Andy Wilman, the executive producer of Top Gear, shares his thoughts on Tesla Motors' recent lawsuit against the BBC's motoring show and how the electric automaker's blatantly using it as a PR strategy. —Ed.
You may know that Tesla has issued a writ against Top Gear for defamation and malicious falsehood over the road test that we broadcast of the Tesla Roadster in December 2008. The normal procedure for the BBC in a legal case is to acknowledge receipt of the other party's claim, and then say no more and get on with preparing its defence for court.
Tesla, however, doesn't seem content to wait for the legal eagles to settle matters. On the contrary, it's been very busy promoting its side of the argument through the media. Why even last night the Top Gear office accidentally received an email sent from a Public Relations firm to The One Show, asking if it would like to have the Tesla spokesperson on their programme to talk about the case. It says: "PHA Media represent Tesla and this could make for a fantastic interview." And the PHA man's not finished there. "The presenters could have some fun with this." He adds. "Matt and Alex could even take the Tesla for a spin and test it out, reaffirming its virtues?" Plenty of respect for editorial independence in that last line there and I wish the chaps from PHA Media all the best in their crusade.
However, back to Top Gear, and yes, normally we would follow the pre-legal etiquette of keeping schtum until we get our day in court, but since the other side are being quite noisy with their views on how we conduct ourselves, I just would like to point out one or two things to Top Gear viewers:
1. We never said that the Tesla's true range is only 55 miles, as opposed to their own claim of 211, or that it had actually ran out of charge. In the film our actual words were: "We calculated that on our track it would run out after 55 miles". The first point here is that the track is where we do our tests of sports cars and supercars, as has happened ever since Top Gear existed. This is where cars are driven fast and hard, and since Tesla calls its roadster "The Supercar. Redefined." it seemed pretty logical to us that the right test was a track test. The second point is that the figure of 55 miles came not from our heads, but from Tesla's boffins in California. They looked at the data from that car and calculated that, driven hard on our track, it would have a range of 55 miles.
2. We never said that the Tesla was completely immobilized as a result of the motor overheating. We said the car had "reduced power". This was true.
3. Tesla claims we were lying when we said the brakes were "broken". They now say that all that had happened was that the fuse to the vacuum pump had failed, which meant that the brake just had to be pushed down much harder than usual. Well – to my mind, if the brakes are broken, then they're broken, and if this happened to your car, you'd take it to the garage to get it fixed. Odd it seems so trivial to Tesla now, because on the day of filming they insisted on repairing the fuse before we could carry on driving the car.
The above points will be argued over in the near future by brainy people wearing wigs, but in a layman's nutshell, this is where we stand on the matter. Before I finish though, I must clear up one important issue: scripting. It's alleged by Tesla that on the day of filming one of their employees caught sight of a script that had been written, before the car had even been driven, already containing the verdict that in the "real world" the Tesla doesn't work. This, they say, proves our guilt, because we'd condemned the car in advance. May I just say in reply:
a) The truth is, Top Gear had already driven the car prior to filming, to enable us to form a view on it in advance
b) Our primary reasoning behind the verdict had nothing to do with how the Tesla performed; our conclusion was based primarily on the fact that it costs three times more than the petrol sports car upon which it's based, and it takes a long time to recharge; you can't use it as easily as a petrol sports car for the carefree motoring journeys that are a prerequisite of sports car driving. You can actually reach conclusions based on them without driving the car. As it happens, when it did come to the subjective area of how the car drove on the track, we were full of praise for its performance and handling
c) Just so you understand there's nothing devious going on, you need to know how this filming business works. When you film a car review, the reviewer is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind the lens is a film crew, and only a day's worth of light to shoot the eight minute film. This means we have to prepare in advance a treatment – a rough draft of a script so that the director and film crew can get to work right away, knowing what shots they will need to capture. It will contain the facts about a car, and what we think of its looks and so on, but how well the car actually drives is added on the day. If we've driven it ahead of filming, as we do with most cars, we will also have an idea how it feels to drive. But, and this is crucial, as we uncover fresh information about a car whilst filming it, it is entirely normal for the treatment to be modified as the day unfolds. Jeremy is always tweaking the scripts to reflect what his driving experience has actually been on the day.
There you go. I've said my bit, and now we'll hopefully shut up and prepare for our day in court.
Andy Wilman is the Executive Producer of Top Gear