Tesla vs. NYT feud sheds little light on EV future

As I recounted earlier, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, released vehicle datalogs in response to an unfavorable review of a Tesla S and Tesla's northeast supercharging stations by New York Times reporter John M. Broder. Now Broder has responded in turn. Basically, Broder insisted he didn't deliberately cause any of the problems that left him stranded in Connecticut with a discharged battery. He said he was sometimes given wrong or conflicting information regarding extending range by the Tesla personnel he contacted during the drive. He also noted that he cannot account for some discrepancies between his notes and the data released by Musk, although he said he asked to see the data before completing his review.

It's unlikely we will ever get to the bottom of the discrepancies between Border's notes and the Tesla datalogs, but that's almost beside the point. As Bianca Bosker at the Huffington Post wrote, “Data is supposed to be the authoritative alternative to selective anecdotal recollection, though more data seems in some cases to only make our disagreements more heated, with every party able to marshal a seemingly stronger and tailored case. In Tesla-gate, Big Data hasn't made good on its promise to deliver a Big Truth. It's only fueled a Big Fight.”

She paraphrased David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know and a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as saying, “Observers aren't interested in the Tesla tiff because they care deeply about whether Broder turned down the heat when he said he did, or set cruise control when he claims. Rather, the data is useful to us only as it helps us shape a clear narrative from the data—the story of the smug CEO attacking an innocent journalist, or the tale of the corrupt reporter trying to take down an innocent entrepreneur. Yet hard numbers capture action, not intention, and the conflicting accounts offer no more insight into the 'true story' onlookers want to assemble.”

Unfortunately the “true story” that some observers want to assemble is that Broder's experience emphasizes that electric vehicles represent an inferior technology that can't compete with internal-combustion technology. As I reported elsewhere, that's the view of Joann Muller at Forbes and Charles Lane at the Washington Post, who jumped on Broder's initial test-drive review to criticize EVs and, in Lane's case, investment in EV R&D.

Granted, an EV that requires an hour of charging every 200 miles would not the optimum choice for a drive from Washington D.C. to Boston, unless you enjoy leisurely lunches at I95 service plazas. But there are many niches in which EVs serve just fine—like commuting.

As David Roberts put it in the Grist, the dispute between Musk and Broder “…says roughly nothing about the need for, or the promise of, systemic changes in U.S. transportation. Electric vehicles are one piece of a complex puzzle. They may not 'fulfill their promise' until other parts are in place. All those pieces will coevolve in unpredictable ways.”

Matthew Yglesias at Slate is ready to make a prediction, or at least a recommendation: autonomous electric vehicles. He wrote, “If you imagine a taxi without a human driver, then the main cost is fuel. And cheap fuel is what electric vehicles are really good at.” Yglesias proposes a fleet of autonomous EVs that carry peak-time commuters to work and back during rush hours. In other times, the vehicles can alternate between shuttling people around on nonpeak trips can charging, getting ready for the next peak commute. “This whole fleet of cars designed for intracity travel never needs to develop even the range that the Model S has today,” Yglesias wrote.

Then on weekends and vacations, the commuters using this system can take their ICE cars on long trips. Whether his vision of intracity autonomous EVs comes true or not, it is certainly true that you must “…match the vehicle to the specific needs of the trip.” And the EV will be part of the vehicle mix.

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