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.