Tesla vs. TopGear: Only Half Of The Story

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Tesla versus Top Gear

Tesla versus Top Gear

Electric car maker Tesla is suing U.K. hit TV show TopGear for libel and malicious falsehood, seeking to right the record about its Roadster electric sports car, which the company thinks was treated unfairly by the sometimes witty, sometimes boorish hosts of the show. Unfortunately, this is no David & Goliath story, and there is no clear moral high ground. Both sides are only half right.

Wait a minute, you say, TopGear clearly presented a scripted, untrue version of the Tesla Roadster's performance on its show! That's certainly true. But it's only half of the story.

Journalism versus entertainment

TopGear is, first and foremost, the world's most-watched TV show about cars. It's fun, entertaining, and occasionally informative. It's not Consumer Reports. It's certainly not a news show. It's not even The Daily Show. Does that excuse a script that explicitly shows off the worst that could happen with the Tesla Roadster? No. Not entirely, anyway.

Without delving too deeply into the nether-world of meta-criticism of modern automotive journalism, TopGear's supercar antics, half-hearted mainstream car reviews, and ridiculously constructed contests are as far removed from the consumer-oriented takes of outlets like Edmunds, TheCarConnection, or Cars.com as politically-themed radio talk shows are from a Presidential debate.

Tesla would certainly have you--and the British courts--believe otherwise, but anyone familiar enough with the show to have seen the segment at issue knows better.

The crux of Tesla's argument

Tesla points out some of the parts of the December, 2008 episode of TopGear concerning the Roadster in its complaint before a U.K. court. Some of the bits it sees as the more egregiously malicious and libelous include:

  • "...although Tesla say it will do 200 miles we worked out that on our track it would run out after just 55 miles and if it does run out it's not a quick job to charge it up again."
  • "And it doesn't appear that you get much reliability either. Oh...I don't believe this...the motor has overheated and I have reduced power."
  • "While it cooled down we went to get the silver car out again...only to find that while it was being charged its brakes had broken."
  • "The first electric car that you might actually want to buy, it's just a shame that in the real world, it doesn't seem to work."
  • Back in the studio: "I tried to be fair, I did try." Hammond replies, "It's not good though is it?"

Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson

Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson

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These are, almost without exception, uttered by the tall, wobbly-headed, and openly biased Jeremy Clarkson. He has made a career out of hyperbole, outrageous comparisons, and general hooliganism behind the wheel and in front of the camera. He's more Stephen Colbert than Walter Cronkite.

Tesla, on the other hand, is a fledgling company in a notoriously difficult business for startups, pushing a futuristic product on a market than can barely justify--let alone afford--it. That product is, for the time being, the best of its kind. It's also a very different animal from the combustion-powered cars it competes with in the eyes of enthusiasts looking to spend $100,000 or more on a two-seater. Tesla has spent a great deal of time and effort establishing that fact.

The other half of the story

So, then, is it so wrong that Clarkson and company went out of their way to highlight the differences Tesla's less keen on displaying? Is it unreasonable to point out that while the Roadster is a fast, competent car on track, using it as such will result in reduced range (which is true), possible overheating of the drivetrain (not denied, but rather side-stepped in Tesla's complaint), and, eventually, a depleted battery which will take some number of hours to replenish (also true, even with the high-current charger), or that, from Clarkson's perspective, the combination of these factors is less attractive than a combustion-powered car? Not at all. All of these could happen, and all would be a very different situation from the same occurrences in a conventional car.

A gasoline-powered equivalent, say, the Lotus Elise, would handle the track-day task with ease, building on over a century of experience in working out the kinks. Once run empty from a day at the track, a refill would take no more than a handful of minutes. Range is reduced in a combustion car as well--on-track mileage is often a very small fraction of what the same car gets on the road--but with a quick and easy fix at the pump. Is it unfair to make this comparison, even if by dramatization?

In my eyes, not at all: you must consider the source as much as the content these days. You don't go to Gawker or TMZ for the unvarnished, impartial, fact-checked truth and you don't go to TopGear for the nuts-and-bolts, clipboards-and-stopwatches hard data on cars (though you might have, once upon a time). News and entertainment are one and the same these days. Need an example? Flip on Fox or CNN.

Tesla does appear to have a point with regard to Clarkson's claims that the Roadster's "brakes had broken," which in reality was a blown fuse. Clarkson, on the other hand, was not concerned with the semantics of the matter, telling the Telegraph, "Nobody gives a flying **** how the brakes failed. Whether it was a blown fuse or not, they were still not working."

So now that we've trod both sides of the issue, what's left? What's the score?

Tesla, a small, as yet unprofitable EV startup that has sold a touch under 2,000 cars since production began in 2008, got what it feels is a raw deal from an influential TV giant. TopGear, with a viewership estimated at over 350 million globally, took a snark-heavy and truth-light look at a car that represents for many of its fans the end of proper motoring.

Did TopGear's take on the Tesla hurt its chances at success? Apparently not in financial terms--Tesla is seeking "not more than £100,000" in damages for the episode--about the price of a Tesla Roadster in the U.K., plus an injunction to prevent future re-broadcasts. Apparently not in the eyes of the U.S. government, either, which saw fit to invest a $465 million loan in the company last year for the construction of plants to build its future cars. Perhaps most importantly, apparently not even to Tesla itself: CEO Elon Musk said in an official press release just three days ago, "The Roadster has proven to the world that electric cars can be incredibly fun, and practical. Most importantly, these vehicles have provided Tesla with a real-world test fleet that allows us to stay on the cutting edge of electric powertrain engineering and technology."

If that's really the case, why all the fuss over a few minutes of British TV footage from two-and-a-half years ago? Why, especially, when the suit reminds us all of the content of that footage? Perhaps Tesla has learned the truth--and is taking advantage--of the age-old advertising adage, "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Perhaps especially when you compare the cost of drafting a complaint to buying time on the world's print, web, and TV outlets.
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Comments (13)
  1. No one is buying a Tesla expecting a Prius. Electric or not, it’s an exotic car produced by a small company leveraging brand new technology. While I understand the frustration expressed by the company in the review, Top Gear is allowed to express their opinion and the results of their test. A savvy consumer will take all this into account (and hopefully add a grain of salt for the dramatic overtures of Jeremy Clarkson) and factor in many reviews and facts when making the decision whether or not to buy the Tesla. Should they choose to, they will be the first consumers to help push the automotive industry out of the ice age and into a world free of internal combustion and oil dependency. Were I to have the means, that’s why I would buy a Tesla and tolerate any “nuances” it might come with.

  2. What idiots the folks at Telsa must be.... Its Top Gear plus what are the chances of other media outlets now wanting to test their car. Knowing that if your review is negative there is a slim chance two years later that you'll get sued...... Once again I ask, does the moisture behind the headlamps come for free or cost extra?
    P.S. why do you guys allow two screen names on accounts? Has this not happend before?

  3. "anyone familiar enough with the show to have seen the segment at issue knows better."
    I have to call foul on this line. I've seen two or three episodes of the show, mostly by chance including that one, and I didn't know better. (I assumed bias, but not stuff-a-van-with-explosives-level counterfactuality.) Anyone coming on the segment in its viral forms is going to be even less familiar with the "facts are just a serving suggestion" approach.
    One of the advantages and disadvantages of the global internet is that people who have never heard of you before have immediate access to your take on a particular subject they're interested in.

  4. Bad move Tesla., I'm definitely sure we'll see and hear a proper sly remark from the TG hosts' sometime soon.

  5. I drive a Tesla. When out and about Motorheads left and right bring up the TG episode in question. I absolute assure you they take it as gospel. I have to tell them it was faked and they rarely believe me because it's been ingrained into them.
    At the end of the segment they also say it (Teslas car) does not matter and then swoon over a hydrogen car filled up by their traveling show sponsor, Shell. Also Hammond said recently on the show that he could not get home in one while a Tesla could actually get him home and back quite handily.
    The author gave quotes but left out the pictures that told stories too. A faked (with fake sound effect) car running out of juice on the track (something I promise you is very hard to do as there are so many car warnings), A fake push of the (fully working) car into the hanger, showing a fake 3 foot boat windmill giving a ridiculous charge time it would take to fill a totally drained car (like you would fill a petrol car with an eyedropper), an image that fakes the assertion of a polluting power plant is as bad as carbon monoxide smoke (it isn't -by far).
    Watch this for a show rebuttal of sorts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfTiRNzbSko&feature=player_embedded

  6. vfx--that video would more credible if it weren't taking the "myths" it is debunking out of context. The "55 miles on a charge" claim is a great example. Clarkson/TopGear never said they could only go that far. He said they'd only get 55 miles out of it on track. Contrary to what Fully Charged says, that simply IS true. See Tesla's own explanation here (also linked above) http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/roadster-efficiency-and-range to find that at top speed, the Roadster is good for just 80 miles or so, assuming constant speed. Acceleration like you'll see on a track will lower that further. That's not "fake" at all. It's physics.
    Those that take TopGear as gospel are likely just as misinformed in other areas of their life due to their inability to distinguish a credible source of information from entertainment.

  7. @Nelson Ireson,
    Firstly I love Top Gear and have watched every episode. But I am a little confused by you throwing ALL of the burden back on the viewer. Top Gear does actually provide factual information on vehicles. So if they say 0-60 is 3.9 seconds in a Porsche 911, I assume that they are not just making that up. The same is true with other specifications such as weight, track lap times, etc. Should I really ignore all of that?
    On the other hand, they traffic in hyperbole. So that when they say all Porsche 911 drivers have been killed, I know what to make of that.
    But when they showed the Tesla running out of juice, I really thought it had. So am I just a fool to believe it, or should this have been done it some clearly over-the-top fashion to show that they were just joking?
    As far as mitigating the damage to Tesla, perhaps a simple text overlay on the episode saying it is an exaggeration would be in order. But I can see why the BBC is reluctant to head down this slippery slope.
    John C. Briggs

  8. I am a big fan of Top Gear (UK) and have watch most of their shows, so I am quite familiar with the hosts personalities. Jeremy also once said M3 drivers have no friends, which was a funny joke. I can see maybe being confusing for new viewers but I dont think that Tesla should have made such a big deal about this.

  9. I don't think the problem is that Top Gear lied and dramatised, it's that after apologising for doing so, they continue to air the episode and distribute it on disc without so-much as a mention of its fabrications. That seems a little shady.
    I think the part about the damages says it all. Tesla doesn't want money so much as they want them to stop rebroadcasting lies. That's important to a company that's trying to build and release less exotic models in the near future. They don't need the watercooler talk to be, "oh well they break and you don't get any range".

  10. If you thrash the Roadster around the track it is probably true that Tesla would only get 55 or 80 miles as Jeremy said they calculated.
    Interestingly, on the TG "eco" episode where they filled a few Supercars with one gallon gas, all of those cars got was a lap or two before they ran out. Figuring those cars have an adverage 20 gallon tank, all of that episodes supercars they featured would get the same miles around the track before they would stop dead as well.
    Yes they can fill up in 15 minutes and a Roadster would take 3.5 hours to fill. The next generation EVs get it down to 45 minutes for 80 percent fill so that is getting better.

  11. VFX,
    What gas pump are you using that takes 15 minutes to fill up a 20 gallon tank? Five minutes would even be a stretch.
    EVs won't be ready for prime time until people can travel on an unexpected trip without worrying about being stranded. Charge times need to be in the 10 - 15 minute range to be aback at 100%.

  12. Watch the entire episode. And you will see the blatant bias against EV's The review of the FCX Clarity did not mention one single negative of hydrogen fuel cell tech. It was never mentioned that each one costs at least 100K to make, infrastructure will be costly, that hydrogen has to be manufactured from dirty sources just as electricity is.

  13. its nice to see tesla getting free publicity for this . . . i hope TG loses in court and tesla gets more publicity . . . gun down another corvette will you jeremy ? i hope GM and other companies follow suit too . . .

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