It's Too Bad Elon Musk Wouldn't Even Give Dan Neil A Full Tesla Model S Test Drive

Illustration for article titled It's Too Bad Elon Musk Wouldn't Even Give Dan Neil A Full Tesla Model S Test Drive

I've got this sneaking suspicion that the Tesla Model S is a great car. Throw out all of the questions about the car's underpinnings, the conditions of range, and the prospects of selling 20,000 of these a year and it probably is great. I know I'm excited to drive one at some uncertain point in the future.

Advertisement

But, as journalists, it isn't our job to throw out questions. It's our job to ask them. When I complained that reviewers were only going to get ten minutes with the car and then weren't going to acknowledge that fact I hoped I was wrong (I wasn't). I said I hope Dan Neil from the Wall Street Journal gets a full drive it because "If it was a bad car we think Neil would tell us."

Neil's review is out, and he loves it, but even he didn't get more than "an hour-plus" test drive, and his review just creates more questions.

Why harp on Tesla? We were mostly alone in questioning the practice of giving ten-minute drives (Mark Rechtin of Automotive News, to his credit, wrote a column calling it "shilling") and we're one of the few to say in print what many journalists are only willing to say out loud in private.

If Elon Musk is Tony Stark as he styles himself then we're the angry legislator who wants to get him to tell us about his crazy device and he's the one true genius who knows he needs to keep the secret safe from our bumbling incompetence and lack of vision. We are in this scenario, and it's not fun to say, Garry Shandling.

Advertisement

Are we just being jerks? Read through what we've written and we come off sort of like jerks. Elon Musk has told me, essentially, that he sees us writing exclusively negative criticism and that if we ask for a response it's usually to fit in to some "polemic" we've already written. That's not entirely true. Our limited review of the Tesla Roadster Sport is very positive. And then we drove it again and still liked it.

Advertisement

Not exclusively negative, but there's a lot of negativity. A plurality of it, though, seems like general coverage (you can see all Gawker Media coverage right here and judge for yourself).

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled It's Too Bad Elon Musk Wouldn't Even Give Dan Neil A Full Tesla Model S Test Drive

I don't see us as being jerks, though, I see as helping.

(Pause for laughter)

If Tesla were just content to build a small amount of cool cars as a private company — be a Pagani or a Hennessey — then we'd happily back off a bit because people doing small awesome things deserve a break. But that's not what he's doing. This is a public company. He's taken $465 million federal dollars (if not more) and says he needs to sell 8,000 to make money and expects to sell 20,000 next year.

Advertisement

Regular automakers are mostly tip-toeing into the water with "compliance cars" — only built to meet California's requirements for zero-emissions requirements — but Elon Musk has jumped into the deep end. It is a bold move and we have, as a society, cannonballed with him.

Advertisement

The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are both earnest attempts at something different, but the soul of the electric car community seems tied up with Tesla and its project. It's not a terrible bet. Elon Musk just sent his own private spacecraft into space. He achieves things.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled It's Too Bad Elon Musk Wouldn't Even Give Dan Neil A Full Tesla Model S Test Drive

But if he fails it'll be devastating. It could be like the EV1 all over again.

"Even the great Elon Musk couldn't make it work" they'll moan.

If Musk is going to succeed he needs more than cheerleading. He needs criticism. Maybe not our brand of criticism. But something.

Advertisement

People have tried to make us feel ashamed for critiquing Musk. They've said that "Preston Tucker is ashamed." As if the cause of Tucker's failure was a critical press and secret leg breakers from the big automakers who were afraid of them.

That's a great story, but it's mostly myth. Tucker had a big idea that impressed a lot of people. He got from the government a big plant in Chicago that used to be run by an automaker (sound familiar?), sold a lot of stock (sound familiar?), got the public really excited about a new futuristic sedan and then bungled it with mismanagement.

Advertisement

Tesla, already, has a step up on Tucker and it's also created technology it seems willing to license to others. But what if someone asked Tucker if he should, you know, produce blueprints for the car? What if someone, early on, had asked John DeLorean how the car would perform with an emissions-restricted motor or what would happen if exchange rates made building the car in Europe a bad idea?

Advertisement

To go back to Dan Neil, let's read between the lines a bit. If you casually consume the full review it's glowing with praise for its "Lambo-like" performance and "dream quiet" sound. Let's Jefferson Bible it a bit and expunge the miracles to focus on the hidden critiques.

"At the time, Tesla was building, rather badly, small numbers of the all-electric Roadster, which was based on a modified Lotus chassis, and losing money like mad. In terms of mass-production car building, Tesla didn't have a stick in the ground three years ago."

"if everything works as advertised-something I couldn't discern in an hour-plus test drive in Los Angeles last week-"

"the uniquely un-sourceable Model S"

"The outcome of Mr. Musk's grand experiment in vertical integration is far from certain."

"The Model S also offers optional and quite novel kids' jump seats, for seven-passenger seating, though about that I remain dubious."

"And yet, given the constraints of our test drive, I can't really describe the car's handling. I'll need at least three months to be sure."

Advertisement

(That reads partially like a joke)

"It's the attack of the iPhone, if you like. This is the one stumble in the Model S's draftsmanship. While this panel works beautifully-the navigation map display is especially nice-the display is embedded rather gracelessly into the leather-and-carbon trim dash."

"Don't get me wrong. I'm prepared for disappointment."

That's a lot of questions and doubts. What is the basis for the Tesla Model S, really? Is it a reengineered Mercedes? When is someone going to get a full drive? How much range does the car get when driving it while utilizing its full Lambo-like acceleration? What's the car like with a full seven passengers? How does the screen work long-term?

Advertisement

Neil is a smart guy. We sometimes make fun of him, but it's only because he's among the best at what he does.

Advertisement

And even he couldn't get more than an "hour-plus" drive of a car that's so important despite being buddy-buddy with Musk. What does that say?

My message to Elon Musk and Tesla is that you're not a private company anymore. The tech media you're ensconced in will fellate you until you die, just like they did before the Dot-Com bubble burst. You need to invite criticism, not constantly deflect it if you want to be a success.

Advertisement

You think we're tough and unfair? Wait until someone like Darrell Issa and his House Oversight Committee starts asking questions. Wait until your big-time corporate partners and stockholders start demanding your results. You'll be begging for the day you had to deal with pushovers like us.

We have questions, and we invite Musk or anyone from Tesla to come in and answer them. We also invite Dan Neil to come in and explain fully why he's "prepared for disappointment."

Advertisement

Photo Credit: Getty Images

DISCUSSION

Danneil
Danneil

To Jalopnik:

Matt has asked me to comment on his post and, while I try to avoid journalistic navel gazing, the Tesla Model S is an important car with an extraordinary story to tell. Here goes:

Matt’s prolonged throat-clearing means to school us on the virtues of the adversarial press in the field of automobiles. I’ll stand on my record, thank you, Congressman.

As for the length of my test drive, bear in mind it came only a couple of days after the infamous bet payoff. Setting aside logistics, it would have looked suspiciously like quid pro quo if I were granted an extended test drive of several days, say, while other outlets got an hour or so at best. I took my place in line and did not ask for special favors.

Before leaving this topic: I have to tell you, the underlying notion that I somehow enjoy carte blanche with carmakers is hilarious. Trust me, I get said no to a lot, and they only say “no” because it would be impolite to say, “fuck off.”

Many of your valuable questions regarding the Model S’s performance are longitudinal in nature, e.g., “How does the screen work long term?” I don’t know. That’s something that, most likely, can only be answered with the experience of owners in the coming months and years. How long will the charge last at top speed? Or with seven people on board? Ay! If only you had combined these two questions, i.e., How long will the charge last at top speed with seven people aboard? You could have submitted it for the dumbest question in the history of the EV skepticism.

How do the child jump seats work? Really? I learned long ago that taking a preschooler on business trips can be awkward.

In any event, would you prefer that, absent these answers, the WSJ doesn’t write anything about the Model S? Or would you prefer writing only something dripping with easy and unearned cynicism? As you have formulated your standards here, I don’t see a third option.

You asked me to amplify on my doubts. My doubts and my certainties about the Model S were adjudicated in the process of writing my column. All writing is choice. But I’m happy to run some counter-narrative past you:

The Model S I drove was terribly quick between 70 mph and 120 mph. This thing goes upstairs like a bat out of hell, and I wondering, while fizzing in my own endorphins, if I was being played. The development engineer along for my ride said that, at Musk’s insistence, the power software had very recently been revised to improve mid-range acceleration. Oh? It occurred to me that Musk might be attempting to pander to car enthusiasts/early test drivers at the strict expense of efficiency. Such acceleration could easily soften a lesser man’s critical faculties, and I am certainly a lesser man. My exact thought was: boobs=box office.

Musk’s battery-pack solution is brilliant. At the outset I could not imagine how a liquid-cooled battery pack could be a stressed member and be also quickly service-able, if not exactly swappable. The Model S’s rigid aluminum battery pack (100mm thick, or 112mm with the protective skis) is attached to the bottom of the car with 37 through-bolts and connectors, 16 on the side sills plus 12 in the cross-members, plus two at the front subframe, plus four at front subframe cross-member, plus two for shear plates to rear subframe, plus one for the aero shield.

So fastened to the underside of the car, the battery pack greatly increases the vehicle’s torsional rigidity and bending moment. Musk claims best-in-world metrics for chassis stiffness and rigidity. The liquid coolant attachments are similar to racing’s dry brakes for fuel.

Now, what’s interesting to me is that in calculations of a structure’s torsional rigidity and bending moment, vector forces depend on load, which is directly related to mass. The Model S’s three battery packs (40, 60, 85 kWh) should by rights have three different masses. The 85 kWh pack accounts for 30 percent of total vehicle mass, but I don’t have the differential on the other two packs.

Obviously, three packs of increasing mass complicate force and load calculations, to say nothing of suspension tuning. This suggests to me three possibilities: First, the Model S chassis – the body in white, sans battery pack – exhibits world-beating chassis stiffness without any battery at all, and when they bolt up a battery it just gets stiffer. Over-engineered, in other words.

Second (and therefore), the cars with the smaller (lighter) battery packs net out to be stiffer and more rigid because of lower mass-related loads.

Third – and this is the more interesting thought – that in the interests of harmonizing the engineering, all three battery packs weigh the same, which would mean the use of ballast in the less-energetic packs. I would be personally delighted to learn that the spaceship-building, mass-optimizing mo-fo Elon Musk is adding dumb ugly mass to his underside of his amazing car.

(By the way, this degree of specificity, which seems entirely appropriate for Jalopnik’s got-it-bad, hyper-nerd audience, would utterly kill a story in a general-interest newspaper. Often my greatest challenge is to take very technical detail and translate it for a mass audience, many of who wouldn’t know counter-steering from cross-dressing.)

The tradeoff in the Model S’s pack design is obvious: The exposed underbelly pack is vulnerable to environmental conditions and to puncture/rupture. The pack looks amazingly well built, to be sure, but I would like more assurance that this piece of high-voltage equipment isn’t going to shit the bed and catch fire if and when some dope high-centers the car on a parking lot curb (happens all the time).

How am I “prepared for disappointment”? There is absolutely no evidence that a mass market for EV’s will emerge. I think it will. I hope so. God knows it ought to. But wise public policy seems to be rather out of fashion these days. So, fingers crossed.

The Model S powertrain is in some ways simpler than that of an internal-combustion automobile, but in other ways, it’s very much on the edge of available technology. You know what’s the biggest line item in the vehicle development process? Testing and validation. I have confidence that Musk and company have done good work here, but testing/validation is, in my experience, a cubic-dollars equation. I too am intensely curious to see how these cars behave in the field. All companies brag about their rigorous testing methodology. In my experience you can just shut the recorder off when they start in on that song and dance.

As others have noted, Tesla’s competitive advantage in the premium EV segment seems pretty perishable. Their space is about to be invaded by some monstrously big and capable car companies. When BMW and Audi come after your customers, look out.

In closing, I don’t want to seem aggrieved. I know I’m the establishment and it is your duty, as bloggy gadfly, to call me out. As the great Jamie Kitman once said to me, “Do you remember when we were the young punks?” Indeed I do. Besides, anytime I’m mentioned on Jalopnik, my online numbers soar, so thank you.

But I wouldn’t want the usual enthusiast flyspecking to blind us to the moment. The Model S represents something very big and very important. I cannot shake the feeling of a corner turned. As an American, as a car-lover, and as a parent, it makes me happy. As a critic, I’m prepared for disappointment, yes, but I’m also willing to be amazed.

— Dan Neil