Pull up a chair, get some popcorn. The fireworks have been flying fast and furious. New York Times reporter John Broder wrote a piece about his press loaner Tesla running out of juice. Tesla, already smarting from the perceived slight given them by BBC’s Top Gear, decided they needed an ace up their sleeve: data logging. Chairman Elon Musk penned a response that included detailed data logs from the press car. Broder responded in general terms and then with a point-by-point response to Musk’s charges. The NYT’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has also chimed in with the opening of her own investigation. Notably, Musk hasn’t returned her calls. Her tentative conclusion? “I reject Mr. Musk’s central contention that Mr. Broder’s Sunday piece was faked in order to sabotage the Model S or the electric-car industry.” She also called for Tesla to release all the data they’ve got in proper machine-readable form, not just their pretty annotated graphs with the circles and the arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one.
Readers are welcome to read all the back and forth and come to their own conclusion. You can read lots of smart technical people trying to reconcile both stories at this Hacker News thread. The AtlanticWire has a reasonably concise pro-Broder analysis if you don’t want to wade through a comment thread. Also, Consumer Report’s recent article and members of the independent-of-Tesla owner’s forum seem to be corroborating some of the cold-weather battery issues raised by Broder’s original piece.
Instead of going any further down that path, let’s instead talk some more about this data logging business. The Tesla Model S has the capability of logging everything about the car: it’s GPS location, velocity, even the settings on the AC/heating system. Musk noted, in a tweet, that “Tesla data logging is only turned on with explicit written permission from customers, but after Top Gear BS, we always keep it on for media.” How nice.
On the one hand, bully for Tesla. As Jack Baruth has often noted, car reviewers are often not particularly good car drivers, and this gives Tesla the opportunity to correct the record. On the other hand… Tesla is working to destroy the career of a seasoned journalist based on their interpretation of the evidence in these logs. It’s heady stuff that might give any other car reviewer a moment of pause. We believe that journalists sign something acknowledging that Tesla is watching them. But everybody else is cool, right? Let’s talk about the privacy implications.
Say you’re a Tesla owner, you enable the data logging feature, and then you let your teenage kid drive the car without you around. Does she have an expectation of privacy? Should she? Okay, now you give your car to one of the valet parking stands which many trendy restaurants force you to use these days. The valet takes your car for a joyride and you’ve got the data. (Amusingly, the Tesla Roadster had a valet mode to diffuse exactly this concern, but the Model S doesn’t seem to.) Those are easy cases. How about your insurance company or a car rental company? Maybe they offer you a discount for driving sedately and providing them with the data. Or maybe they require data logging access, particularly if you’ve got a less than stellar driving record. Drive your car more than 10 mph over the speed limit and lose your coverage? Some companies already offer variations on this sort of usage-based insurance, but Tesla’s data logging facility enables it to go to quite a different level. One step further: can a court order subpoena your data? The possibilities are endless. Hacker types might also imagine protecting their privacy by modifying the car to falsify these records. Criminal types might see this as a way to generate an alibi. Heck, unethical car manufacturers could even falsify these records to falsely impugn negative reviewers. Write a positive review or risk your career!
I don’t want to pick on Tesla too much. Any car with a modern telematics system (GM OnStar, etc.) already has the facilities to support remote data logging. Let’s just hope Tesla gets more of these cars into reviewers’ hands. That’s the scientific method at play: results should be repeatable. If there’s a real problem, it can and should be discovered by having more eyes looking at it. CNN has already set out with another Tesla. More on this story as it develops.
[This blog piece emerged from a discussion with several of my graduate students. Everybody’s buzzing today with this news.]