Autos

Tesla vs. the ‘New York Times’: Cars Are Now Gadgets


Tesla CEO Elon Musk waves in front of the Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.

Photograph by Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

Tesla CEO Elon Musk waves in front of the Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.

Late Wednesday night, Tesla Motors (TSLA) issued its much-anticipated response to a scathing New York Times review of its all-electric Model S sedan. In a blog post, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk used data logs gathered from the car to accuse reporter John Broder of outright lies. Broder, for example, complained about freezing inside the car, since he had to turn the heating system off to save electricity and keep driving. Balderdash, says Musk: The data show the cabin had an average temperature of 72F for the majority of the trip.

Broder, in a series of posts, has argued that he followed Tesla’s instructions and that the car simply did not handle the cold weather of the Northeast well. He also claims to have been testing not really the Model S itself, but rather the network of free, superfast charging stations Tesla has started putting up around the country. This is how Broder explains away the baffling circumstances in which he didn’t charge the car while spending the night at a hotel.

The tit-for-tat squabble is entertaining. Musk’s data-heavy beatdown, especially, is great reading.

To me, the real takeaway here is that we’ve reached a moment in which the car has turned into a gadget, and we’re seeing the good and bad that comes with that. A lot of the flaws Broder brings up, such as discrepancies between the car’s estimated range vs. the actual range, come down to software issues. The same can be said for many of the gripes from Model S owners, who have seen their 17-inch touchscreen display act funny or their motorized door handles not work quite right.

Tesla’s software is good, but it’s not working perfectly. The company is issuing over-the-air updates that fix many of these problems. One day your door handle doesn’t work. The next day it does. It’s also been issuing updates that, for example, suddenly allow the cars to charge much faster than they could before by taking advantage of new Tesla supercharging technology. This is a strange new world for car owners.

Guys like Broder and many of the Tesla owners obviously want to see the Model S act as billed. And Musk has said the car is not meant to be some grand beta experiment in which people pay $100,000 to serve as Tesla’s guinea pigs.

But let’s be clear. The Model S has pushed automotive innovation forward by leaps and bounds. It offers space, speed, and safety in a package that outstrips rivals while also introducing a whole new set of computing and fuel technology. You don’t have to stretch to compare the Model S to Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone in terms of a device changing the rules of engagement in its respective field. And let’s all remember that the iPhone has come with its antenna, map, screen, and other fundamental issues.

We’re used to buying cars that at best stay static over time but usually get worse. The Model S seems more similar to the iPhone. It has the chance of getting better (at least for a while) as flaws get fixed and new features arrive.

Some people are willing to live in this fast-moving, imperfect world. Here in Palo Alto, the Tesla Model S has become a common sighting. This is a place full of early adopters who don’t mind paying extra for the latest and greatest gadget—even if it has some glitches. Tesla only needs to sell about 20,000 people on this premise for the Model S to be wildly successful.

Moving forward, though, the company will have to do much better if it’s to make follow on vehicles like the Model X mainstream. The public wants amazing gadgets but is less tolerant of the types of issues the Model S has seen so far. So here’s Tesla’s real moment to prove it’s more Apple and Silicon Valley than Detroit—and to show the world what technology mettle it’s really got.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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