Tesla: A Short History of Bad Raps

Occasionally I come across a story that resonates with me for reasons I don’t fully understand. The story of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison is just such a story. You may not know who Tesla is. But every electrical device in your entire home depends on his contributions to science. He is the father of alternating current (AC). His battle with Thomas Edison over AC/DC is legendary. Edison waged one of the most effective public relations campaigns in scientific history and succeeded in publicly defaming Tesla’s inventions and methodology. You see, Edison’s inventions (like the light bulb, for one) ran on “direct current” (DC) electricity. The first public incandescent light display was powered by a DC power grid. But Tesla thought AC was more efficient (and it maintained voltage over distance… unlike DC). Edison wanted to prove to the public that this AC voodoo was scientific quackery and extremely dangerous. So, in one of the more bizarre demonstrations of this era, Edison filmed the electrocution of an elephant using, of course, AC electricity. (By the way, the elephant, Topsy, would have been put down anyway. It had gone crazy and trampled some people.) Edison’s campaign was effective in the short term, and Tesla died a pauper in 1943, a relatively obscure figure—the archetypal mad scientist. But, in the end, Tesla had the last word. Every socket in your house feeds every one of your appliances and devices AC power. Because Tesla was right. But no one saw it that way in his time.

That’s why the most recent battle involving Tesla’s name holds so much interest for me. Apparently, a NY Times employee wanted to borrow a Tesla Motors Model S electric car to do an East Coast road trip with a review to follow. Tesla Motors agreed, but had a very carefully laid out itinerary, including roads to travel, so that the car would have enough juice between charge points (which are, as you can imagine, few and far between at this point). The NY Times journalist, John Broder, took the trip and wrote his review. A scathing review. It was entitled, “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.” It’s main image was the Model S being towed on a flatbed. What Broder didn’t know, however, is that Tesla’s Model S keeps a very detailed log of, well, everything. So, after the review came out, Tesla Motors fired back. They claimed that Broder did not follow the itinerary. That, in fact, it seems he was trying to give the car a bad review. Among the accusations they say are backed up by the car’s data:

  1. Broder did not charge the battery to full capacity when he had the chance.
  2. Broder drove by a charge point when his battery was very low.
  3. Broder took a long detour to give his brother a ride.
  4. Broder drove around in circles for half a mile in a 100-space parking lot right in front of a charge point, almost as if he were trying to get the car to die.
  5. The charge log indicates that the battery was never completely dead… even when Broder had it on the flatbed.

I am no fan of the environmentalist hogwash that is connected to the rise of the electric car. But, if Tesla Motors is right, what Broder did was libelous and despicable. (What is it with Tesla? Does his name just beg for defamation or something?) It raises the question… why did Broder do it?

As I’ve already written in another article, I don’t believe that electric cars are the solution to our fossil fuel dependency. The electricity has to come from somewhere, and right now, coal, petroleum, and natural gas (all fossil fuels) account for the vast majority of power plants in the United States. So the Model S itself may not be consuming the fuel directly, but it still requires fossil fuels. In fact, I crunched the numbers, and as any person who knows a little about thermodynamics could have guessed, the overall efficiency of an electric car is not much different than the overall efficiency of a conventional one at this time. The only way to change this situation is to invest in power plants that do not depend on fossil fuels. And this is not being done really at all. Most every new power plant these days runs on natural gas. So, if the electric car gets really popular, the demand for natural gas will skyrocket. And I’m pretty sure “fracking” isn’t any better for the land than drilling for oil is. Maybe worse. And it’s still a fossil fuel.

A lot of internet people are saying Broder was paid off. But, if Broder were paid off, I don’t think it was Big Oil that did it. Why? Because Big Oil stands to make a fortune if the electric car takes off. They have been heavily investing in natural gas. So I don’t really know what happened here. Who stands to gain the most from electric cars getting “Tesla’d”? Conjectures are welcome.