By on August 3, 2011

The first time Top Gear “tested” an electric car, it depicted Tesla’s Roadster running out of electricity and being pushed from the track. Tesla immediately pointed out that the batteries “never fell below 20%” during the test, a charge the British motoring show addressed by claiming that its review

offers a fair representation of the Tesla’s performance on the day it was tested.

Tesla responded again, and then three years later (as the Roadster was headed out of production) the EV maker sued the BBC and Top Gear producers. An online war of words erupted, with Tesla coming away looking rather foolish. And guess what? Now it’s all happening all over again… and this time, the most EV-committed global automaker, Nissan, has taken the Top Gear bait.

In the video above (if it hasn’t yet been pulled), Jeremy Clarkson and James May drive a Nissan Leaf and a Peugeot Ion (a rebadged Mitsubishi iMiEV) and run out of electricity. Comic antics ensue. Nissan though, wasn’t amused (and apparently hadn’t heard of the Tesla debacle), and so Executive VP Andy Palmer rang the Times of London [sub], which dutifully ran a piece with the headline “Clarkson didn’t give our electric cars a sporting chance.”

Having had some practice with this very scenario, Top Gear producer Andy Willman fired back at the Top Gear blog, laying out a four-point defense:

1) We never, at any point in the film, said that we were testing the range claims of the vehicles, nor did we say that the vehicles wouldn’t achieve their claimed range. We also never said at any time that we were hoping to get to our destination on one charge.

2) We never said what the length of the journey was, where we had started from, nor how long we had been driving at the start of the film. So again, no inference about the range can be gleaned from our film.

3) We were fully aware that Nissan could monitor the state of the battery charge and distance travelled via onboard software. The reporter from The Times seems to suggest this device caught us out, but we knew about it all the time, as Nissan will confirm. We weren’t bothered about it, because we had nothing to hide.

4) The content of our film was driven by the points we were trying to explore. As James stated in the introduction, you can now go to a dealer and buy a ‘proper’ electric car, as in one that claims to be more practical and useful than a tiny, short-range city runabout. That’s what the car company marketing says, and that’s what we focused on in our test: the pros and cons of living with one as an alternative to a petrol car.

Ask any fan of Top Gear whether its tests (with the possible exception of test track laps) are any more “real” than, say, professional wrestling, and the answer will be “no.” Top Gear is a scripted show, more allegory than documentary… and as long as they don’t explicitly present EV segments as scientific range tests, where’s the lie? If Top Gear were really “journalism,” they would have tested the Tesla with less than a 20% state-of charge (for starters). Nissan complaining about its treatment in this segment is akin to the the American Kennel Club complaining that Top Gear treated sled dogs unfairly in the Polar Special because the presenters were allowed to modify the Toyota HiLux the dogs were racing against. In the very electric car segment that Nissan’s Executive VP got so steamed about, the lads were also scolded for parking in handicapped spaces, for crying out loud. That says everything you need to know about how seriously Top Gear should be taken as journalists.

But I would argue that there’s a calling that’s even higher than the exalted “journalist”: the comedian. Whereas the journalist has only a noisy commitment to objectivity, a tenuous concept if ever there was one, the comic lives by a far stricter code. With no platitudes to hide behind, the comic has no choice but to point out all that is strange, awkward, unspoken and unrecognized in the world. And Top Gear’s producers realize that audiences aren’t hungry for literal, documentary-style automotive tests verite. What they want is an allegory that helps them understand the truth that’s being left out in the tsunami of EV enthusiasm. And, as Willman points out, a lot is being left out:

In the story in The Times Andy Palmer, Nissan’s Executive Vice President, was quoted as saying that our film was misleading. Well with respect to Mr Palmer, Nissan’s own website for the Leaf devotes a fair amount of space to extolling the virtues of fast charging, but nowhere does it warn potential customers that constant fast charging can severely shorten the life of the battery.

It also says that each Leaf battery should still have 80 percent of its capacity after five years’ use, and that, to a layman, sounds great. But nowhere is it mentioned that quite a few experts in the battery industry believe when a battery is down to 80 percent capacity, it has reached End Of Life (EOL) status. Peugeot, for example, accepts 80 percent capacity as End Of Life.

Now I also know, to be fair to Nissan, that when you go to buy a Leaf they do warn you about the pitfalls of constant fast charging. But the website is the portal to the Leaf world, it’s their electronic shop window. Is it misleading not to have all the facts on display? I’m only asking.

In the world of PR, journalists are expected to objectively repeat what a company’s representative tells them (specifically about the kinds of issues Willman raises) and test their cars under OEM supervision. Comedy, on the other hand, asks Clarkson and company to portray the reality of carbon-age men fumbling to come to grips with strange new technology. Which approach produces the more truthful “review”? More importantly, having the advantage over real journalists, why can’t EV companies just laugh at the comedians?

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39 Comments on “Do Electric Car Companies Have A Sense Of Humor?...”

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Answer to your final question: because the whole EV thing is a con, a technological dead-end fueled by government subsidies. The very first piece of the con? That an EV is a “zero emissions vehicle.” I submit that a Leaf garaged in the Washington DC metro area is a rather dirty vehicle, since the base load electricity provided to this area comes from coal-burning power plants.

    I think the term for the two manufacturers’ reactions is “protesting too much.”

    • 0 avatar

      So, what technology will replace the ICE?

      • 0 avatar

        Walking. Most likely while hunched over.

      • 0 avatar
        M 1

        Whatever it is, I assure you it hasn’t been invented yet.

      • 0 avatar

        The first technology that offers consumers a better combination of cost, utility, ease of use, performance, and safety.

      • 0 avatar

        The first technology that offers consumers a better combination of cost, utility, ease of use, performance, and safety.

        That would all depend on the future price of oil.

      • 0 avatar

        The most realistic and easily achievable solution is biodiesel. The technology has already existed for decades, it fits with the currently existing fuel distribution infrastructure, and it isn’t a great technical leap for vehicle manufacturers. Farming the required amount of oil-crops would be the big hurdle, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of things like algae farming, genetically modified crops etc. Fuel suitable for diesel engines can also be rather easily processed from coal, and we have a LOT of coal reseves worldwide.

        Prize for the most stupid and unrealistic technology is probably hydrogen (and using that hydrogen in a fuel cell approximately doubles the stupidity rating).

        As for rechargable battery cars – I have a drawer full of cellphones with dead batteries, a couple of laptops with dead batteries, a rechargable electric shaver that isn’t any more – you think I’m going to buy a car that could go the same way?

      • 0 avatar

        Biodiesel has theoretical production limits that make it unlikely to be a global solution

      • 0 avatar

        The most realistic and easily achievable solution is biodiesel.

        Not at all. Long story short, there is no way to produce nearly enough of it, even under a best case scenario.

    • 0 avatar

      “the whole EV thing is a con, a technological dead-end”

      On the contrary, the only dead end fuel is oil. One day, be it 10, 100 or a 1000 years in the future we will no longer be able extract it economically. We will always be able to produce electricity one way or another.

      Today’s EVs are curiosities, not suited to today’s driving habits because those habits have evolved alongside the capabilities of ICE powered cars. 100 years ago they might have laughed at you trying to make a long journey in a gasoline powered car because it required sparsely scattered filling stations while a horse only required the nearest patch of grass. EV technology is advancing and in 100 years a LEAF rev.20 driver might be laughing at a Corvette stranded at the side of the road while his GPS system tries to figure out what “Premium Unleaded” means.

      Taking Top Gear seriously about anything automotive is like taking The Onion seriously about current events, but some people do.

      • 0 avatar

        100 years is a pretty long time, if you look back. That was when the first electric vehicles came along.
        Why would you bet on electric cars today? Hoping, that all problems will be solved by good will and magic? Electricity coming out from windmills? In your backyard?
        Dream on.
        There must be better solutions.

      • 0 avatar

        @charly & @pch101:

        So what’s your favoured solution then? Name me something – anything – that looks more realistically achievable.

      • 0 avatar

        So what’s your favoured solution then? Name me something – anything that looks more achievable.

        There are no obvious solutions. A fact that should make everyone rather nervous.

        The answers don’t exist today. The solution is to keep looking, not to stop looking and pretend that it has been figured out, when it hasn’t been.

      • 0 avatar

        As i have said before “bumper cars” in the long run and plug in “Priuses” in the short run. But the other answer is the life differently.

  • avatar

    No. They obviously don’t.

  • avatar

    rather then bitch about a review highlighting the very real aspects of owning such a pointless automobile, Nissan should instead focus on making their electric car viable…and an actual legitimate competitor to the ICE.

    Until then, don’t get mad at a review that points out the very short range of your vehicle and the subsequent charging time.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Having slept through this part of the show last sunday, I have just watched the re-run. What strikes me about your video is that it has been reversed, like a negative viewed from the wrong side. All the registration plates read backwards, and Clarkson is sitting on the wrong side of the car.WTF ?

  • avatar

    In a way the electric car companies must have a tremendous sense of humor. After all they are trying to re-introduce a once popular drive train which was rendered obsolete circa 1912 with the invention of the self starter.

  • avatar

    I just understand the problem people have with a country or a company having some backup technologies in place that give us an out if something changes.

    If you were a Nissan or GM executive or politician, and you know that at any time Iran could start trying to close the Strait of Hormuz or revolution is going to break out in Saudi Arabia and gas goes to $11 a gallon – wouldn’t it make sense to have some backup technologies already in place?

    Does it really make the most sense to just wait until the crisis is crippling the country?

    • 0 avatar

      “Does it really make the most sense to just wait until the crisis is crippling the country?”

      What, are you new here?

      Besides, if you actually head off a crisis ahead of time, people will assume that there was never a problem at all and so all the money and effort you spent was wasted. Look at Y2K. We don’t do well at the whole planning ahead thing.

      • 0 avatar

        Besides, if you actually head off a crisis ahead of time, people will assume that there was never a problem at all and so all the money and effort you spent was wasted.

        No good deed goes unpunished.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    I just watched the video and all I can say is “Seriously”? Nissan was upset about that? It was so obviously tongue in cheek. And their car looked pretty good in that video, compared to its competitor. Besides anyone who watches Top Gear knows that many perfectly good cars get labelled “rubbish” for various reasons, some humorous, some silly, some that the viewer knows would not apply to him (for example, their constant refrain that BMWs are driven exclusively by c*cks — somehow BMW has resisted getting upset over that).

    Really there was nothing in that video that would deter someone who is interested in one of those cars, from buying one. It was good publicity. Besides, Clarkson said you needed one to get a girl nowaways.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like a long trip, and there you are, out of electrons, and no place to charge, and it’s going to take 13 hours… Sure, the mythical Homo economicus rationalus knows this, and doesn’t plan on doing more than commuting in his Leaf, or Mitsu-masquerading-as-Peugeot, but there are people out there whose emotions have them singing the praises of EVs full-throatedly, and these people, if they happen to see this video, might just have second thoughts about talking up EVs (most of them probably don’t have the funds to actually buy one). Of course, the thing is, these people AREN’T WATCHING TOP GEAR! They hate anything that smells of petrol. So Nissan, lighten up.

  • avatar

    Technically speaking, Jeremy Clarkson is a automotive journalist, and is not a comedian. He’s a self-proclaimed “most influential man in motoring journalism’.

    Though in the same note, its become plainly apparent that enthusiast auto-journalism these days is more about entertainment then actual factual journalism; Motorweek reviews are still boring after all. And the internet already has Jalopnik and Baruth; both charming and entertaining in their own way.

    However, Top Gear isn’t really viewed as “professional wrestling” by most, many believe in their antics as real, their dramatizations as things that actually happened rather than a scripted commentary. Obviously Top Gear doesn’t want to have the caption “dramatization” on the bottom of the scene before each segment like America’s Most Wanted reenacting a crime scene, so Top Gear creators encourage the illusion that Clarkson and friend’s experiences with these vehicles are authentic.

    For car companies dealing with these entertainment-centric automotive programs and sites is an obvious challenge. Trash talk and sensationalist attention grabbing does bring in the audience after all. From the car companies side its billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs that are on the line, but then again they don’t want to come across like they have “no sense of humor”.

    Good PR means that they will need to smile and take it. That is, as long as they have the audience volume to justify it.

    • 0 avatar

      >>>Technically speaking, Jeremy Clarkson is a automotive journalist, and is not a comedian. He’s a self-proclaimed “most influential man in motoring journalism’.

      That’s part of his comedy routine. of course, when Jon Stewart needs a car, he looks at past Top Gear shows to figure out what to buy.

  • avatar

    Top Gear is to automotive journalism as Jeffrey Dahmer is to fine dining.

  • avatar

    How utterly disingenuous on the part of Top Gear. Clarkson opens the piece saying that they’re going to take an utterly ordinary ride, and the TG producer says that “So again, no inference about the range can be gleaned from our film.” The clear implication is that EVs are simply not up to ordinary driving tasks, without any definition of an ‘ordinary ride’.

    Why should Nissan, or any mfr of any type of car, have a “sense of humor” when TG pans their products thru innuendo, whether or not it’s couched as comedy? I think that TG wants to have the patina of auto journalism without any of the attendant effort. Perhaps if their peices had Yakety Sax playing in the background ala Benny Hill it would be clear that they are really comedians and not journalists?

  • avatar

    I’m glad to see that the Brits have finally decided to drive on the correct side of the road. But reversing the entire alphabet to go with it is a bit much. What funny, eccentric people the English are.

    In any case, I don’t see why there is any sort of debate. Electric cars are obviously ready for prime time. Sadly, their batteries are not. The range is what it is, and the recharge time is what it is; neither are adequate.

    The only way to ignore those problems is to act like big dumb ostriches. That may be fine for the guy being paid by the automaker to promote the car, but isn’t so fine for the consumer who might buy one.

    • 0 avatar

      “What funny, eccentric people the English are.”

      It just goes to show that the simple fact that Top Gear is even driving electric cars is enough to turn the world upside down (or backwards, as is the case here).

  • avatar

    I don’t see Top Gear running a Veyron or Prius out of gas on an too-long journey. For them to say that pushing EVs is ‘the future of motoring’ is misleading at best. You’d be pushing your Prius if you tried to make too long of a trip. The EV buyer knows the range risk and deals with it.

    Maybe they should take an AWD Veyron off-road, comparing it to a truck, and say the ‘future of AWD is expensive repairs’.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t see Top Gear running a Veyron or Prius out of gas on an too-long journey.

      There are thousands of fuel stations in the UK. How would they run out of gas?

      And when was the last time that anyone needed 12 hours to refill a tank of gas?

      Range and recharge times are fundamental problems, not just minor inconveniences. The gag was obviously a setup, but the point is well taken — if you want to own an EV, make sure to locate scenic towns where you can park for long periods of time, because you’re going to need them.

    • 0 avatar

      pch101 makes excellent comments but I would further add that saying we should take a vayron off road as representative example of AWD vehicles is disingenuous. Not all AWD vehicles are extremely expensive and have very low ride height.

      HOWEVER ALL electric vehicles have extremely limited range and a very long recharge time. Pointing this out, albeit in an exaggerated and stage way, is not an unreasonable criticism.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree, and I also think it is disingenuous of Nissan not to put the asterisk on that part about fast charging.

        There are a lot of people who are misinformed about that very issue on the Nissan, thinking you can fast charge till the end of time, but really, it’s just till the end of the battery packs rapidly degrading lifespan.

        The electrical energy storage is not ready yet for primetime. I guess these manufacturers hope that by pushing products into the field, they can start the slow and steady path to refinement into a top notch vehicle. But it’s going to take a while… maybe even decades to centuries at the current rate of battery advancement.

        There hasn’t been an improvement since Lithium Ion technology came on the scene, just various incremental improvements in reliability and charging rate. There have been other battery technologies, but none of them have panned out to be mass producible at this point, unlike LiIo.

        I really think we will either have to make massive advances capacitor technology (and the first person who mentions EEStor as a viable technology — go directly to some other post, don’t bother replying to mine), and/or major advances in nuclear reactor technology, where we can throw massive amounts of power into producing hydrogen as a transportation fuel, and not really care about the energy wasted.

        Or a Mr. Fusion would be nice :)

  • avatar

    “I don’t see Top Gear running a Veyron or Prius out of gas on an too-long journey.”

    They ran a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera out of gas in the first episode of Series 10….

  • avatar

    Cliff notes: Leaf driver attempts max range run on freeway, panics in heavy traffic when battery runs low, gets carpool violation ticket for cutting over double yellow, has to pull over to charge before destination anyway.

  • avatar

    At least it can be said that the Leaf and the Volt (albeit in different ways) are doing their part in advancing battery technology by foregoing the “commodity lithium ion” route (Tesla, others). This “first step”, if supported by a reasonable number of buyers (with reasonable range expectations), will lead to other advances in battery tech that will make EV’s more and more “mainstream” over time. Unfortunately, the amount of energy required to move a heavy vehicle won’t change, so the real problem is having the infrastructure in place to allow charging during routine daily tasks to make “range anxiety” less of an issue. For long trips, ICE vehicles (as immediately available, reduced-cost rentals, subsidized by the EV seller) could fill the gap for vacation and long-haul use, which, ironically, is the ICE’s most efficient mode of operation. However, this would require a level of organization and structure that only government can coordinate, simply because “competition” could inhibit the growth of EV’s and infrastructure due to differences in standards and methods. It’s a fine line that only (cough, gasp) government is perfectly placed to coordinate.

    EDIT: Oh, and from a post on Autoblog Green: “Tactics like the temporary reduction in payroll tax are directly designed to boost the economy by putting more cash in more pockets. The theory goes that if the average person has a little more cash available they’ll spend it, creating more demand and eventually more jobs.

    However, it all the spare cash ends up in just one small set of pockets – that of oil companies – and if the extra dollars don’t actually deliver any extra products to the consumer, the ability of that cash to create economic impact is greatly reduced.”

    The cost of EVERYTHING is inflated by the price of oil; it has a stranglehold on the world economy, and is (at least partially) responsible for the stagnation that we now experience. That’s not “freedom” in my book.

  • avatar

    What I’m more interested in is the Leaf is sending real time driving data back to Nissan.

    • 0 avatar

      Nissan should install a proactive EV variant of Onstar, staffed by call center operators who constantly monitor the battery levels. That way, they can phone up drivers and lecture them about the need to pull over long before the charge runs out.

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