An electric car should still be a car

A few days ago, The New York Times published a story by John Broder of a test drive in the Tesla Model S, an electric car by the company behind the Tesla Roadster. The story was mainly reporting about Tesla’s new charging stations they’d opened up and whether it was possible to drive between Washington and Boston, especially during cold weather (batteries operate less efficiently in colder climates).

It didn’t go well, at one point the car ended up on the back of a recovery vehicle. Tesla, no stranger to attempts at defending themselves from scathing reviews of their vehicles, quickly dismissed Broder’s claims as “lies” and has since published their rebuttal, complete with graphs and charts and things.

However, Rebecca Greenfield over at Atlantic Wire has found a few issues with Tesla’s rebuttal. Some parts of the rebuttal seem to be missing data (such as GPS) or, as with the question of cabin temperature, down to exact times being reported by both parties.

In any case, all of the above has made for a great read over the last few days. However, no matter who you believe, Tesla doesn’t come off too favourably here and not just for the over-zealous blog post and tweets from Tesla founder Elon Musk that calls the article fake.

I don’t have much interest in cars but I am always fascinated to read about the future of the automotive industry. You’d have to be a fool to believe that petrol-powered cars will be around for the foreseeable future. However, for the tens of millions of drivers in the world, when that time comes a car that uses an alternative fuel still needs to act the same as a car with an internal combustion engine, you can’t just undo a hundred year habit.

The only reason the QWERTY keyboard layout was invented was to try and equally space typewriter keys to prevent the keys from getting jammed. There are actually keyboard layouts such as Dvorak that theoretically are more efficient – but we don’t use them. With the Tesla, no matter how you look at it, it requires driving it in a slightly different way. One particular part of the NYT story that bothered me was this:

Tesla’s New York service manager, Adam Williams, found a towing service in Milford that sent a skilled and very patient driver, Rick Ibsen, to rescue me with a flatbed truck. Not so quick: the car’s electrically actuated parking brake would not release without battery power, and hooking the car’s 12-volt charging post behind the front grille to the tow truck’s portable charger would not release the brake. So he had to drag it onto the flatbed, a painstaking process that took 45 minutes. Fortunately, the cab of the tow truck was toasty.

I see the parking brake (handbrake to us Brits) as a fundamental part of the car that should be able to operate regardless of whether the car has power. That’s not the case so something like running out of juice, which is likely to happen to an average motorist, could be very costly if your local AA recovery guy doesn’t know what to do. Furthermore, if it can’t be disengaged without power, can it be engaged?

At the end of the day all electric vehicle problems suffer from the same fundamental flaw – there just isn’t the recharging infrastructure that even remotely compares to refuelling. Between here and my girlfriend’s parents house (about 250 miles away) there isn’t a single charging station so every EV currently available in the UK is not an option for me unless I were to go hybrid. EV companies such as Tesla need to focus primarily on rolling out the charging stations and make the EV as simple as possible.

I don’t think Broder set out to intentionally write about a negative experience. I think he tried to use the Tesla as a normal vehicle (though whether this was accurately communicated between him, Tesla and the readers is a matter for the rest of the Internet to decide), which it isn’t – and therein lies the problem. It’s not a normal vehicle. There area certain rules to follow about how to charge and maintain the battery in the vehicle and other factors that have to be considered that drivers today just don’t think about. With an EV, you still have to plan your journey accordingly and make sure that there’ll be a charging station on the way. Moreover, it takes some time to charge (depending on if you are using a standard charge station or one of Tesla’s supercharger stations) so budgeting for charge time is quite alien. Add it all up and it’d be like Apple releasing the new Mac that was amazing in every way, but it only came with the Dvorak keyboard layout. I don’t want to have to spend several hours studying the car manual and constantly be worried about charging and running “best practices”.

Tesla are the ones driving the EV industry and they need to lead by example. They don’t just need to make cars easy, they need to be idiot proof.