02.21.2013 - by Kirk Brown
Lessons from a Test Drive Disaster

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has now weighed in on the famous John Broder Model S test drive with a “careless” verdict. A public editor review of any story is notable; for the Times to review the story speaks volumes about this moment for electrification. The carelessness in Broder’s story was confirmed by multiple test drives along the same stretch that yielded a better result.

Based on input from many of our S owners, we had questioned Broder’s claims, too – particularly ones about the interior cabin temperature and his driving speed that were contradicted by the data logs – and had called the drive fake. We take that back and accept that Mr. Broder was simply careless.

That the initial story and accompanying picture of the car on the flatbed could make its way into the Times speaks to how deeply it resonated with the preconceived notions of the editorial staff that passed it along to publication. While this may in retrospect serve as a coming out moment for electrification, EV advocates must recognize that popularity creates a paradox – as the cars become ever more popular, the background expertise that first-time drivers bring to the cars will likely continue moving lower and lower. With that, we offer these lessons learned:

  • Car manufacturers must do a better job of systematically preparing reporters for taking cars on test drives. If you are too busy to staff the journalist in question, you are too busy to be lending out cars. Period. The industry should develop a systematic approach for making fleets of vehicles available to leading outlets, with support teams ready to answer questions, on an ongoing basis.
  • Owners again demonstrated their capacity to influence the conversation on plug-ins by leveraging their first person experience. As drivers, we must remember our manners even when the reporting is poor. We are trying to popularize an experience we already know is extraordinary – let’s not accidentally scare off potential new drivers by not always remembering them as we write/respond to information.
  • It appears that the ‘S can leak charge – and range – if left untended for stretches when it is extremely cold. While the plug is an obvious answer, our technical folks hope Tesla examines that issue closely and reports on a resolution.
  • Plug In America struggled internally with how to address the dual dynamics with this story. We don’t need to make false claims about the cars to underscore that they are better than older, traditional alternatives. Still, long distance driving is not the sweet spot for plug-ins given recharge time and infrastructure needs. Yet this story clobbered the facts, so we – and others – spoke up. That said, we recognize the valid point from many in our midst that we don’t need long-distance test drives to demonstrate the benefits of plug-ins.
  • A repeat of the drive on Tuesday by CNBC appeared to boost Tesla’s stock real-time as the positive progress was shown on air.

Times are changing. Let’s take these lessons learned to make certain they keep changing for the better.

2 comments on “Lessons from a Test Drive Disaster”
  1. Thomas says:

    When I drive a tractor, I’m not expecting it go from 0 – 60 in under ten seconds, when I drive a Mini Cooper, I’m not expecting to be able to haul a boat up a mountain. Why are people’s expectations do drastically different when it comes to Electric cars? First of all, from what I understand the guy drove the car around in circles for a while before he measured how much charge there was, which eliminates any credibility he has as a reporter. But even if he was honest, shouldn’t the report be “Wow! I just drove like 300 miles without using any gasoline! This is amazing!”, and not whining that the air conditioning wasn’t perfect. Electric cars have made huge strides in the past decade, but in all honestly I think they’re still in their infancy. Electric cars have no where to go but up, and if one reporter doesn’t want to drive one he doesn’t have to, but I don’t see the point in trying to discourage others who are be interested. He should have had different expectations going into the experiment.

  2. Richard says:

    A reporter for Kelley Blue Book, inspired by the Broder drive and the kerfluffle around it, decided to borrow a Tesla Model S in Hawthorne, CA, and drive it to Vegas.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OWhAJz90tg

    Another reporter. Coincidentally, another detour. Another report that yes Virginia.. electric cars aren’t magic and need to be charged up just like any other electronic device.

    We can’t blame the reporter for having to take a detour when he caught a screw in the tire. Stuff happens.

    But we can question yet another reporter’s overarching assumption that a long distance drive is the best evaluation of an electric car’s utility to its typical owner.

    There is some balance at least in this video. On the way back, when the reporter has actually charged the car up sufficiently, the truth comes out. “This is the first time.. we’re entirely unencumbered by the issues of range or time.” Yes! This is what a typical driver’s day is like. The rush of adrenaline from instant “oh sh!*^t” torque. The clean, quiet ride. This is what an electric car is 99% of the time.

    Don’t report so much on the edge cases, reporters. Plug in drivers for the most part have jobs. We don’t drive to Vegas every day, we drive to work.

    I guess it’s too much to ask a reporter to report on how the car performs on a normal commute, because then the reporter wouldn’t have his junket to Vegas (which he ultimately reached just fine in the Model S, thank you very much)

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