Wednesday, February 20, 2013

So, you like the juice, eh? Juice is good, eh?

The electric car is the future of personal transportation.

Any movie you watch in which the future is depicted, cars are electric. That's just the way it is.

Like many things – transporters, FTL travel, and medscanners, to name a few – electric cars are presented as whole cloth, with no explanation as to why or how they manage to work and, most frequently, defy the laws of physics.

But we geeks are nothing if not hopeful, so we always agitate in grand fashion when one of our sci-fi tropes gets close to reality.  Well, except talking computers. I never see anyone get excited about talking computers.  You would think geeks would get excited about that, but no.  I imagine it's our secret dread of having to hold down a conversation at work here.

I digress.

Chevy EV1Up to now, we've had precious little to choose from in the arena of electric cars.  The EV1 was a moderate flop, viewed by some as a good try and others as a misguided failure. Hybrid cars have taken another crack at it, with the Toyota Prius leading the pack, and other, more interesting offerings like the Fisker Karma following in its tracks.

But our geek juices don't flow for the "almost but not quite" feeling you get from a hybrid. Yes, they have amazing mileage when you treat them right, reduced emissions, are cheaper to operate if operated right, and so forth. But they're not really electric cars, not the science fiction toys that we want to be in when firing our phasers at aliens as they buzz us in their flying saucers.

(We gots issues)

Setting the Stage

In 2003, a company called Tesla Motors was founded by Elon Musk, one of the cofounders of Paypal (thus explaining his large and prominent bankroll).  The vision for the company immediately stoked geek flames around the world; nothing less than the ultimate goal of having an affordable electric car available for everyone.

Tesla RoadsterEverything starts small, and Tesla was no different, starting with the Tesla Roadster, nothing less than an all-electric sports car. With ferocious acceleration and acceptable range, it put Tesla on the map and attracted just the sort of attention to get partners, investors, and potential customers to line up.

The Roadster also garnered some unwanted attention, too, but not because of any problems it had. Not directly.  Famed and/or infamous BBC automotive show Top Gear tested the Roadster on their track, and ended up trashing its mileage estimates soundly.

"Although Tesla say it will do 200 miles we have worked out that on our track it will run out after just 55 miles and if it does run out, it is not a quick job to charge it up again." – Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear, 2008

Clarkson was first to praise the car's performance, and first to point out that nobody's mileage estimates ever survived a drive on the Top Gear test track. They drive in a decidedly un-recommended fashion, trashing tires, transmissions, and batteries alike. The test track segment is to test performance, nothing more.

While he did praise the performance, however, they stood fast on is mileage issue, and Elon Musk pretty much went mad over this. They sued Top Gear, twice, and were thrown out of court, for Top Gear had an ace in the hole: while the cars that were provided for the show's taping were closely coddled and monitored by Tesla, Top Gar had gone out and bought and tested a different car weeks before, and that was where they derived the actual data from. This did not stop Tesla, or rather, Musk. But the courts did.

Future Forward

Tesla SHere we are in 2013, and the scene plays out again. The New York Times was approached by Tesla for a review of the Tesla S, a coupe offering, along with the Tesla "Supercharger net", a network of charging stations for electric cars that can fully charge a car in around an hour.

The road trip and review, which took place in Winter, was not a raging success, and Musk, as he did with Top Gear,  accused the review of being "a fake".

In Top Gear's case, the team was quite familiar with dealing with pettish personalities (they do, after all, review Italian sports cars along with American electrics). They had the power and stability of the British Empire behind them, and they are incredibly competent at the whole driving and reviewing and gathering facts thing. So, Musk could threaten and cajole all he wanted, they were having none of it.

The New York Times, however, is a shadow of its past, seemingly more a collection of bloggers with financial backing than the guardian of the Fourth Estate that they used to be. And thus they can get a little bit timid when pushed. And Musk pushed. He sounded the fanboy whistle and an army of well-heeled geeks started spamming the airwaves with anger and recreations of Broder's trip and, well, just a mob scene, really.  Meanwhile, Musk continued to whip it up.

So it's no surprise that the NYT threw Broder under the (electric) bus here. They do not have the capital of the BBC or the NYT of the past, and cannot just go out and buy a Tesla S and carry out their own review without the guidance, oversight, aid, and, potentially, interference of Tesla Motors.  They have to rely on the good graces of companies like Tesla to test the big-ticket items, because they just don't have the deep pockets they once had.

The data themselves are inconclusive.  Musk's attempts to paint the data logs on the machine in an unflattering light were only partially successful, but they do reveal some driving habits that can easily be interpreted to be malicious. 

I tend to go along with the "Broder wasn't paying attention to his instructions" interpretation. Broder was under the impression that he was allowed to test this car as if it were just another car, and that he should be able to get in, drive to his destination, no fuss, no muss, no bother. Other test drivers followed the directions given by Tesla engineers in great detail, and had greater success, but considering that some of the things done were such as overriding safety interlocks, I have deep, deep suspicions.  The fanboy mentality has a way of destroying reality in many ways, and moving otherwise reasonable people into irrational courses.

We're just getting started

I have no doubts that Tesla will be able to achieve the goal of an affordable electric car for all. I don't expect instant success and neither should Musk.  Instead of creating all this negative drama around his company, he should be using these setbacks to define new goals to meet.  His, well, tantrums are far more damaging than the NYT or Top Gear reviews ever were.

His other company, SpaceX, has had a lot of success lately, but they, too, have gotten some negative press. Nobody remembers what about. What everyone remembers is Elon Musk's reaction.  He's PR poison, and he should be grateful that the US was willing to overlook his unprofessional behavior and award the contracts they have.  The could easily have decided otherwise based on his behavior alone.

This, Elon Musk, is your legacy, if you don't watch it.

"One detail Sullivan didn't address is something of a well-kept secret in tech journalism: Musk is a genius, a highly successful serial entrepreneur, and indisputably an important figure doing great things. But he also has a nasty habit of busting the balls of reporters who are acting in good faith, when the reporting they produce includes any criticism of SpaceX or Tesla." – Xeni Jarden, Feb 19 2013

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