, undertook in Tesla’s top of the range Model S that apparently was a test of the utility of Tesla’s Superchargers, extra-fast charging stations designed to ease the pain of charging batteries on a long trip.

At issue is the factual accuracy of Broder’s report, amounting to a claim that he deliberately set Tesla up to fail.

Let’s be clear where I stand on this.

I am unconvinced of the case for the electric car. Its ideal use case exactly matches that of public transport or (in clement weather) a bicycle: relatively short-range travel in an urban area.

For long trips, an electric car has a severe disadvantage in needing long recharge stops (the Better Place solution, still a work in progress, of swapping batteries may fix that, but it requires battery standards to avoid outlets having to keep a wide range of different ready-to-use batteries).

Another big drawback of electric cars is the high cost of replacing batteries especially in an older car. While there are some ideas to mitigate that including leasing batteries or including cost of replacing the batteries in Better Place-style battery swaps, this is a problem not addressed currently on a systematic basis.

On the plus side, even when using dirty energy, the efficiencies of electric motors are so high compared with internal combustion, you generally come out ahead on emissions, and an electric motor’s full torque from zero speed puts it far ahead of internal combustion. And battery replacement aside, service costs are way lower for electric.

My concern is with journalistic integrity, not a desire to hype electric cars. What Tesla has done is magnificent but is only a small step on the road to cleaner energy travel.

Still unanswered: why claim incorrectly to have crawled at 45mph to conserve energy, and why claim incorrectly to have turned the heat down?

NY Times: ball in your court.

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