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Tesla vs. New York Times: Did reviewer know data logging was turned on?

Tesla Motors has built a network of charging stations in California and recently completed two on the East Coast.
Tesla Motors has built a network of charging stations in California and recently completed two on the East Coast.

Last week, the New York Times' Automobiles section ran a road trip review of Tesla Motor's new Supercharger network, a limited version of which was recently installed on the East Coast after its debut on the West.

The two Supercharger stations in the East are 200 miles apart (there are six stations in California). The Times' John M. Broder set out to see what it would be like to travel in a Model S sedan — Tesla's latest model, Motor Trend's 2012 Car of the Year  — from Delaware to Connecticut. 

The electricity was free, but it was a bad trip. Broder explained in at times uncomfortable detail everything that went wrong as the Model S misbehaved and served up an abundance of "range anxiety." 

Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, then took to Twitter and CNBC to insist that Broder, not the Model S or the Superchargers, had messed up:

@elonmusk NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.


@elonmusk Tesla blog coming soon detailing what actually happened on Broder's NYTimes "range test". Also lining up other journalists to do same drive.


@elonmusk Tesla data logging is only turned on with explicit written permission from customers, but after Top Gear BS, we always keep it on for media.

Broder answered Musk's tweet stream with a post at the NYT's "Wheels" blog. But what about logging?

This is the episode of the popular British car show "Top Gear" that provoked the data logging protocol. In response, Musk — The DeBord Report's 2012 L.A. Businessperson of the Year — became so outraged that, lacking Twitter, he sued "Top Gear." A court later threw out the suit.

But evidently ever since, Tesla has been turning on its test cars' data logging feature so the company can keep track of what journalists are actually doing when they're tooling around in the car of the future.

This was news to me. I reviewed, quite favorably, a later generation of the Roadster in 2010 with absolutely no idea that Tesla —  based in Northern California with retail locations in the L.A. area — was keeping track of my driving habits and locations. I called and emailed Tesla for comment, but didn't get a reply. 

I called the Roadster Sport "$130,000 of Electric Orange Sex" in the review, which I assume delighted Tesla enough not to complain about my route or skills behind the wheel. And hey, it was a $130,000 car. The company basically flipped me the keys and said "Have fun," but it would have been pretty cocky to assume that Tesla totally trusted me to bring it back.

But when car reviewers get test cars from manufacturers, they generally assume that they aren't being monitored. Electric cars make it easier to do this; they're effectively more like rolling consumer electronic devices than their gas-burning brethren.

In any case, Musk said that Tesla plans to post the information it gathered about Broder's journey on the company blog and invite other journalists to repeat the trip. None of that has yet materialized. 

[UPDATE: Tesla has said that it allows owners to opt-out of the data-logging feature, presumably at purchase. But the Model S owners manual suggests that Tesla makes putting data logging in the "on" position the default setting.]

The bottom line is that electric vehicles (EV) are still at a relatively early stage of development. There are various battery technologies in the market, but Tesla uses a fairly idiosyncratic design: thousands of laptop battery cells wired together. The design has proven itself.

But it's well-established that cold conditions negatively affect EV performance. Manufacturers, such as Honda, usually make this clear to customers.

So it's no surprise that the Model S performed better on its West Coast Supercharger test drive. Of the several EVs I've driven in Southern California, none has really presented any range anxiety issues. 

The most East Coast driving I've ever done in an EV involved a Tesla Roadster — and all I did was take it for a slow spin around a block in Midtown Manhattan.

But the real issue for Tesla and Musk is that the East Coast will presumably be an important market for the Model S,  designed to compete with luxury sedans from Mercedes and BMW.

Tesla built the Supercharger network in secret. It intends to make Model S ownership more convincing, a case that Internet entrepreneur and Friend of Tesla Jason Calacanis has laid out in detail. So it's important that it works as advertised.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.