Electric Car Driving Lessons from Elon Musk and the New York Times

Last week, while reading the latest online comments in the news, blog, and Twitter battle between New York Times reporter John Broder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, I got a call from my 17-year-old daughter. (Broder, as you know unless you were stuck on a cruise ship in the middle of the Gulf with a dead cell phone, ran out of juice during an official test drive of a Tesla Model S. Musk charged that Broder ran down the battery on purpose in order to generate the photo-op of the Model S on a tow truck.) That evening, my daughter had used my car to pick up her brother from an after-school activity and take him out for frozen yogurt. Just as she had arrived at the school, the low-gas-warning light went on. She was a little freaked out; she didn’t know if she would make it to a gas station. What should she do? Having pushed the “empty” limits on that car a few times, I was able to tell her with confidence not to worry, to go ahead with her driving plans and I’d still have plenty of gas the next day, when an errand would take me past my favorite gas station. Simple wisdom, easily imparted, but it wasn’t something she could have figured out from looking in the car manual, which only said, “This warning light in the fuel gauge signals that the fuel tank will soon be empty. Get fuel as soon as possible.” Not particularly helpful.

So I have a little sympathy for Broder, behind the wheel of a car he’d never before driven, though he was in phone communication with Tesla staffers (like my daughter had been with me). And I also can sympathize with Musk and the Tesla support staff, who, now that they are used to driving electric cars, may have forgotten the anxiety of being in an unfamiliar car.

The Elon Musk/New York Times debate did offer a few lessons about how to drive an electric car to maximize range. (Though, for most of us, if or when we drive electric, we’ll probably have to test the limits for ourselves; haven’t we all pushed the limits on our gas engine cars on occasion?) Here’s my takeaway:

In cold weather, put on a sweater. Broder says he turned the heat down, Musk said the car’s sensors showed that Broder turned it up. The point is that using the heater does draw power that could extend range, so if you’re going for a distance record in winter weather, warm yourself with an extra sweater, not the car's heater.

You leave your cell phone plugged in overnight, so why not your car? Much of the trouble Broder had stemmed from the fact that the available charge on the car dropped overnight, due to cold weather. While there’s been a lot of debate over just how badly cold weather affects electric car batteries, it seems to be a problem that’s easy to prevent. Park near an outlet and plug in.

Fill ‘er up. Broder, it seems, pulled the equivalent of a teenager with a nearly empty wallet, trying to limp home while spending the least amount of money possible (“Uh, I’ll just be getting $10 worth.”) If you’re planning to drive an electric car a serious distance, and you’re at a charging station, don’t be in such a hurry, the time you spend then will be time you save later, yadda yadda.

An electric car’s battery is like your mom, it doesn't want you speeding or driving recklessly. Behave yourself; you’ll go further and look at what you'll save in speeding tickets.

The laws of physics apply. That is, as wonderful a technology as regenerative braking is, it cannot produce more energy than it uses. Stop-and-go city driving is still a minus, not a plus (did you really think otherwise, Mr. Broder?)

Some of these lessons seem like common sense, others perhaps are less obvious to new drivers. But not being a new (or old) Tesla driver myself, I asked a neighbor, whose new Tesla I've seen parked on my block, to weigh in. Eric Verwillow, a senior engineer at a major networking equipment company, took delivery of his Model S in December. He doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Broder:

“It doesn't take much to be smarter than NYT reporter John Broder,” Verwillow told me. “All you have to do is let the batteries charge when you plug in and don't start a 60-mile drive with 30 miles of range remaining.” He's not alone. CNN took up Tesla's offer to other journalists to drive the same route, and had none of Broder's difficulties, though still a bit of his range anxiety.

But, in general, Verwillow thought that all this noise about maximizing range was beside the point. “Maybe it's a necessary part of your driver education to find a style of driving that you're comfortable with, and to understand what mileage/range you'll get as a result [of driving that way] but if you let range dominate your driving, you're no longer a good driver.”

For Verwillow himself, worrying about range seems silly. “Except for maybe a couple of times per year, I drive less than 100 miles in a day, usually much less,” he says. “My daily commute is about 10 miles each way. As long as I'll have access to an electric outlet at the end of the day, I can drive like a maniac for those miles and all I'm doing is spending a little more money on electricity to pay for my inefficiency.”

It's good to know I have a neighbor who enjoys driving like a maniac.

Anyway, the kerfuffle between Broder and the Times now seems to have wrapped up, with New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighing in Sunday with the possible last word, essentially, that Broder took the test drive in good faith but used bad judgment. And that Tesla might have provided a little more guidance to a novice driver.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.
 

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