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article imageOp-Ed: Electric cars, $5 billion, and the NYT catfight with Tesla

By Paul Wallis     Feb 13, 2013 in Technology
New York - Electric cars aren’t taking off in the US despite huge funding. A lousy market image and performance issues aren't helping. There’s a public spat between a New York Times correspondent, John M Broder, and Tesla which is a road map of the issues.
Broder, who seems to be one of the more open-minded (and not corporate-cossetted) journalists covering EVs, gave a rather grim, but obviously not imagined report regarding his snail-like, frequently-interrupted drive in the Tesla car. Tesla responded with a barrage of criticism of the report.
The Broder article in The New York Times recounts his Odyssey-like adventures with the much-hyped Tesla model S car of the year, or whatever it's being called:
As I crossed into New Jersey some 15 miles later, I noticed that the estimated range was falling faster than miles were accumulating. At 68 miles since recharging, the range had dropped by 85 miles, and a little mental math told me that reaching Milford would be a stretch.
I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic. I turned the climate control to low — the temperature was still in the 30s — and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour (the speed limit is 65). Buicks and 18-wheelers flew past, their drivers staring at the nail-polish-red wondercar with California dealer plates.
Thoughtful and freezing, Broder made his way into New York, with a litany of misadventures and more than a little basis for complaint by the time he arrived at Milford with the car on a flatbed truck because it ultimately died after staggering along at 45mph then shutting down. Not a pretty picture.
Fortunately for Tesla, Mr Broder didn’t mention the issues related to any underperforming car on American roads or any personal risk he may have experienced while driving what was evidently a lame and limping duck. Other writers wouldn’t be so kind. Or anywhere near so tolerant.
Instead, Broder moved on and focused on the slowly emerging EV industry, including the huge money flying around. The wider picture is looking downright unholy at the moment. Tesla’s temper tantrum at Broder will go the way of all corporate denials into a justly deserved oblivion, but the big issues are positively gruesome.
Performance of electric cars is the issue. It’s the only show in town. It’s the real “killer on the road” for the vehicle class. Even highly motivated Green Power advocates have been demanding, with excellent reason, credible performance.
Tesla Model S Sedan - winner of Motor Trend 2013 Car of the Year award.
Tesla Model S Sedan - winner of Motor Trend 2013 Car of the Year award.
Tesla Motors
Electric cars have a serious market image problem. Economically, they make sense, but they’re competing with vehicles which base their image entirely on performance. Broder found and documented one of the big issues with electric cars- The range/performance/reliability equation. Drivers can’t afford to guess about these things. The roads, particularly in cold weather, are dangerous enough without “Will we ever get there?” as the defining motif for a journey.
Tesla’s response is simply going to annoy EV advocates who know better. Yes, there are design issues. Yes, efficiency is the key to market success. Yes, all core issue flaws need fixing. The sky, for those wondering, is also blue, and the grass is green.
Sydney Morning Herald took up the tale after Broder’s epic journey and the fallout from Tesla and the $5 billion in funding at stake. This quote explains the level of maturity involved in managing the issue:
Broder's trip turned into a nightmare, including a stretch with the conked-out car riding the back of a flatbed truck.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk fired back this week, tweeting that Broder's report is a "fake" and that "vehicle logs" show he "didn't actually charge to max and took a long detour."
The Times is standing by its story. My take is that even if Musk is 100 per cent right and Broder is 100 per cent wrong — which I doubt — Musk loses.
Who wants a $101,000 car that might die just because you feel like taking "a long detour"?
Now a bit more information related to EV market image-
… Takeshi Uchiyamada, the "father" of the Toyota Prius: "Because of its shortcomings — driving range, cost and recharging time — the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars."
The makers of the all-electric Nissan Leaf have also muted their enthusiasm after disappointing sales.
A bit of analysis-
(For the record, I’m a long-time environmentalist. I’m all for electric cars. I’m therefore not in any way impressed with corporate bull, which can be shoved wherever necessary on request, and with great enthusiasm.)
The original cars weren’t gas burners. They were electric. The technology of the times couldn’t manage the battery issues, and they were ultimately lost to history in the rise of the Model T Ford.
The current design and power issues are comparatively inexcusable, like the eminently avoidable cold weather issue, a true no-brainer, could be easily beaten by basic insulation. The recharge issues simply mean that a different option is required. A charged electromagnetic turbine can run without any power at all, for example. Two permanent electromagnets could easily run a basic turbine. Simply charge the magnet, not the drive.
The other design issues are even less impressive. Some EVs are apparently designed for dwarves. I know at least one American car anyone 6 foot would have to learn to love on a sexual basis just to get into the thing. Performance is OK for urban driving, but the box is all wrong.
The Tesla included some onboard electronic amenities, but at a natural cost in power no engineer would voluntarily overlook. Amateur Hour blunder or corporate presentation crap? Arguably, the power consumption of the non-drive systems was simply left out of basic equations from the look of Broder’s report. Unarguably, the cumulative effect of power drain was to KO the car.
Consider ye, O noble reader, the virtues of the electric quad bike. It soweth not dissension, even with small, almost primeval batteries. It worketh, and it driveth the urban consumer without toil or risk to life, sanity and limb.
Consider ye also the requirements of the modest and unassuming consumer Schlepp-mobile. It goeth unto work, unto shopping, unto school and sundry short trips. How damn difficult can that possibly be? Not this difficult, and at this fantastic cost of $5 billion.
Basic marketing, the famous Four Ps, happens to include Product. The product isn’t up to basic performance requirements. There are any number of ways to deal with this situation, and they’re not particularly high tech. Maybe the industry would like MIT or someone else who knows what they’re doing to hold its hand?
What’s wrong with a power plant, instead of batteries, for example? If you ever expect to see electric freight on the road, batteries can’t do it. You can run a generator on any damn thing, for God’s sake.
What about supercapacitors, which have been on the rounds in electrical engineering for years? They’re a thousand times more efficient than batteries.
What about simple fan belt recharge, as developed by Australia’s RMIT some years back? Yes, it’s how motorists who love their cars very much charge conventional batteries, with a fix for EVs.
Suggestions for the EV industry-
Sales and corporate- Shut up for once in your damn lives and go to work on the fixing the catastrophic market image you’ve created.
Techs- Get to work on the fixes, there are a lot of options as outlined above, and some good IP dollar values for those involved.
Engineers- Get some colored crayons and explain the design fixes.
Journalists and environmentalists- Zero tolerance of any more screw-ups. Broder got it right. Bull is not in demand. Facts are. NYT is standing by the story firmly, and with good reason. This is too important for more mistakes. If these guys want to kill their own products, they can go with them, but they can’t be allowed to kill the idea. This is too important for denials and delusions.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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