Don’t Bring BS to a Data Fight

By Mike Rothman

Thanks to a heads-up from our Frozen Tundra correspondent, Jamie Arlen, I got to read this really awesome response by Elon Musk of Tesla refuting the findings of a NYT car reviewer, A Most Peculiar Test Drive.

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.

The logs show again that our Model S never had a chance with John Broder.

Logs? Oh crap. You think the reviewer realized Tesla would be logging everything? Uh, probably not. Then Musk goes through all the negative claims and pretty much shows the reviewer to be either not very bright (to drive past a charging station when the car clearly said it needed a charge) or deliberately trying to prove his point, regardless of the facts.

I should probably just use Jamie’s words, as they are much better than mine. So courtesy of Jamie Arlen:

It’s one of those William Gibson moments. You know, where “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” As more “things in the world” get smart and connected, Moore’s Law type interactions occur. The technology necessary to keep a Tesla car running and optimized requires significant monitoring and logging of all control systems, which has an unpleasant side effect for the reviewer.

The kicker (for me) in all of this is the example that the NYT writer makes of himself: Sorry dude, the nerds have in-fact inherited the earth – if you want to play a game with someone who excels in the world of high-performance cars and orbital launch systems simultaneously, you need to be at least as smart as your opponent. Mr. Broder – you’ve cast yourself as Vizzini and yes, Elon does make a dashing Dread Pirate Roberts.

Vizzini. Well played, Mr. Arlen. Well played. But Jamie’s point is right on the money – these sophisticated vehicle control systems may be intended to make sure the systems are running as they should. But clearly a lot can be done with the data after something happens. How about placing a car at the scene of a crime? Yeah, the possibilities are endless, but I’ll leave those discussions to Captain Privacy. I’m just happy data won over opinion in this case.

UPDATE: It looks like we will get to to have a little he said/she said drama here, as Rebecca Greenfield tells Broder’s side of the story in this Atlantic Wire post. As you can imagine, the truth probably is somewhere in the middle.

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Regardless of the final outcome of this fight, I’m just loving the part where the argument is taking place in public and is about actual data. We may never know what really happened but it feels like a huge step in the right direction for public discourse….

By David Mortman

@glenn, all of your points are well taken, and as the echo chamber has flipped flopped over the last 24 hours, it’s clear there are shades of gray on both sides. Broder’s explanations are plausible, though still ill-advised behavior.

And that’s the challenge with many “road tests” or product reviews or anything. They don’t always reflect real world conditions, and therefore can provide misleading and inconsistent findings.

I also agree that the privacy implications of control systems monitoring everything will need to be dealt with. Obviously some services like LoJack have been able to do this for a long time, but not disclosing such is problematic, though perhaps they did in the review agreement. We can’t know that without seeing the agreement.

Anyhow, good food for thought. Thanks for the comment.


By Mike Rothman

a) I find it creepy that Tesla logged everything without permission, regardless. That should have been disclosed, and apparently wasn’t.

b) Publishing data as poorly presented charts (not raw information that can be downloaded) and using image-based annotations doesn’t allow decent analysis.

c) The annotations have appreciably false/spin interpretations. Many callouts point to the wrong data or ignore data that matches up with Broder’s statements.

d) No sensible person can argue that Broder’s test conditions were reasonable, but he presented what those conditions were. He wasn’t trying to run out of charge; but he took no steps that a normal driver might to ensure not running out of charge.

e) The data supports and Tesla essentially confirms that its high-end vehicle has severe problems with moderate distance in cold driving conditions.

f) Recharging remains a bear. There’s no way to cut it. The time required certainly shaves some of the fun off the driving.

g) When is a two-mile detour (or thereabouts) a significant detour? Musk repeatedly refers to it, without noting that it’s a tiny tiny percentage of the overall distance.

h) Why does Tesla phone support provide such bad and inconsistent advice at times?

By Glenn Fleishman

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