Summer is always a slow time in the industry, so what better way to boost traffic than to manufacture a controversy out of thin air about a “third rail” topic like electric cars?
The past week or two has seen Jalopnik take reviewers and Tesla to task over the short drive times offered during the Tesla Model S launch. One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Tesla was that drive times only worked out to around 10 minutes, which, Jalopnik rightly claimed, is not enough time to properly form a driving impression.
What they left out was that press drives, on the whole, aren’t a great place to form real impressions of a car, full stop – but Jalopnik and other outlets do it anyways. This is the precise reason why we offer Take Twos (and sometimes, additional reviews beyond that). I was on the same Hyundai launch as Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky, where we reviewed the Elantra GT, Veloster Turbo and Elantra Coupe. Drive times were relatively short (a couple hours, perhaps) on roads that were carefully selected to show off the car’s strong points and minimize its weaknesses. The Coupe was driven only on lazy, mostly straight highways, while the Veloster Turbo and Elantra GT were flogged on the kinds of roads that driving enthusiasts can only dream about. That did’t stop Jalopnik from giving them a “Jalopnik number”, some kind of definitive, transcendent quantification of a vehicle that will forever be enshrined in the annals of automotive history.
Our writers are spread out across the globe (literally), and the diversity of opinions is enhanced by the lack of proximity. A launch in California or Andalusia may be a great place to test out a new droptop sports car; but how will it hold up on the bombed out roads of Detroit, where Michael Karesh lives? Will a hybrid car really provide the kind of fuel efficiency it claims? Let Alex Dykes take it out for a day of stop and go driving in San Francisco. And of course, we have our very own driving ace who needs no introduction.
When I heard about the Model S launch, I sent an inquiry to Tesla Toronto. They gave me the Roadster for a day back in 2010, with the only stipulation being “bring it back before the battery is drained”. Jack did a review of the Roadster for Left Lane News with no restrictions on time or distance. Tesla Toronto’s own Model S demo wouldn’t even be available until August, which is when multi-day tests of the car should be available. So while we weren’t invited to the ultra-exclusive first drive party, we’ll probably get a proper, unrestricted review of the car.
Jalopnik has taken to calling out Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, for his positive review of the Model S. Neil is an easy target; not only is he popular, a Pultizer Prize winner and a household name (if there is such a thing in this business) but he also comes across as a pompous, self-abosrbed narcissist, which makes it easy to feel schadenfreude when bad things happen to him. Thankfully, Neil is smart enough to know that he’s having his credibility attacked by an outlet that will literally report on anything in the blind pursuit of traffic numbers. Neil did a masterful job of eviscerating the weak criticism against him, and the responses by the folks at Jalopnik are utterly submissive – leaving no doubt that if the WSJ came calling for any of them, they would all be happy to jump ship and enjoy the kind of lifestyle, adoration and TV deals that come from writing for such an institution and the receipt of a Pulitzer Prize. Like an invite to drive the Tesla Model S.
Couched in all the righteous indignation about journalistic integrity and mis-use of taxpayer dollars is the simple fact that things are slow in the summer, and a fabricated controversy is good for business. It’s even better when it involves topics and people that are polarizing, to the point where one can project their existential angst and childhood issues on to them. So why not try to boost the numbers than by going after a couple of popular, controversial figures, replete with jokes about a supposedly secret same-sex relationship, blowjobs and other mature, dignified prose that we’ve come to expect from the Gawker network (or at least, the during the Ray Wert era). This whole campaign isn’t just a big boost for traffic; it’s the Powerball jackpot. Electric cars, Elon Musk, Dan Neil, self-aggrandizing, vulgar snark. The only thing better would be if a celebrity died and something happened involving cars and female genetalia. Oh wait…
Maybe this is just about personal pride. Press drive invites are often times just a proxy for professional validation. Journalists love to compare notes on what events they got invited to, like adolescents comparing who is wearing the “right” clothing or hairstyle. It’s a frequent topic of complaining here at TTAC, when someone unqualified is invited to an event that is sure to yield a great story, and we’re left out in the cold. Car makers really do use access as a carrot and a stick in exchange for toeing the line. And when you’re more interested in the people and the events rather than the car (like we tend to be), it makes it difficult to do our jobs. Or maybe this is just another “sponsored conversation” guerilla marketing effort that’s part of Gawker’s new revenue model? I don’t know. But I am counting down the days until August.