By on March 31, 2011

Tesla has sued Top Gear for depicting its Roadster running out of electricity in the 2008 segment shown above. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Tesla is suing because

Top Gear’s allegation that the car’s range is 55 miles is defamatory because it suggests Tesla “grossly misled potential purchasers of the Roadster,”

But Top Gear spokesfolks tell the BBC

We can confirm that we have received notification that Tesla have issued proceedings against the BBC. The BBC stands by the programme and will be vigorously defending this claim.

And, as long as the Tesla Roadster that Top Gear tested was a first-generation machine (and we think it is), Tesla’s going to have a little problem making the case that the BBC defamed their car…

Way back in 2007, before the Top Gear segment ever aired, then-Tesla PR boss Darryl Siry basically disclosed the weakness that Top Gear highlights in their segment to Autoblog Green‘s Sam Abuelsamid, who reported:

When I went for a ride with Darryl Siry in the Tesla Roadster following the Los Angeles Auto Show, we discussed a wide array of topics relating to the car. One of those areas was the use of the Roadster as track car. Given the heritage of the chassis being derived from the Lotus Elise and the frequent use of the that car on the track, it would seem to be an obvious application. Unfortunately for buyers of the Roadster, that won’t be a viable option. The power electronics module (PEM) monitors a variety of the sensors in and around the battery pack and the air-cooled AC motor. If anything starts to get too hot, the PEM will automatically start limiting the power flow from the battery until things cool down. The result is that after a only a couple of laps of all-out track running, the motor will start to heat up and performance will be limited. On the road in real world conditions this won’t be a problem, because conditions generally won’t allow that sort of sustained extreme driving.

Is this not exactly what Top Gear is pointing out in their segment? Since even Tesla has admitted that the first-gen Roadster wasn’t a track car, wouldn’t it have been even more misleading for Top Gear to depict it as a car that is capable of driving its entire claimed range in hot-lap driving? And even if the Top Gear tester were an early “Roadster 1.5,” it might not matter, as in 2009 Abuelsamid couldn’t get Tesla’s PR flacks to contradict his conclusion that

The upgraded 1.5 version of the powertrain certainly improved the cooling of the motor but it’s still unclear how well it could manage under sustained hard running.

And a Tesla engineer recently told me on background that the Model S’s fully-cooled drivetrain and powerpack would actually make it a far better candidate for racing than even the latest Roadster’s powertrain… which seems like proof that Tesla has adapted to fix the weakness that Top Gear points out. Isn’t truth a defense against defamation? And given that the Roadster is going out of production within a year or so anyway, it’s hard to see how Tesla will show any damages either. If anything, the most pointless bad PR an automaker could incur is when they sue entertainers and reviewers in hopes of chilling their ability to point out a product’s weaknesses.

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24 Comments on “Will Tesla Lose Its Top Gear Lawsuit?...”


  • avatar

    So, how is Tesla going to proof that their cars are doing 200 miles with one charge? By driving the car like a golf cart? Will be interesting.
    But I really like Jeremy Clarkson’s method to boil down PR rubbish to its essence: rubbish.

  • avatar

    This might be valid if Clarkson hadn’t come out and straight up admitted that the Tesla was fine and he was just showing “what would happen if it ran out of charge.”
     
    Honestly, Clarkson is increasingly making the BBC look bad, and it won’t surprise me if he finds himself humbled before long.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      He’s been humbled before, and he will be humbled again.
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-506242/Clarkson-hoist-petard-fraudster-sets-charitable-direct-debit-using-bank-details.html
       

  • avatar
    SVX pearlie

    Perhaps Tesla can show their car running the ‘Ring against an Elise as proof of how capable their car is.

  • avatar
    sitting@home

    English defamation laws are weird; the burden of proof is on the defendant. In this case if Tesla claim they were harmed by Top Gear saying the car “will only do 55 miles”, then the BBC might have to prove that is the range and anything even marginally above that (eg. 60 miles) could show that their statement was incorrect and they are liable. They did qualify their statement in the segment with (something like) “in our track testing” so that may be enough of a get out clause.
     
    It could be a Pyrrhic victory if Tesla are successful, I can imagine them ending up at the butt end of many jokes in Top Gear and gaining a lot more bad publicity than good.

    • 0 avatar
      panzerfaust

      This is a big mistake on Tesla’s part. As the old saying goes, “don’t argue with people who buy ink by the barrel, ” or in this case with people who have millions viewers who can be swayed against you. They ought to let this one go. I remember the episode and Clarkson seemed to like the car except for the range, and they did have a breakdown. Likewise the complications with re-charging were not in the least exaggerated. Given that the Top Gear crew tend to despise electric cars (exept for the one that they built themselves) their treatment of the Tesla was rather benign.  Even if Tesla should win in court and coerce a retraction from BBC, Clarkson et.al. the ensuing years of satirical non-compliant compliance with a court order will be a running gag.  Pyrrihic victory indeed.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      The lawsuit claims the brakes breaking was staged also.  It makes you wonder how many other tests were staged such as the Hawk Cars Stratos replica.

    • 0 avatar
      panzerfaust

      Nothing that happens on Top Gear is really a ‘test’ it’s just three blokes cocking about with some cars.  For god’s sake they tried to convert a combine into a snow plow, complete with flame thrower on the back. Does anyone think they actually set a pedestrian on fire?

    • 0 avatar
      nonce

      No one should fear the media.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Sorry Ed, this story makes no sense because it compares apples and oranges.
     
    Apples: The alleged 55-mile range.
    Oranges: Overheating electronics when the car is raced on a track.
     
    The same issues could arise for any car when such a comparison is made.  A Honda Civic won’t get 40 mpg when track-driven, and a day of track abuse could cause a car to fail.
     
    I doubt Tesla claimed it could go 200 miles when track-driven; that has to be a misunderstanding on the part of Top Gear.
     
    Where is the actual connection between overheating electronics and the 55-mile range?  Are you saying that because the electronics overheated, that Tesla’s 200-mile claim (which must be for normal driving, by the way) is not to be trusted?  That’s pretty thin.

  • avatar
    M 1

    Do Tesla buyers watch Top Gear? I figured they were permanently tuned to Animal Planet or some other green-suck-up channel.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    I can see where this is going – Clarkson & Co rip into Tesla early in the new series, followed by later in the Series Tesla invite Clarkson & Co to test the new ‘S’ and get Tesla lot of screen time at little cost other than a few lawyers.

  • avatar

    2008? They just want the news. And should have done something about it sooner.

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    The timing makes perfect sense.

    Hey media – if you write bad things about pre-production versions of our Tesla S – we’ll sue your ass.

    I rewatched the Top Gear video – the wording on the 55 mile quip is critical, “by their calculations,” if they can prove out what that means they’re dead in the water. Gee, the car over heated during hot laps and went into production mode. Overall I don’t find the entire presentation all that negative, beyond stating the obvious – buy a Lotus Elise, save 50,000 quid and use that saved money for tankers full of premium gasoline. Not as fast naught to sixty, but looks the same and handles better.  Gee, I guess the truth hurts.

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    Tesla wins this in either case.  The point being that they hammer in the fact that Top Gear staged the entire test and people discuss the validity of it.  Top Gear did admit as much.  The goal with this lawsuit isn’t to win damages, its to send a message, ‘that Top Gear is fake’.
     
    I think its well-known that Top Gear is mere entrainment and largely staged.  Scripted by professional writers.  More pro wrestling than Olympic wrestling.  Its a fantasy that automotive enthusiasts are so willing to swallow.
     
    But the obvious loser is Top Gear.  Win or lose.  As with pro wrestling, knowing that its staged, and knowing that what you see is fake takes away from the illusion and entertainment of the show.  No Virginia, there is no Stig.  British cars aren’t that good…

    • 0 avatar
      The Doctor

      Every single program you watch, regardless of whether it’s about cooking, travel or cars is just as tightly controlled and scripted for the simple reason that’s it’s hugely expensive to produce any sort of television these days and they don’t want to have to reshoot things.

      This leads on to Tesla’s allegations. As far as I can tell, the central complaints are that Top Gear “misrepresented” the range of the car and filmed a segment where the car was pushed into a hanger to imply that it had run out of power when it hadn’t.

      The first doesn’t hold water since Top Gear made it quite clear that it got the reduced mileage ON THE TRACK. Since Tesla has never published such figures, there’s no comparison to be made. As for the second complaint, it’s about as valid as complaining that the steam rising you see rising from a “freshly cooked” piece of food on a cookery program is often produced by microwaving a wet tampon and placing it behind the food out of sight of the camera. Could they have driven the Tesla around until it ran out of charge on the track and pushed it into the hanger? Of course they could have done, but there were probably time constraints and, once again for the hard-of-thinking, IT’S TELEVISION!

      Anyone who complains that what they saw on screen is not exactly what happened is just displaying their own breathtaking idiocy and ignorance.

      By the way, Santa is your parents.

    • 0 avatar
      L'avventura

      @The Doctor
       
      The fact that we’re talking about how fake Top Gear, how it’s just “TELEVISION”, is exactly what Tesla wants.  The money gained from the lawsuit isn’t going to make any significant impact to Tesla’s bottom line.  They want to discredit the show.  They want insure that people that take Top Gear show seriously, there are MANY, are “displaying their own breathtaking idiocy and ignorance”.
       
      Even ardent Top Gear defenders such as yourself, admit that they need to stage events such as the Tesla stopping on track to save the poor Top Gear staff’s time from driving it around the track until the battery really dies.

    • 0 avatar
      The Doctor

      What Tesla wants is for journalists to stop reporting on their terrifying cash-burn up.
       
      As for “discrediting” Top Gear, their production techniques are no different from any other “factual” television programme. If people watch television expecting 100% verisimilitude then they’re idiots, no matter how many of them there may be.

    • 0 avatar
      nonce

      Don’t mess with The Doctor, he’ll go back in time and kick your grandmothers in the nuts, and you’ll never have been born.

  • avatar
    Advo

    I’m entertained by Top Gear, even though I know clear well a lot of it like the race outcomes is probably staged. Top Gear is on the decline because it’s running out of ideas or stunts on top of its lower production budget.
     
    Potential buyers of upscale, environmental performance car are probably pretty knowledgeable about electric vehicles, environmental issues, and what goes on with shows like this. If they watch it, they’ll have formed emotional bonds with the hosts and the show like I have. That means they’ll likely be insulted by these legal assaults and be turned off from buying a Tesla, going with a Fisker instead.
     
    So the lawsuit backfires. It turns off Top Gear viewers who might have been potential customers and who would have been knowledgeable enough to see that it’s not Consumer Report standards of testing being done there.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I think the UK version of Top Gear is pretty damn good. If anybody doesn’t get that some of the stuff they do is just for laughs then they should just stick to watching Oprah. F.. Telsa and all overpriced electric POS cars. Aren’t they on the guv-ment teat anyway?

    • 0 avatar
      panzerfaust

      Tesla was, but as hard as it is to believe they were cut off when the current powers that be decided to pull bigger fish off the endangered species list. 

  • avatar

    I still don’t get what the big deal is.

    According to other Top Gear testing, even a Ferrari 599 will suck its entire 27.7 gallon petrol tank dry in under 50 miles, if driven under full track conditions. (1.8 mpg reported on Top Gear, tank capacity from the web.)
     

  • avatar
    Plucky The Dragon

    Falsehoods are embedded in the language people are using here and they don’t realize it. If people accept that the show is scripted and staged then it must necessarily be the case that any references to information presented on the show are meaningless and have no real world content.
    So statements like “the show depicted this”, “the results were this” or “according to”– these statements actually mean nothing in a discussion about the real world. And yet these statements are being used by those that support the show and those that decry it in reference to Tesla vs. Top-gear.

    If we all accept that the show is entirely a fiction, as everyone on here seems to be doing, then the only thing relevant to Tesla’s case is that this FICTIONAL show told a FICTION about Tesla’s product that misleads people in an unfavorable way for Tesla. Any discussion of how the show presented it or what Exactly the show said, is irrelevant because whatever it said it has already been accepted by us as a baseless fiction.

    All that matters to the Tesla case is whether the information top gear presented, conflicts with real world facts. And if it does, Tesla wins its case. It’s that simple. YET, people seem to be arguing for and against the matter in a way that suggests Top-Gear can be a fiction one moment, then have truth content the next. It doesn’t work that way folks. A liar that only lies sometimes cannot be trusted to tell the truth ANYTIME, if we have no way of establishing, based on what they say, that they are lying. This is the central dilemma of Top-Gear and why it’s not well liked by those who value true-beliefs about the world.
    But what’s more than the Tesla case, Top-Gear viewers should be weary that, even though they may not be dummies, a Trojan-horse of false belief may be changing the way they think about the world. Remember, if you accept Top-Gear is a baseless fiction, whose content cannot be trusted as EVER TRUE, then ANY references to the show as HAVING truth-content are also baseless, and are just as much a fiction. You may find yourself talking truth one moment and fiction the next without realizing it.


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