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?