New York Times Tesla Controversy: Electric Car Future Strong Regardless Of Tussle

Nearly 100 years ago, Nikola Tesla helped pioneer the idea of transmitting both high-frequency and high-voltage electricity from superstations across North America. 

At first derided for his folly, his work would prove seminal to the adoption of AC current, which powers our lives to this day. Presently, a corporation founded in his name, which has established itself as the world’s premier manufacturer of electric cars, has begun establishing Supercharging stations across the country, paving the way for a grid Nikola could have only dreamed about.  September’s successful test drive of the Tesla Model S from Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles proved the viability of the stations on the West Coast and helped vault the Model S to its position as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 2013. All that was left was to expand, but that’s where things get interesting.

Just as Tesla Motors was ready to roll out its new East Coast Supercharging stations, it found itself embroiled in a controversy with the New York Times directly concerning the quality of its product, and less directly, the future of electric vehicles in America.  The prospect was simple; John Broder of the New York Times, our nation’s flagship newspaper, was prepared to write up a test drive of the Model S from suburban Washington, D.C., to Connecticut utilizing two charging stations along the way. The article seemed like a win-win for all parties, the New York Times as a gatekeeper for an emerging automotive technology, Tesla gaining access to an ideal set of affluent and upper middle class readers who often dominate the early adoption of expensive new technologies.

Enter “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” the unexpectedly negative review that Tesla was unexpectedly prepared for, and a game-changing turn of events that has sparked a sorely needed dialogue on a technology that will come to touch all of our lives in the decades to come.

You can get a full recap of the journalistic back and forth here, but ultimately both Tesla and the New York Times were able to regain most of their prior credibility. In the case of Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, their adoption of remote data controls provided an objective case for why Broder’s piece was either carelessly reported or a case of journalistic misconduct. 

Subsequent test drives along the same stretch also proved that Tesla’s Model S and the Superchargers are viable, and that Broder’s experience was either an anomaly or a staged event. The New York Times was able to recoup some of its credibility through a gamely thorough response from Broder and, perhaps more importantly, a piece by Margaret Sullivan directly addressing the issues of journalistic integrity arising from the ill-fated drive. On the other hand, Broder may have a longer road, if you will, toward rehabilitating his professional reputation.

As the sun sets on this ideological dust-up, we can take more than a few lessons from what has taken place. However, with an eye to the brilliant future that Nikola Tesla once imagined, there are some more prominent than the rest. One is that electric cars will eventually prevail in a market that is not quite ready for them; another is that we’re burying our heads in the sand if we think that the transition won’t be messy, that we can discard old infrastructure and jobs as quickly as new ones are minted, or that the initial gains won’t be concentrated on the privileged few who are in a position to take advantage of them.

But it doesn’t end their either; we don’t have to sit on our hands and wait for engineers and venture capitalists to bring this technology nor the jobs it will create to the masses.  The next wave can be accessible and the benefits more wide-ranging if we recalibrate our expectations to avoid dichotomy and embrace the best of both worlds: the hybrid engine.

Simply put, both long-range electric cars and an electric vehicle transportation sector (especially one integrated with a smart grid) are eminently feasible, long-term goals that can affect everyone. They hold the potential to vastly improve the circulation and density of our cities, fight climate change by easing the transition from fossil fuels, maximize the increasingly scarce resources we have at our disposal, and fundamentally alter entire sectors of our economy. 

It is one of the times where the truth, seemingly pulled from a pulp sci-fi novel, actually stands up to the hype. Though we can’t get completely there in a day, or a year, or 5 years, it turns out that is just fine. As the technology is being scaled and refined, and the market expanding, we come back to our old friend the hybrid engine as the essential link to the electric future.

To fully appreciate why hybrids are so essential, we must appreciate the promise of the electric car. First and foremost, the electric car is the embodiment of clean energy, as a point source, they release zero tailpipe emissions. Furthermore, as inputs to the electric grid from renewable energies such as wind, solar, tidal power increase, power generation, and vehicle transportation can be achieved with a minimum of CO2 emissions. For a world that is currently experiencing severe smog events and trying to stave off dire climate effects like sea level rise, it will come not a moment too soon. Additionally, vehicle batteries are an essential component for a smart electric grid, allowing for decentralized energy storage that make systems more efficient and protect against huge swings that cause blackouts during periods of high demand. Finally, they also make possible a host of other innovations, from driverless vehicles and automated vehicle sharing to traffic management and safety gains that together could transform our daily lives.

Before we are to reach this state of electric utopia, however, we must develop the infrastructure for charging these cars on an even more widespread level. Battery technology must improve to the point where batteries can hold more charge without taking up more space or too much weight. They must also develop manufacturing using materials that leave less of an ecological footprint, and make gains in both charging rates and battery conditioning. And though it might seem simplistic, customers must acclimate to plugging in or otherwise charging a car, a tether that runs counter to many notions of freedom that automobiles have traditionally engendered in our nation’s history.

Hybrids come into play as a viable model for the transition because they combine traditional combustion with electric engines by definition, providing a market for advances in electric technologies while providing a bridge from existing fossil fuel automotive technology. For example, configuring gas stations as one-stop energy stations is a no-brainer in a hybrid marketplace, allowing for a gradual transition rather than simply putting gas stations out of business. Smart grids can be adopted gradually as well, as the infrastructure falls into place, and together they can allow renewable energy to compete on a more even playing field with fossil fuels. The gradual adoption also allows time for the scaling of biofuels to replace fossil fuels as well, putting us on a path toward greater carbon neutrality.

Culturally, switching to more efficient vehicles is not the same as, say, switching to more efficient light bulbs. Sensitivity to the unique role of cars in American culture requires us to use an intermediary, the hybrid, for acclimatization to the new norm: quieter electric vehicles for daily commutes and reserving combustible fuels for recreational vehicles.

Ultimately, the transition will occur between the traditional combustion engine and electric vehicles, but the question remains whether we will embrace it, or make the kind of impossible demands of it in its nascent stages that doom so many promising technologies. We owe it to ourselves to be responsible stewards of the advances, to make incremental progress toward goals of greater economy, safety, and environmental health. Hybrid engines are but one step among many. The controversy over the Tesla test drive may be over, but the hard work in shepherding these advances toward a brighter future has just begun.

Editor's note: to read more about energy and carbon emissions, read Ed Hancox's piece on pollution and clean energy in China.