Fight Between Tesla and New York Times Raises Privacy Concerns


  • Tesla Model S Picture

    Tesla Model S Picture

    The battle between Tesla Motors and the The New York Times goes beyond a dispute over a negative review. | February 13, 2013

Just the Facts:
  • The New York Times has mounted a vigorous defense of its negative review of the Tesla Model S and the automaker's Supercharger stations, telling Edmunds "we will not pull our punches when reviewing cars."
  • The fight between Tesla and The New York Times raises privacy concerns for automakers and car reviewers.
  • Tesla's computer software in the car effectively allows it to track a reporter's movements in real time.

NEW YORKThe New York Times has mounted a vigorous defense of its negative review of the Tesla Model S and the automaker's Supercharger stations, telling Edmunds "we will not pull our punches when reviewing cars."

The fight between Tesla and The New York Times raises privacy concerns for automakers and car reviewers.

Tesla's computer software in the car effectively allows it to track a reporter's movements in real time.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk became incensed over the unflattering review in Sunday's Automobiles section of the Times, calling the account a "fake" and saying the reviewer ignored explicit charging and driving instructions from Tesla personnel. Tesla also said it was able to track the reporter's movements in the car, noting such things as a detour and driving over the speed limit.

The New York Times says the review by John M. Broder is one of its most linked-to stories. A blog post published by Broder on Tuesday defended the review.

"My account was not a fake," Broder wrote. "It happened just the way I described it."

In the review, Broder called his trip along Tesla's East Coast electric highway "disappointing" and said the test car ended up stranded off Interstate 95, requiring the service of a flatbed truck to get to a Tesla Supercharger.

In a Tuesday phone interview with Edmunds, New York Times auto editor James Cobb said Broder "is a highly respected reporter who works in the Washington bureau. He is one of the best reporters I know."

Despite the attack on Broder by Musk, Cobb said: "We will not pull our punches when reviewing cars."

The dispute goes beyond Musk's anger and tweets against Broder and The New York Times. Tesla says it was able to track Broder's movements in the Model S, noting a detour into Manhattan and the car's speed. Such an ability to scrutinize a reporter's actions behind the wheel has raised questions in the automotive media about the effect of monitoring tactics on reviewers. Reviewers essentially represent the public, which does not have a chance to conduct lengthy test drives of new vehicles.

"Does it have a chilling effect?" Cobb said in response to a question about the larger implications of the dispute. "If something happens to a car, a manufacturer has the ability to pull the black box and see what happened. So there has been that possibility in the past. This is more akin to having you (monitored) in real time. It does raise some issues. But not something that we've thought through thoroughly."

Tesla told Edmunds in a statement on Tuesday that it is "very sensitive to privacy" issues. "Model S is a technologically advanced vehicle and is designed to log diagnostics and vehicle systems data to help troubleshoot and service our vehicles," Tesla said. "We are very sensitive to privacy and can access the press car logs to better understand or troubleshoot any issues that a reporter might experience.

"In fact, several times we have had reporters ask us for this data so they can understand the Model S better while they are testing and reviewing it. We are faced with technical issues in very rare instances and only use the logs to cross reference for accuracy."

In a phone conversation with Edmunds, Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks added: "Ninety-nine percent of the time, we don't use the logs."

Musk has promised to publish the vehicle logs related to Broder's test drive. But as of Wednesday morning, Tesla had not disclosed them.

"One final note," wrote Broder in his defense of the review. "Mr. Musk called me on Friday, before the article went up on the Web, to offer sympathy and regrets about the outcome of my test drive. He said that the East Coast charging stations should be 140 miles apart, not 200 miles, to take into account the traffic and temperature extremes in this part of the country. He offered me a second chance at a test drive in a few months, after additional Supercharger stations come online.

"I'm game."

Edmunds says: The long-lasting effects of this episode are yet-to-be determined.

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