Musk is Digging a Deeper Hole

The internet is abuzz today about the spat between NYT writer John Broder and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla motors. The fight is regarding a test drive chronicled in the pages of the Times. However, according to Musk, the his story is dubious, and his problems are self-wrought:

After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives. While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story. In the case of Top Gear, they had literally written the script before they even received the car (we happened to find a copy of the script on a table while the car was being “tested”). Our car never even had a chance.

The logs show again that our Model S never had a chance with John Broder. In the case with Top Gear, their legal defense was that they never actually said it broke down, they just implied that it could and then filmed themselves pushing what viewers did not realize was a perfectly functional car. In Mr. Broder’s case, he simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running.

Predictably, since Tesla is a darling with the tech crowd, the internet is largely siding with Musk — that the data show Broder was lying. Unfortunately, while the case is likely way overstated, this isn’t even the real problem.

The problem is that Musk is making his car out to be extremely inflexible. Apparently Broder didn’t charge the car properly, or frequently enough. He didn’t drive slowly enough. He didn’t follow low-E procedures correctly.

Are you f-ing kidding me?

I am a “car guy”, so I don’t mind putting up with quirks and pitfalls to drive a car that I enjoy driving (currently an ’87 Supra Turbo), but I am not representative. Most people want a car to do two things for them: start at “A”, and arrive at “B”. People understand that if they need fuel in a gas-powered automobile, it is a minor inconvenience (everywhere; unlike the Tesla story, where there were two Superchargers, and they still take 30 minutes). I don’t doubt that you can have a marvelous time on a long trip with the Model S, but that isn’t the vibe I’m getting from Musk. I’m getting the impression that I need to drive the car exactly as intended, and jump through the correct hoops, or I’m going to end up having a horrible experience. Does that sound like the type of situation that would be amenable to your everyday consumer?

When it comes to automobiles, people implicitly fixate upon tail risk. What if Broder had forgotten to properly charge his car, but instead of writing a NYT piece, he actually had to be at the office for an important meeting? The fact that your car doesn’t stall on a long trip 99.9% of the time is irrelevant if it breaks fails you once. Electricity is not modular the way gasoline, hydrogen, and CNG are and that is why it is not the likely correct fuel for most automobiles most of the time (yet — roads could one day wirelessly power your vehicle!).

In technical jargon; Musk’s goal is to create amplitude in order to bring about a tipping point that would allow the for the dramatic and widespread dispersal of electron fueling stations. That requires electric vehicles in as many hands as possible as quickly as possible. Regardless of the accuracy of Musk’s data analysis, the fact that he is responding to Broder by being a hard-nosed data-driven prick is likely having the opposite effect.

Perhaps he could have consulted an economist?


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